You know that feeling about fifty pages into a novel you can tell you’re going to get along with? When you’re confident the various elements – character, plot, style – are going to be handled well, and the material is the right mix of familiar and challenging. When it’s about things you just find interesting. It’s quite a rare feeling, as an adult reader. It’s a call back to the cocooned and all-encompassing stimulation in the embrace of the books William Gibson calls a person’s native literary culture. That mix of feeling held and also working quite hard at it, but happily so. I had it recently, reading Becky Chambers’ The long way to a small, angry planet*. It was such a strong feeling that I took a pencil to write ‘in good hands’ in the margin.
I had the ‘in good hands’ feeling by page three of Too Like the Lightning (TltL). It begins at a brilliantly chosen moment of crisis that introduces great characters on the horns of a dilemma that underpins the story; how does a studiedly irreligious society cope with a miracle? TLtL also has a sweet boy, both old and young for his age, with an utterly magical power. Bridger can make objects or drawings real, be it into living creatures with all the characteristics of ensoulment, or horrifying abstract concepts with the ability to end the world.
In the first pages, Bridger is coping with the death of one of his ‘miracled’ toy soldiers, and needs to figure out whether to bring him back to life. The 5cm tall toy soldiers, called the Major, Pointer, Medic, Aimer, etc. have a satisfyingly stoic approach to death, coming as they do from a time when war was endemic. The Major swings the argument about whether to allow an outsider, a sensayer, to come in on the secret, by pointing out that it’s a long time since his men have had a padre and they could really do with one. It is a truth universally acknowledged that I have a bit of a thing for army majors, but the Major is at once such a stoic, manly type, and so fully imbued with personhood, that he just goes to show how Palmer can miracle a few pencil strokes into a real live human.
But then the story zoomed off somewhere else, driven by its unreliable narrator, the ultimate liminal. Mycroft is personally summoned by the world’s greatest powers whenever a scene threatens to reveal too much, too soon. He flits from one continent to another, occasionally slumming it with his Servicer brethren, but mostly being in or at arch conversations by the dozen or so people who run the planet. TLtL moves so quickly for the first few chapters that it took me a while to realise it is basically a series of conversations in different rooms. (Hey, if it worked for Proust!)
It was around the 100-page mark that I got almost fatally bogged down. TLtL is as artful at world-building and exposition as you would expect from someone both anchoring and inverting the genre in the most loving way. (Ha! Of course Rousseau was a SF writer.) But it keeps coming and coming, and absorbing the information while keeping a weather eye on the intricate plot developments, while also trying to keep track of everyone’s name(s) – it just all got a bit much for me. I was no longer in good hands. I was trudging resentfully, far behind the lead group, knowing the instant I got to the rest-stop they’d brush the crumbs off their hearty laps and move on.
At first I thought it was pure bad luck that I’m not much interested in the eighteenth century French political philosophers whose work makes up the bulk of books this one is in conversation with. I don’t have a bedrock of familiarity with their ideas or a natural sympathy with their concerns, either of which you probably need to embrace the idea of a twenty-third century return to Voltaire et al as the way to run things. When I’ve visited the Pantheon or, to a lesser extent, the cosier and more humane Temple de l’Humanité in Paris, I’ve been left cold and, to be horribly honest, a little disdainful. There’s something a bit empty and category-error seeming about the post-revolutionaries converting a church to a place to worship men. And male men at that, not universal ‘Men’. I walk amongst the huge marble statues of philosophers and politicians and, far from being humbled, find the idea that we would worship abstract concepts just a bit sad.
Of course, TLtL is doing something much more interesting than building a literary Pantheon. Ada Palmer’s book – and I’ve only read the first one – interrogates the whole idea that bloodless intellectualism + replacing id-based religions with state-sanctioned therapists = scratching humanity’s many embarrassing itches. But you have to be a bit in love with these ideas, or at least the clothes they wore and the way they spoke, to really get a kick out of a world of post-scarcity types zooming around in space cars and conducting global politics like a long afternoon at Madame de Staël’s.
My interests skip straight from the prosaic Hobbes to the English late nineteenth century liberals. TLtL made me wonder if this isn’t so much a question of taste as focus. Turns out I care less how an individual should act or even how a society should be than the basic question of how to build and constrain states. TLtL is a post-state world, and a post-religious one, too. I’m too focused on both of those things to relax into the novel’s cool embrace. TLtL also does that slightly annoying thing (All the Birds in the Sky, I’m looking at you.) where the people who secretly or otherwise run the world turn out to all know each other. So the question of maintaining global political order – or surviving the magical apocalypse in the Charlie Jane Anders book – is less one of figuring out how to usefully constrain power as of playing out the final act of some adolescent sturm und drang. It’s a wish-fulfilling way of mystifying the power imbalances that suffuse politics.
TLtL more critically teases the things it seems to be about. Its third chapter, called ‘The Most Important People in the World’, ostensibly about the plot to tinker with the global power list, is actually set in the communal house of the people who run much of the planet’s transport system. The Saneer-Weeksbooth bash is a self-selected and contingent family who use human-machine interfaces to run most of the world’s transport system. The family has a strong whiff of a Silicon Valley start-up flat-share. Everyone in the bash is freakishly clever, monomaniacally workaholic and a bit consciously two-dimensional, in that way of post-ironic twenty-somethings whose cultural hinterland is a single, cute, late capitalist hobby obsession.
The plot is kick-started by a break-in at the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash-house. But most of the actual events this triggers are various insanely powerful people gathering in different combinations to talk about who might have done it and what their motivations were, and inferring things about everyone else. I couldn’t help thinking that if, in the future, with everyone in power being so clearly hyper-intelligent and self-aware, there’d be more actual politics in the politics? Or at least that the mass of humanity whose fates it ultimately determines wouldn’t just be an amorphous and easily manipulated blob beyond the gates. I have a lot of sympathy for TLtL’s Utopian group. Ignoring all the status and popularity nonsense, they’re quietly terraforming Mars and planning to flee, in a century or two, the whole philosophical cosplay.
But in the last one hundred pages or so, my sense of active enjoyment returned. There are a couple of very nice story reveals and also a sense of the scene being set for a possibly more action-led sequel. And there are so, so many pleasures to be had. The ethical dilemmas and identity politics of human-AI interfaces, and the fascinating handling by self-appointed benevolent dictators of unthinkable amounts of data in a largely non-dystopic way. Above all, the secondary characters. Dominic Seneschal is transgressively and deeply sexy. I LOVED the intimations of sex and gender pulling in opposite directions, and their sheer erotic brutality. The Major, no taller than my index finger, but a man who has known war and always breathes deeply, “as if he enjoys the taste of air itself”. And if I’m wholly honest, part of why I fell out of enchantment after the first chapter was how the book moved away from Bridger and his ‘miracling’ of toys, including his blue plush dog, Boo. Some deeply embarrassing part of me hopes that my stoic and pensive teddy, Peter, may some day be miracled. I just have to believe it enough.
TLtL is a very demanding book, though there are lots of shiny and interesting things to look at along the way. If it weren’t so hugely admired by writers and editors I admire, I probably wouldn’t have persevered. I’m glad I did. It takes effort and stamina to read (goodness knows how much to write), but the exuberance and ambition of what I suspect it’s going to do in the next couple of books will likely make it well worth the effort. The afterword made me fall in love with Ada Palmer just a little bit. And no, I’m not projecting at all.
- The long way to a small, angry planet is very enjoyable. It’s about a bunch of people from different species who work on a spaceship for months at a time, just trying to figure out who they are and how to get along with each other. It’s proof stories don’t have to be driven by conflict. As Ursula le Guin said, conflict is just one kind of behaviour. Plenty of others, “such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, (and) changing” can also impel a story in a thoroughly satisfying way. Does anyone remember the elegant, fun, non-zero sum basketball game the super-evolved kids in Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio played? Chambers’ story feels a bit like that.