WIRED Book Club: So Hey, How About That Tone in Too Like the Lightning?
You will forgive us, dear reader, for here attempting, on the occasion of our first session on Ada Palmer’s Too Light the Lightning, to imitate, at great risk of self-injury, that scribe’s Enlightened prose style, so authentically rendered, and to such thrilling effect, in her intricate, variegated pages.
Heck, who are we kidding? We are but humble tech journos. But we can at least manage some thoughts on this future-retro corporatist-utopianist sci-fi mind game, which we’re mostly really liking. Help us parse the complexities in the comments, then read through chapter 23 for next week.
What do you make of this vision of the future?
Jay Dayrit, Editorial Operations Manager: While I might not fully understand all the political machinations, I’m pleased to be immersed in an utopian space for a change. Dystopian worlds, while more outwardly intriguing, do tend to get the lion’s share of pages in genre fiction. So it’s refreshing to experience a world in which not everything has gone to hell. It fact, on the surface, things look pretty great. No wars. No religion. Globalism has edged out nationalism. It’s like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” except for the whole self-flying cars thing. He never sang about those. Self-flying cars that take you from Chile to China in less time than a full-body massage! I mean, c’mon. I’m so in.
Jason Kehe, Associate Editor: Agreed. If this is what I have to look forward to, sign me up (or take my citizenship away). Looks like megacorporations assume control once Musk cracks the Hyperloop and sells the tech to Uber, and that sounds great (minus any involvement of Travis Kalanick). There was a time, nearer the beginning of modern sci-fi, where we didn’t fear corporations the way we do now. They were change-makers, sponsors of world’s fairs, beacons of hope for a better tomorrow. Then people got greedy and we got cynical and CEOs became evil incarnate. All perfectly fair, and duly reflected in our genre fiction (Gibson, Blade Runner, et al.), but I’ve had the sense for a while now that, as a society, we’re due a pendular swing back to our corporate love affair, and Palmer’s book shows not only that I’m on the right track but that it’s all going to work out for the best. Well, kind of. Or am I crazy.
Katie Palmer, Senior Associate Editor: But but but, it all seems like it’s ready to topple. I don’t understand exactly why this particular moment in history, when the balance between the hives gets just off enough, is so important, but I kind of love the mashup of quantitative determinism and mysticism involved in that inflection point. That the Masons reaching 33 percent of the population “feels familiar” and can signify an inevitable toppling of society is pretty amazing—not to mention the fact that it’s set off by what seem to be relatively subjective lists of prominence (?) constructed by the media.
Peter Rubin, Senior Editor: Absolutely, Katie—it reminds me of much of today’s economic forecasting, though in this case it’s derived from *minor chord* Kohaku Mardi’s last message. We’ll get into the mystery of Mycroft’s crime later on, but let’s not forget that he’s writing to us, the ostensibly future readers, using a style that we’ll be familiar with—because in the meantime, there’s been a fundamental and precipitous shift in our political and global aesthetic. So while we don’t know yet what happens, we know that something does.
Gaia Filicori, Associate Director, Communications: From the first few chapters, we are essentially told that the single biggest factor in creating this utopian future was “Mukta’s children,” or these networked, autonomous flying cars. (Sidebar: It’s so charming to have something so technologically advanced go by such a homespun name!) Fact is, a society which has been drastically transformed by technology is right in line with our time and space universe (see: printing press, electricity, the Internet.) No magic to see here folks … except for that magic kid Bridger who seems really weird!
Is the style confusing?
Dayrit: Are we talking about the fashion or the prose?
Kehe: Either, both.
Dayrit: I find the prose, though antiquated even for our time, to be tremendously engaging. Mycroft Canner’s overly formal voice to an audience of far-future people is befitting of the story. He is our historian, chronicling a time of significant transformation. It’s a clever approach to creating the feeling of hindsight, when in fact, it’s all foresight. As for the sartorial, I do not look forward to the day when everyone’s gender is obfuscated by boxy drapery. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Yeezy.
Rubin Boxy drapery? Maybe among the wacky whiz kids of the Saneer-Weeksboth bash’ (Sniper and their sexytime Lifedolls notwithstanding), but it certainly seems like the higher up you go in the bureaucracy, the curve-hugginger the apparel gets.
Filicori: I feel great. Palmer does an excellent job with the bread crumb trail. I’m confused but understand just enough to keep going. Strangely, the part that I’m struggling with is calling the family unit the bash’—and the ba’-siblings, and so on. We’ve been told that this is derived from Japanese, but I can’t help thinking of the Bash Bros from Mighty Ducks 2 ….
Lexi Pandell, Assistant Research Editor: One aspect of her style that I really love is the grammar Palmer adopts for different languages. It’s a smart way of tipping off the reader that we’re hearing Japanese, Spanish, written language on a lens, whatever else, all while keeping things in “common English.” It also creates an illusion of fluidity in a world where these different cultures have fused in an interesting way.
Rubin The typographical flourishes are nice in this regard: brackets for the set-sets’ machine-ESP, double brackets for French, etc. It reinforces the tricky fluidity of Mycroft’s diplomacy—his livelihood depends on discretion and subterfuge, so the tongue he (or his partner) chooses is always for a reason, whether that reason is opacity or to send a signal to curious nearby ears.
Kehe: I find myself reading extreeemely slowly, frantically flipping back to first references, and generally failing to embrace my confusion. And somehow, I’m having the best time. Palmer is so much smarter than her readers—in terms not just of her world but of ours, too—that I fully expected to feel condescended to at every turn. Who’s Voltaire again? Remind me what happened in Plato’s cave? Yet she’s so in control of her voice and world-building that I don’t feel stupid, or at least not as much as I should. It helps that she rarely goes longer than a chapter before explaining a term or historical anecdote or person she suddenly dropped in. In fact, if I have any complaint at all, it’s that: the programmatic reliability with which information is doled out.
Can you explain gender in this book?
Dayrit: We are dealing with a world in which men and women have equal power, where sexuality, though outwardly suppressed, appears to be non-binary behind closed doors, where an actor’s gender is a closely guarded secret in order to maximize roles and profits. All pointedly utopian ideals, I suppose, but there is so much attention paid to—and tension around—how well people either successfully hide or slyly emphasize their secondary sex characteristics that I suspect this civilization doesn’t so much uphold gender equality as it does hide behind it. We are, after all, a binary species, and the world of Too Like the Lighting isn’t so far into the future that humans have evolved to reproduce via parthenogenesis or survive via sequential hermaphroditism.
Palmer: I found myself distracted by imagining how Palmer (no relation) was thinking about how her narrator was thinking about how all the other characters were thinking about gender and sexuality. And then, in an IRL discussion, I got even more distracted by wondering if Palmer herself is employing the same sort of gender cloaking that her societies do. I would read this world so differently if the author were a man. Is there an example in literary history of a male writer who used a female nom de plume?
Kehe: Can’t think of one (unless Elena Ferrante shocks the world). In a sense, though, Palmer is doing exactly that: She is writing as Mycroft, a man. Anyway, what also fascinates me—apart from Jay’s vocabulary—is that gender binaries become the preserve of the rich and famous. Almost like it’s a privilege to be a “he” or “she.” Nobody else has that right. Of course, that has the oddly retrograde effect of sexualizing gender for the masses. Is this progress?
Rubin: I read this completely differently. This is a book in part about language, about the power and protocol of the word. And in a world that’s paid for its utopian plenty by taking on a neo-puritanical aversion to sensuality, gender becomes abstracted to a linguistic form, like Mycroft’s beloved Latin. Granted, that language is bizarrely essentialist—referring to the female Dominic as “he” is a nod to her “male” swagger and predatory body language—but to me it’s a much shrewder, incisive use of gender-cloaking than we saw in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice a few months ago.
Pandell: Adding to what Jason is saying, it’s a performative and exaggerated gender. I’m thinking particularly, as I’m sure you all are, of Danae, with her old-school feminine kimono, demure demeanor, blonde hair, and, ahem, curvy body. So, yes, she becomes an object of sexual desire for Mycroft in a way that was certainly uncomfortable for me to read. “I should add, reader, that I hold no particular lust for Danae.” Yeah, riiight! But, clearly, Danae’s decisions here are largely, if not entirely, about the power that kind of sexuality can wield over people, especially in contrast to how other people present themselves.
Palmer: Or absence thereof! Somehow, the beautiful but intentionally agendered Sniper holds such commercial sway that their power has turned political in the eyes of two of the Seven-Ten lists. Their power seems to come in being anything and everything—male, female, sexualized or not—to the people who buy Sniper paraphernalia.
Filicori: See, while this is exaggerated, it doesn’t seem that far off from our current society. I would say that right now, the celebrity is the figure who is societally permitted to exaggerate and flaunt their physical bodies and their gender. I’m thinking about Miley Cyrus, Gisele Bundchen, People Magazine‘s annual “Sexiest Man Alive” announcement. The rest of us, um, grunts and middle managers, we either have to wear a white-collar or blue-collar uniform each day. In Mycroft’s world, this has been taken a step further, and now they even have to politely (faux-politely, I would say) avoid gender pronouns. On another note: that party at the French Duke’s house was out of control. Leave it to the 1% to know how to party, am I right?
Dayrit: That party was a banana sandwich! What the hell was going on? I suppose Shakespeare’s audience would be just as confused and mesmerized if Cirque du Soleil suddenly dropped into the Globe Theatre.
Do we trust our narrator?
Kehe: Implicitly, but I’m generally a sucker in that regard. My sense is he’s some kid hacker prodigy who got into some deep shit and has turned informant (courtesy of such a progressive view on rehabilitation), or somesuch. He’s brilliant and kind and caring. I’ll believe whatever he says.
Dayrit: I totally trust Mycroft Canner. I believe him, and maybe stupidly so, when he says he did not steal the Canner Devise. As a Servicer in a perpetually surveilled society, he cannot help but be transparent. Or maybe it’s just the strength of Palmer’s prose. Dense, intricate, learned, authoritative. I, like Jason, feel as if I’m in good hands. And if those hands end up slapping in the face, so long as it’s an eloquent slap, I won’t feel betrayed. Speaking of a perpetually surveilled society, ugh! Doesn’t even seems like you can delete your browser history. Um, no thanks!
Filicori: What is up with Mycroft Canner?! He is a convict but also respected and in high demand by the most powerful and influential people in the world. He’s juggling multiple high-profile secret assignments at one time. He is privy to a lot of secret information but very bad at keeping secrets. I like him—I’m happy that he’s our narrator—but nope, I do not trust him. He will eventually tell us the truth, but I would not tell him anything, myself. He has too many masters, too many confidants, he’s playing too many sides of the dice.
Rubin: After reading Kvothe’s self-congratulatory mythmaking in The Name of the Wind, I’m leery of Canner, and a little squicked out by his abject bootlicking, but I appreciate him. At least for now.
Prediction time: Who’s behind the theft of the Seven-Ten list?
Filicori: If I knew this …. but, I thought it was brilliant how Mycroft teased and tested us with the graph of the Seven-Ten lists. What a smart way to teach the reader how to engage with all this new info. It was like being given a beautiful little puzzle. Again, I think this author knows how to bread-crumb me perfectly. But, I think that the blonde did it. Danae.
Dayrit: I am inclined to say the Asians did it! I have no evidence to support this; it’s just that, in this inordinately sterile utopia sans gender expression and national identity, some old-school Hollywood racism might just be the most predictable, unpredictable plot twist I’m hankering for. In the movie version, Matt Damon should play Chief Director Hotaka Ando Mitsubishi.
Who the hell is Bridger? Where did he come from?
Kehe: I picture the kid from the “Titanium” music video.
Pandell: He’s like Chick from Geek Love meets Andy from Toy Story.
Filicori: He is one isolated little kid. I feel sorry for him. But also, seems unbelievable that in this culture of poorly kept secrets, they’ve managed to keep this kid secret? TBH, it feels like we haven’t heard from him that much, which I actually respect. We’ve had more pure exposition and explanation from the Major (the leader of the plastic toy soldier platoon that Bridger brought to life) than we have from Bridger himself. There’s truthiness in there for me. The kid’s a toddler—he doesn’t know WTF is going on!
Rubin: A toddler? HE’S THIRTEEN.
Dayrit: Every time Bridger shows up, I am completely beguiled. Maybe it’s the rare overlap between science-fiction and flatout magic. Well, maybe not that rare. Hello, Star Wars! Plus, you know his little party trick is going to lead to something global, revolutionary, and, hopefully, destructive. Meanwhile, here are some WWII soldiers, walking, talking, interacting with everyone else, only they are five centimeters tall. Wha?
Rubin: Who cares whence his gift? He’s the nuclear option, and everyone around him knows it; most of their protectiveness is rooted in the fact that holy shit, this kid could decimate this planet any time. But it’s through him that Palmer brings us an incredibly lovely bit of post-religion truth-seeking, by way of his sensayer session with Carlyle. I generally hate when characters exchange is clumsy philosophical speechifying, but Chapter 10 is a really, really nice way to illustrate Carlyle’s rhetorical gift—the way he’s able to lead without pulling, push without prodding, and help someone find their truth without letting “belief” or “faith” come into the picture. (Though let’s not forget, this book is rated R4 for “explicit and protracted treatment of religious themes.”)