In Good Hands

by Maria on March 16, 2017

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.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }


oldster 03.16.17 at 1:58 pm

Thanks, Maria, for most gracious criticism.

I’m just a little confused about the status of the final paragraph, which is indented and has a bullet-point. What is it? Who wrote it? In the penultimate para, you mention something about Palmer’s afterword. The final para does not read like an afterword, but maybe it is??


Nick 03.16.17 at 3:10 pm

I found _ The long way to a small, angry planet_ enjoyable, but it felt a bit like a television miniseries turned into a book. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. However, I got the sequel (_A Closed and Common Orbit_) and found it to be very strong.


Maria 03.16.17 at 3:23 pm

Oh, sorry, oldster. My formatting error. It should be an end-note referring back to the asterisk in the first para right after this; ‘The long way to a small, angry planet*’. I wanted to digress a little about the Becky Chambers book without losing too much momentum. I’ll change the bullet-point into an asterisk. Thanks!


Maria 03.16.17 at 3:29 pm

Sorry, I’m doing the ultimate derail on my own thread …

Nick, I agree, and/but I loved that! I read it as a sort of multi-POV picaresque, i.e. where, yes, exactly, ‘then this happened’ etc. is exactly what’s going on, though with different people moving the story forward. Once I twigged there was going to be no big reveal about, say, the apparent protagonist’s father, then I kind of relaxed into it in a way I don’t in a more plot-driven book. That said, the sequel does great, though I may feel a bit home sick for all the other characters.


Nepos 03.16.17 at 4:53 pm

Luckily the review that lead me to “small, angry planet” warned that it was basically a character study; thus warned, I enjoyed it a great deal. The review also warned that it was basically “Firefly” fan-fiction, which is an oversimplification but not entirely false. Chambers’ second book was quite enjoyable as well.


Neville Morley 03.16.17 at 5:59 pm

I have considerable sympathy with the question of how much TLtL can appeal to someone who doesn’t have a great affinity for the philosophes and their ideas. I don’t skip over them to quite the extent that you do – I tend rather to shift geographical focus, towards Scotland and Germany – but have similar problems with what they think are the important questions. On the other hand, I did find that getting cross with their limited perspective, and convincing myself that it was actually being set up to fall apart and expose its own contradictions, was enough to keep me interested…


Gabriel 03.16.17 at 11:47 pm

To be honest, I found TLtL’s opening poorly-considered and indicative of a young writer. She’s so anxious to get to the story she forgets that the reader (the SF reader most of all!) needs grounding. If the reader has no baseline, they are unable to judge what is unusual. So there’s a miracle. Fine. But the contextual worldbuilding comes at the reader so hard and so fast that we are unable to consider it in context, and without context, it’s essentially meaningless.

I’ve taught my share of undergrad writing courses, and I see this all the time (Palmer has much more talent that the average undergrad, of course). The young writer loves nothing more than In Media Res… excepting, perhaps, the first person (shudder).


JimV 03.17.17 at 2:29 am

Some s-f novels start by showing a time-line of future events, e.g, 2xxx – the flying cars are invented, 2yyyy – the Church Wars start, 2zzz – the Hive system is founded, etc.; and a list of dramatis personae. That might have helped some people. Personally, I didn’t miss it. The more questions to be answered, as Jo Walton’s review put it, the more interested I am in continuing to read, as long as the writing is good – which I thought it was.


(((42))) 03.17.17 at 2:57 am

Neville Morley captures my experience: I am going to read Seven Surrenders largely in the hope that it collapses the edifices that TLTL builds. Essentially, for the whole thing to be satisfying, later narrative must prove that the insane politics-and-sex conclave at Madame’s was satire.


Gabriel 03.17.17 at 5:38 am

JimV, we aren’t talking about the same thÄ«ngs. Gradual reveals and textual clues are grand. Mysteries are grand. But unless you’ve grounded the reader and established a baseline by which to judge actions and events, you cannot ‘show’, only ‘tell’. ‘Wow, that sure is a miracle!’. To which the reader can only respond, ‘…OK?’. It lacks all meaning, because meaning is contextual.

This is always true, but never moreso that in the cold-open of a novel.


CH 03.17.17 at 5:42 am

I don’t have a detailed grounding in French philosophy either, but for me there was enough explanation inside the book that I never felt lost when it got referenced elsewhere in the story.

The outright supernatural power right at the beginning of the story told me right off the bat not to expect realism. To me it helped me accept the rest of it – I didn’t have to think too hard about how it would really hold together…but could instead enjoy it as both enjoyably strange, and as a well drawn caricature of our own time. We just established a network to send information instantly anywhere…they can do it with actual people! We try to push for equality between sexes and acknowledge fluidity of gender…they repress and hide their genders like we do our genitals! There’s an ominous sense that a comfortable but stagnant world is about to collapse that I can feel today in the real world, and Too Like The Lightening resonated with that for me.

I didn’t mind that all the hive leaders knew each other. It isn’t just a coincidence, or passed of as normal; this being weird, dangerous, and contrary to the general public’s expectations is very much part of the story. That too felt resonant tome with respect to what I see in today’s politics. The leaders of our world, today, do know each other! No, they don’t meet in a brothel and literally have sex with each other, but those scenes in the novel put me in mind of the Clintons at Trump’s wedding, of the yearly parties at Davos for all the world leaders, etc.

Everyone in the Terra Incognita world is hyper-competent, and monstrous in some respect, but to me it doesn’t feel flat. Just because it’s not remotely realistic doesn’t make it a crude cartoon either – it’s a vividly grotesque surrealist painting.

Having said all that…one thing that does bug me is that the hive leaders etc seldom seem to actually interact with the organizations they supposedly lead. We are told they are politically powerful, but where are their cabinets, their staff, their uneasy allies, the people trying to curry favor with them for their own advantage? We see only the secret person-to-person huddles across the hives, and never get even a hint of the day to day decisions that would be filling up most of their time. The only glimpse we get of a functional organization is to see them doing calculations in the censor’s office, and a bit of Ando’s dealings with the other directors…but where are the people those directors direct? That’s what makes their political positions feel a bit “coconut superpowers”-y to me…their secret meetings and personal relationships are lavishly depicted, but the publicly known political power that is supposed to make this important is mainly told rather than shown.

But still…after reading Too Like The Lightening I couldn’t wait until Seven Surrenders came out…and I’ll grab The Will To Battle as soon as it comes out.


Andrew Watson 03.17.17 at 12:59 pm

JimV, I extracted a timeline for TLtL to prepare for 7S. Here it is:

I was relieved to see that there is a list of characters at the front of 7S.


Maria 03.18.17 at 7:48 pm

Yep, I agree with Nevill and 42 that ” it was actually being set up to fall apart and expose its own contradictions, was enough to keep me interested…” Fun times in the sequels.


Abigail 04.13.17 at 3:47 pm

I ended up liking TLTL (and, for that matter, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet) a great deal less than Maria, but this essay touches strongly on many of my problems with the book’s worldbuilding. I did not, for one nanosecond, believe in the book’s world, and as Maria notes one of the chief reasons for that was its seeming emptiness. The fact that this entire system seems to be run by a few dozen people, that there do not, in fact, seem to be more than a couple hundred people on this entire planet, made the entire exercise feel like a thought experiment (and not a particularly interesting thought experiment at that; “what if we outlawed religion” and “what if we suppressed the expression of gender” strike me as rather limited questions, at best the sort of thing that I can appreciate for its old-school charm). I could not make myself believe that people like myself – ordinary and unconnected – existed in the book’s world, and so the question that Maria raises in this essay’s early paragraphs, which hive would you like to belong to, felt completely irrelevant to me.

(Obviously, part of the reason that the world of TLTL feels so empty is that we’re seeing it through Mycroft’s eyes, and Mycroft is a fame-hound who only really notices people if they’re incredibly powerful and connected. Perhaps this is something that is addressed in SS, but I can’t quite bring myself to read it and find out.)

I found myself, while reading TLTL, comparing it to another Tor publication from last year, Malka Older’s Infomocracy. The two books have surprisingly similar premises – a post-national future in which people sort themselves into affinity groups that transcend geographical borders. Older doesn’t even approach the ambition and craft that Palmer demonstrates in TLTL, and the plotting of Infomocracy is conventional, paling besides TLTL’s weirdness. But nevertheless I found the world and political system in Infomocracy infinitely more vibrant and alive than anything Palmer managed. It’s not a realistic system (in particular, its economics make no sense) but it’s one that I find it a lot easier to believe in, because it embraces a multiplicity of voices, and revels in the chaos that would result in trying to get billions of people to organize themselves into a workable world order. It’s also a work that is interested in the full complexity of government and the work of governing – even the most powerful characters in it are cogs in massively complicated systems.

One thing that I particularly appreciated about Infomocracy was the role the media played in the world’s political system. In TLTL, the media has essentially been reduced to celebrity news, its most important function to rank the most powerful and influential people on the planet. This could, obviously, be a component of the brokenness of the book’s system, but it contributes to the sense that the book’s world is empty that there are apparently no alternative media sources, no one who is interested in discussing how their world works on any level beyond a seven-ten list. To be fair, however, this is not a problem unique to TLTL. I just finished reading New York 2140, which is wonderfully detailed in its worldbuilding, but in which the media, and political discussion online, seem to have vanished completely some time in the next hundred years. One wonder why otherwise savvy SF writers keep falling into this trap.


steven t johnson 04.13.17 at 7:43 pm

As to the word seeming empty, in my eyes it’s not so much a world as a university campus. The affinity groups are simply different faculties (you can amuse yourself by aligning them with real world universities.) The various schools have their heads and they all intrigue with each other. The undergraduates of course are entirely without personality or consequence. As such, in the book, the allegedly missing rest of humanity naturally cannot provide any characters.

My most recent Enlightenment philosophy reading was Volney’s Ruins of Empire and Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and selections from Francis Bacon, not the painter, though. Palmer’s edition of the Enlightenment is so selective I’m not sure those count. (Certainly not Macchiavelli’s Discourses on Livy or Hobbes’ Leviathan or extracts from Robespierre. But John Stuart Mill or Benjamin Constant?)


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