What’s so brilliant about Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

by Henry Farrell on May 10, 2016

Screenshot 2016-05-10 13.01.23

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning is finally out (Powells, Amazon), so that you can read it too (I’ve been impatiently waiting to share it with everyone I know). As Jo Walton says here, it’s wonderful. It does something that I think is genuinely new (or at least, if other people have pulled it off, I haven’t read them). Palmer is a historian (here’s an interview I did with her on her book about Lucretius’ reception in the Renaissance) and approaches science fiction in a novel way. Her 25th century draws on the ideas of Enlightenment humanism, but in the same ways that, say, America draws on the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. Which is to say that it takes the bits that seem useful, reinterprets them or misinterprets them as new circumstances dictate, and grafts them onto what is already there, throwing away the rest. Palmer does this quite thoroughly and comprehensively – her imagined society is both thrown together in the way that real societies are, and clinker-built (in the sense that she has evidently really thought through how this would be related to that and what it might mean).

This allows her to pull off a wonderful conjuring trick. The difficult part (as I see it as a reader) of writing really good science fiction is that you need to make your society and your story strange enough to alienate and to provoke that sense of wonder, but familiar enough to be comprehensible. Palmer does this in an entirely novel way. Her imagined society misremembers and misinterprets the Enlightenment as does ours; it puts Enlightenment ideas to its own uses. These twin acts of misinterpretation are what create the bridge between the reader and a 25th century that is thoroughly unlike her own – it is the radically different uses of the Enlightenment that both make this future seem comprehensible and make it seem so dazzlingly strange. Again and again, her world seems familiar, when the reader encounters some scrap of an idea, or social practice or argument that builds on thinkers whom we think we know. But again and again, the rug is yanked away from beneath the reader as she realizes that no – this isn’t what it looked like at first glance, or that it is, but that it fits very differently because it has been cut to match the needs of a different world. The reader is looking into a mirror of misprisions. Too Like the Lightning is an Enlightenment book, but one that takes and radicalizes the lesson of a Romantic writer – to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

If this hasn’t been done before, it’s surely because it’s too hard. One has to have a grounding in the Enlightenment (or some other such set of ideas) as it is understood today – that isn’t too bad. However, one also has to have a grounding in the Enlightenment als es eigentlich gewesen, as much as one can have one, to understand how different aspects of the Enlightenment were not taken up, but might be taken up and used (exapted, to use Stephen Jay Gould’s term) in radically different ways by a different society. And one has to have the historical and sociological imagination to build that society from the ground up. Walton writes that:

It’s quite a common experience when you’re a teenager to read a book that blows you away, that causes the top of your head to come off and your brain to rearrange itself and be a better more interesting brain thereafter. I’ve talked about this a lot, both in posts here and also fictionally in Among Others, it’s one of the fundamental experiences of the SF reading kid. It’s a much less common experience when you’re grown up. I read books now and I think “Oh I like this! This is a really great example of that thing”. I may get immersed in a book and hyperventilate but I won’t finish a book and think “Wait, who am I? Why is the world like this? Do I even have a head?” This did that to me, it gave me that experience of reading SF when SF was new to me, the feeling that I am a different and better person because I read this, and not only that but a better and more ambitious writer.

She quotes other writers who came away with the same feeling (I did too, as a reader). This book has the capacity to fundamentally remake the genre. If you think that you at all might like it, you should read it.



Greg 05.10.16 at 5:15 pm

I hate these lukewarm reviews that leave you wondering why the reviewer bothered to write them


Metatone 05.10.16 at 5:21 pm

Not SF, but I (in a minority) felt Kim Stanley Robinson pulled off something similar in the society building aspect with The Years of Rice and Salt.


Greg 05.10.16 at 5:21 pm

It sounds brilliant by the way, I’m looking forward to it.


Sumana Harihareswara 05.10.16 at 6:06 pm

I have read an advance reader’s copy of this book, and I’m really glad I read it, and it’s particularly going to appeal to the kind of history and social science buffs who read Crooked Timber. Please also note that it deserves tons of content notes and trigger warnings. My very short review has both non-spoiler and more spoiler-laden content notes for those who need/want them.


RonM 05.10.16 at 6:37 pm

@Metatone – Agree, about Kim Stanley Robinson anyway – he’s done this sort of thing multiple times. I think you’re too parsimonious about what is and isn’t SF, though.

“Too Like the Lightning” sounds great! On my list…


rm 05.10.16 at 6:44 pm

Her blog Ex Urbe is brilliant. I’m looking forward to reading the novel.


Moz of Yarramulla 05.10.16 at 10:04 pm

You know what I don’t like? Going to the ebookstore and seeing “Too Like the Lightning is not available in Australia.” I either have to jump through hoops in the hope that I can buy the US version, or wait and hope I remember to look for it in a few years time when (if) it’s available here.


kent 05.10.16 at 10:21 pm

Really excited to read it. Thanks!


Ben 05.11.16 at 12:13 am

Ada Palmer Book Event

I will refrain from copying / pasting this six times. Please chant in your head to get the desired effect.


Henry Farrell 05.11.16 at 12:24 am

Ben – this has been in the works for a year already but will be happening after the second book is released (which I still haven’t read to my enormous chagrin).


Plarry 05.11.16 at 3:14 am

Does the book stand on its own?


Neville Morley 05.11.16 at 5:02 am

Similarly frustrated by lack of eBook – most of my SF reading takes place during commute, and most days I can’t manage to lug around substantial physical books if not essential work-related. Just the opening ‘publication credits’ were enough to show that I *have* to read this…


Dean C. Rowan 05.11.16 at 5:23 am

That closing Walton quote doesn’t at all fit my experience. Is it really “quite a common experience when you’re a teenager to read a book that blows you away, that causes the top of your head to come off and your brain to rearrange itself and be a better more interesting brain thereafter”? Is it really “a much less common experience when you’re grown up”? For me, not at all in either circumstance. Why would anybody approach literature so strictly in terms of genre, anyway? I tend to judge books by their covers and, in this case, title. “Too Like the Lightning” is pretty wretched word-crafting, I’m afraid.


Sam Dodsworth 05.11.16 at 8:22 am

Is it really “quite a common experience when you’re a teenager to read a book that blows you away, that causes the top of your head to come off and your brain to rearrange itself and be a better more interesting brain thereafter”?

If a data point helps that matches my experience, although I’d extend it into my early twenties. There was, among other reasons, a backlog of classics to catch up on – ones that come easily to mind are “The Disposessed” and “Always Coming Home”, Delaney’s “Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand”, “Godel Escher Bach” of course, “Cyteen” by C J Cherryh… and less worthy stuff, of course. (“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” briefly turned me into a libertarian when I was twelve. Luckily, I grew out of it.) I think it’s part of the standard narrative of being an SF fan of a certain generation, although I’m suspicious of these kinds of narrative in general.


Niall McAuley 05.11.16 at 9:22 am

“Too Like the Lightning” is pretty wretched word-crafting, I’m afraid.

Well, do not swear. Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.” Sweet, good night.
This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
Good night, good night! As sweet repose and rest
Come to thy heart as that within my breast.


Greg 05.11.16 at 12:02 pm

The book stands alone if you buy the hardback version


chris y 05.11.16 at 12:17 pm

Another plea for an ebook.


cs 05.11.16 at 12:31 pm

That reminds me: should there be a link to the Jo Walton seminar on the sidebar under Book Events?


William Timberman 05.11.16 at 12:50 pm

No ebook? Really? What am I missing here? (I’m currently reading the Kindle version.)


kingless 05.11.16 at 1:17 pm

TLtL also available as an audiobook read by Jefferson Mays. Yes, the sidebar should have a link to the Jo Walton seminar.


Sumana Harihareswara 05.11.16 at 1:39 pm

William, some people live in countries where their e-book retailers won’t sell them copies of this ebook. I believe that’s what they’re saying.


Jim Buck 05.11.16 at 2:18 pm

This title will be released on January 24, 2017.


NomadUK 05.11.16 at 3:10 pm

Yes, Amazon UK has no Kindle version available, which really is crap, but is not unusual.


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 05.11.16 at 3:23 pm

22: That seems to be the date for the paperback release. Amusingly Amazon UK (which is selling the US hardback and paperback) insists that her name is “Assistant Professor of History Ada Palmer”. Which seems scientifictional.


William Timberman 05.11.16 at 4:02 pm

Thanks, Sumana. Once again, someone in the US is caught making unjustified assumptions about the rest of the world. We really do have to work on that.


Phil Koop 05.11.16 at 4:19 pm

I tend to judge books by their covers and, in this case, title.

Who was it who preferred “a book better than its title” to “a title better than its book”? John Barth, I think. Anyway, whoever it was, his example of the latter was Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. You’re not going to tell us that you’d take Steal This Book over To Like the Lightning, are you?! Next you’ll be telling us you’d have stood on the wrong side of the field at Naseby!


bruce wilder 05.11.16 at 4:38 pm

William Timberman @ 25

Still and all, though unjustified, I take some pleasure in the few remaining privileges of the vestigial American strat in this the twilight of world domination by a nation-state.


William Timberman 05.11.16 at 4:59 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 25

Guilty pleasures, but pleasures nevertheless, I agree. Is it hypocrisy to wish the same pleasures for everyone, knowing the vast complications that must ensue if universalizing those pleasures is not to result in our collective doom? We need not just economists here, but historians and philosophers too, which seems to be what Prof. Palmer is gnawing away at in her book. Now if only she and others like her can get people away from Fox News long enough to read and digest their speculations….


William Timberman 05.11.16 at 5:13 pm

BW @ 28, that was….


bruce wilder 05.11.16 at 5:32 pm

WT @ 29? Is it hypocrisy to wish the same pleasures for everyone . . .

Not hypocrisy I’m sure. Perhaps a species of the innocent naïveté of the child of rich parents, who wished everyone could have such excellent servants attending them.


bruce wilder 05.11.16 at 5:33 pm

A child not unlike Bridger . . . ?


William Berry 05.11.16 at 5:38 pm

@Dean, Niall:

Did you guys cook that one up together? That was too perfect!


Dean C. Rowan 05.11.16 at 6:46 pm

Sam @14: Okay, now that you mention it, I read Asimov’s Foundation (then) Trilogy, and eventually became a librarian.

Niall @15: Context counts for something, or so I.A. Richards advised just this morning during the daily reading of Practical Criticism. I mean, Palmer might have used Lightning, Which Doth Cease, or Summer’s Ripening Breath. They all lose something in the translation, don’t they? By now For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway, Metallica) works, more or less, but that doesn’t mean every author or metal band should resort to a reverse-engineered Mad-Lib approach to book titles.

William @32: Nope, unless it was arranged “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”


Henry 05.11.16 at 9:17 pm

Dean, William, it was Providence>


William Timberman 05.11.16 at 9:19 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 30, 31

More like Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, I’d say. I’d have a lot more patience with the casually destructive aspects of their genius if they, like Bridger, could actually breathe life into inanimate objects. Still, it’s hard to blame the idiot savants for any but the minor nastinesses of human social evolution. As for the just plain idiots, like Wilhelm II, say, or Newt Gingrich, they couldn’t have gotten their hands on the levers at all if there hadn’t already been quite a lot wrong with the rest of us.

With respect to Too Like the Lightning itself, I find it encouraging, but also a bit depressing, to see that someone who isn’t an idiot thinks that our conversation will continue for another 400 or 500 years, yet still not deliver any more convincing conclusions than those we can already uncover in a close reading of the CT comments sections. I can more easily imagine a tattered remnant of humanity camped out in the half-buried ruins of our delusions 500 years from now than I can this Athenian dialogue which accepts all comers, from vat-grown, genetically-engineered post-humans to cyborgs, and treats them all as stake-holders, if not exactly as equals. Then again, I don’t have the patience, let alone the talent, to write visionary novels. All credit to those who do, regardless of my weaknesses as a reader of their work.


William Berry 05.11.16 at 10:18 pm



I have been intending to bookmark Scalzi’s blog for some time now. Done. Thx


Anderson 05.11.16 at 11:46 pm

Bought the dead-tree version today – thanks so much for the tip, Henry!

N.b. that my copy (USA) has not Jo Walton, but Robert Charles Wilson, blurbed on the front cover. I suppose one girl vouching for another girl’s book seemed unpersuasive to some non-girl vice-president of marketing …?


kingless 05.12.16 at 1:05 am

Never mind the blurb, CT is where I heard about Palmer and MacLeod. Thanks!


Yarrow 05.12.16 at 3:30 pm

Looks like the Kindle and paperback versions have Walton, while the hardback has Wilson. Strange.


Gabriel 05.12.16 at 10:57 pm

I’ve been a fan of Ex Urbe for years – since the heady days when it was maintained anonymously for fear it might hurt her academic employment chances. It is often brilliant, and I’m very excited to hear she’s writing fiction. In other words: sold.


Icastico 05.14.16 at 4:42 am

Two chapters in and loving it so far. Thanks for the tip. Reminds me of Delany, and Stephenson, and something else I can’t quite on down yet.


Soullite 05.15.16 at 11:41 am

Honestly, at this point I see the term ‘Hugo Award Winner’ as a cultural signifier, not an actual measure of quality.

The puppies may be assholes, but they aren’t entirely wrong. Too many stories have won in the last decade for having the ‘right’ opinions, even though they just weren’t any good. And when the best argument defenders can make is ‘Well, Sci Fi is inherently politically progressive, so judging it ideologically is okay!’, I know that it’s not an organization I would want anything to do with.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 05.16.16 at 1:45 pm

Anderson: “N.b. that my copy (USA) has not Jo Walton, but Robert Charles Wilson, blurbed on the front cover. I suppose one girl vouching for another girl’s book seemed unpersuasive to some non-girl vice-president of marketing …?”

I replaced Jo’s quote on the front cover with Bob Wilson’s because Bob is an eminent SF writer who, unlike Jo, hasn’t been widely associated with Ada over the last several years, making numerous public appearances with her and so forth. Jo’s enthusiasm for Too Like the Lightning is genuine and very insightful, and moreover it was through Jo that I got to know Ada and wound up publishing her. But there’s a different kind of value to the endorsement of a major writer who isn’t socially associated with the author.

That said, the question of which quote to highlight on the front cover was one that I wrestled with for quite a while. I can assure you that your hypothesized “vice-president of marketing” had nothing to do with it.


robotslave 05.16.16 at 6:53 pm


Having recently returned to sci-fi after decades aways from it, I have to agree with you about the Hugo awards. The quality of the prose in at least half of the prize-winners I’ve read this year (sampling the last 20 years or so) can only be described as “leaden.”

Somehow, though, I doubt the sentence-crafting is any better in the more action/thriller-y strands of the genre, which I assume still retain the good old libertarian, militarist, and sexist values of golden-age sci-fi.


donatellonerd 05.16.16 at 7:01 pm

@plarry. no it doesn’t quite stand alone. i was rather distressed to get to the near the end and realize it wasn’t going to end. but it was quite wonderful. now I am going off to reread Micromegas.


robotslave 05.16.16 at 7:12 pm

I’ve read my way through about 75% of the book now.

What strikes me most about it will a) sound awfully unflattering without a fair bit of context, and b) might well be repudiated by the book itself, depending on how it ends.

It’s clear the author does consider the world she’s invented a dystopia, but at this point it seems unlikely that the tale’s resolution, and explication of the flaws in its invented society, will do much to mollify my criticism.

I’ll save it for later, as it does sound like there will be a follow-up at some point, and what I’ve got to say doesn’t belong in the comments of a no-spoilers, for-purpose-of-aiding-purchase-decision-only review.


JimV 05.16.16 at 7:52 pm

“Is it really “quite a common experience when you’re a teenager to read a book that blows you away, that causes the top of your head to come off and your brain to rearrange itself and be a better more interesting brain thereafter”?”

Yes, in my case, but I suspect it is becoming rarer. In the 1950’s, science-fiction was mind-expanding. What if there is life on other planets? What if we meet some of this life? What if it is smarter and better than we are? What if there are machines (robots) who can think? What if they can think better than we do? Nowadays that is common stuff, seen in cartoons and advertisements. Then, not so much. One of my nephews took a class on s-f in college, and had to read Asimov’s “I, Robot”, and considered it very hackneyed stuff – why couldn’t he have written something new and original?

I am 88% through TLTL, or as i think of it, “Too Likely The Hugo”. The writing reminds me of Gene Wolfe. The basic idea, of writing in the future-past tense, i.e. using well-researched unique historical figures as basis of characters in a future society, seems rather brilliant to me. It’s probably been done, but has it ever been done this well?

However … at 88% through I still don’t want to believe in Bridger, and it may spoil the novel for me if he doesn’t turn out to be some sort of trick or false narration. Not that what I think matters a hill of beans in this crazy world.

I would still vote for it for a Hugo, due to the artful use of suspense which keeps me relentlessly turning pages (with a touchpad click in my Kindle app). Who is Mycroft Canner? What did he do? Okay, why did he do it? At 88% I still don’t have all the answers, and want them.


bianca steele 05.16.16 at 9:11 pm

Agreeing with kingless@38 (“CT is where I heard about Palmer and MacLeod”) and soullite@44 to the extent of “Having recently returned to sci-fi after decades aways from it”. Also, proving the second part of that sentence to be true, CT is where I heard about Walton and Mieville . . . and Stross, though I don’t hold that against you guys, in fact the fact that I dislike almost all the Stross I’ve read (the Jennifer Morgue excepted, oddly) is an interesting one that I can’t yet explain to myself fully.


Theophylact 05.16.16 at 10:36 pm

Well, I’ve finished the book, and now I can’t wait until December when Seven Surrenders is released. And as much as I liked it, I can’t help feeling that the dialogues, however essential, and however historically appropriate to the themes, are a bit excessive. Amazing that Palmer can generate so much suspense and drive in the face of all that talk.

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