Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

I saw Crooked Timber recommend the novel so I rushed out and borrowed Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning from interlibrary loan.  Yes, I can see the appeal. It is very dense, very intellectual, very imaginative.  The big “reveals” are good.  The writing is fine.  Lot’s of dialogue, in archaic style, so hard to evaluate the writing itself.  I didn’t find it particularly transporting.

In the end, though, I found myself wondering all sorts of things about why I was not “liking” the novel.  My thoughts coalesced around three reasons.

  • First, all the protagonists and settings are gilded.  Everyone is brilliant and beautiful.  Literally, all the main characters are the 10 most powerful people (and most beautiful etc etc) on the planet.  They are often staged in luxurious surroundings.  It’s like a breathless Vanity Fair piece.  There are no ordinary people at all.   For someone like me who likes Beppe Fenoglio and Alan Garner and Elechi Amadi, the slavish adoration of the 1% becomes tiresome.
  • Second, maybe it is the economist in me, with our presumption that as we learn in the social sciences we dip into the old scholars but we understand how wrong or limited they were about so many things so that we have no need to venerate them, and so I find humanities people’s insistence (and Palmer is no different) on deifying certain old scholars, how shall I say, undergraduate-like?  Yes, Plato and Voltaire had important insights for their time.  But Nozick and Habermas built on those insights, nuanced them, straightened them out, and took them several steps forward.  Why would people in the future discuss or even care about Voltaire and not care about Nozick or Habermas? Makes no sense, to me.  Like Trollope heroines not reading Jane Austen.
  • Third, trotting out Hari Seldon-inspired psychohistory stuff is for me kind of a turnoff.  We’re in 2016 with lots of big data analytics stuff happening, and thinking that in two hundred years of continuing progress in computing and data collection we’d be in a future where only a dozen “psychohistorians” could use data (“run the numbers again!”) to “predict” and thus influence the future (by, of all things, selective assassination!) just seems, as a plot device, to be humdrum.

But I don’t want to be too critical.  I read the whole thing, and enjoyed many parts of it, and appreciated the imagination and effort that went into writing something so ambitious.  I am sure many readers will come to love the novel.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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