Well, what a ride! I expected to love this one, from the company it’s been keeping, and it’s certainly a complex book with a lot of moving parts, some of which I really appreciated… and others which felt weird or even viscerally discomforting to me. I feel like this is one where I almost don’t want to judge it at all until I’ve read the sequels, because the sequels are so necessary to evaluate the plot and get all the revelations that make things fall into place… but I’m also not sure I want to invest the time into them in case the potential doesn’t realise itself and I’m left feeling just as ambivalent.
Let’s start with what the book is even about: Too Like the Lightning takes the form of a document prepared by a man called Mycroft Canner, with the help of some of the other people involved in the events it discusses. It’s set in an attempt at a utopian society of hyper-individual people, where laws are imposed by agreements and a flying car system connects the world with such speed that geography is no longer a divider. There are all kinds of new-to-us social groupings: with the most important being the bash’, a sort of intentional family of like-minded people which may or may not raise children, and the Hive. Hives include Humanists, Cousins, etc, each Hive having different aims and priorities.
There’s all kinds of philosophy underlying this world, and I felt very at sea with that. I have studied some philosophy, but only for a year, and none of the philosophers mentioned here; sometimes I’ve read their literature (Voltaire), and that helped a little. I did wonder if I’d feel more at home in Palmer’s world if I had done the prerequisite reading on philosophy.
There is also not a little theological debate, because on top of all the SF elements, there is a boy who can literally make toys come to life with a touch. A major element of the story also revolves around the work of sensayers, who help people discuss ethics and theology in private (any kind of public proselytising is illegal). And then (no, I’m not done describing the basics of this world), the societies are all basically genderless and use ‘they’ pronouns… but the narrator has definite opinions on this and assigns pronouns to people based on gender stereotyping (a nurturing type is obviously a “she” to him).
That latter is part of what skeeves me out with this book. I’m not sure to what degree it is meant to be about Mycroft himself, though the central importance of other characters who enjoy presenting in a gendered way despite the non-gendered society kind of gets to me as well. The way they do at times verges on sexual assault, to my mind: aggressively in your face gendered sexuality, enforcing traditional gender roles whether the person you’re speaking to is willing or not — perhaps this bothers me so much because I would adore the ungendered world Palmer presents and then has these characters transgress against. Do what you like for yourself, but “aggressively flirting” is not actually your gender identity and your right to do that stops where my body and my comfort begin.
All the politics and all the theology plots are not in the slightest resolved by the end of the book, though, and leaving all of that hanging leaves me unable to form my opinion on whether the gender politics aspect is just gross or integral to the story. Likewise all kinds of other things.
In terms of characters, Mycroft is awful, and the same applies: I’d need to know the motivation behind his past crimes and what he is doing in shaping his narrative in order to judge whether I’m okay with having read all this, and… I don’t know if I want to read on. It’s a bit of a conundrum. There is a lot of fascinating social commentary here, and many elements I really want to learn the answers to. But at the same time… ewwww.
[I wrote this review a month ago and set it aside to stew over a bit longer. I don’t disagree with anything I said before, but I’ve lowered my rating by a star. I don’t think this series is for me.]