Terra Ignota is yet another series that intrigued me as soon as I read its concept: that is to say, a story told in an affectedly antiquated language by a morally dubious unreliable narrator, set in an imperfect utopia with its unique take on gender and featuring heaps of philosophical themes. So, let’s talk about its first book, shall we?
Title: Too Like The Lightning
Author: Ada Palmer
Original Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: 10 May 2016
Genre: Science Fiction
Standalone or Series: Terra Ignota #1
Synopsis: Set in 2454, Too Like The Lightning is a fictional memoir written by Mycroft Canner, a brilliant polymath and infamous paroled criminal, who happens to be in service of some of the world’s most powerful leaders. Mycroft frequents the Saneer-Weeksbooth home, in which an important stolen document has been planted – a seemingly bizarre episode that is however part of a larger, convoluted series of events that may undermine the current assets of power and even global peace. Meanwhile, Mycroft tries to protect and conceal a child named Bridger, who appears to have the power to shape reality to their will.
Analysis: Too Like The Lightning is written in an idiosyncratic style that is, at once, charming and exasperating. The story, in fact, is told in first person by Mycroft Canner, a deliberately unpleasant character who won’t stop breaking the fourth wall to directly deabte his ideas with the audience, and who uses an old-fashioned and clearly unspontaneaous prose, remindful of 18th Century encyclopedists, to remark the temporal and cultural difference bewteen himself and his imaginary readers, that he assumes will be studying his works in a distant future – that, and because he has a 18th-Century kink, as subsequent events will uncover.
The setting is, as I mentioned, what we can call an imperfect utopia: a world where most current issues have been figured out more or less successfully, and where people generally live comfortable and peaceful lives, but where, at the same time, subtle injustices still exist, where not all answers to inequality are as satisfactory as they claim to be, and where peace is, actually, much more fragile than it seems.
The worldbuilding is perhaps the biggest appeal of the novel – which doesn’t mean I entirely love it, but that all its facets gave me some food for thought. In this world, geographic nations has been made obsolete by advanced fast-travel technology; instead, people can voluntarily join Hives, that is to say large communities that are based on shared values. Nuclear families have been replaced by bash’houses, which are co-housing collectives organised for mutual support. Death penalty has been abolished, and even the most heinous criminals are often trusted to repay their debt to society through a life of service.
Not all changes, however, have been the result of gradual evolution and societal progress: for instance, organised religion has been restricted as a result of a series of violent conflicts, and while the way spiritual needs are handled in the shape of individual counselling, with no established dogmas and a focus on personal soul-searching, does indeed have its appeal, there is no denying that the legal ban on larger organisations has its share of dystopian echoes.
But of course, what I actually want to discuss here is the novel’s treatment of gender and of gendered language. In 2454, in fact, the use of gender identifiers is seen as distasteful, and almost all characters use a gender-neutral language, with “they/them” being the predominant pronouns. Well, all characters except Mycroft, that finds such way of speaking uniquely oppressive, and insists on using traditionally gendered pronouns not just for himself, but for all characters, unilaterally deciding who’s supposed to be male or female based on their personality and societal roles.
Now, such approach to the topic elicited in me some mixed feelings thoughout the book. On the one hand I could see how not everyone would be happy with a truly gender-neutral society (because yes, apparently some people live their gender identity as real, empowering, and not at all oppressive, or so I’ve been told from some reliable source; and they’d probably be miserable if they could not express it as much), on the other hand… why would you build such a setting and then ignore its own mores, by having your story told by a hardcore nostalgic of gender binaries? Is it really the kind of discourse we need nowadays?
As I moved on, however, I couldn’t help but notice how the society in Terra Ignota wasn’t in fact truly “gender neutral” – under a thin veneer of perfect equality, traditional gender roles are still a thing, and the insistence on language doesn’t make the world more equal, but instead makes stereotypes and discrimination harder to address. So the debate is less on whether a truly genderless society could be a good thing for everyone, and more on how superficial and formalistic equality could only hide more deep-seated issues.
Which didn’t stop me from being irked by Mycroft’s obsession for gendering everyone, especially as he does so on quite traditionalist bases, treating a masculine identity as a sign of power and strength, and attaching a feminine one to those he saw as protective and nurturing (although I guess I must be grateful he didn’t care much about body types). But. Well. It’s Mycroft we’re talking about. We’re not supposed to like him in any shape or form, really.
Other than that, the novel is rich with all sorts of philosophical digressions – definitely too many for me to explore here, but surely fascinating to read. What admittedly suffers in all this, however, are plot and characters. As for the latter, Mycroft is the only true memorable figure, with everyone else being fatally swallowed by the black hole of his point of view. As for the former, there are indeed a couple of significant plot lines, that is to say the large political scheming and whatever is going on with Bridger, however they don’t really ever take off, coming across mostly as an excuse to indulge in all sorts of other reflections.
Conclusions & Recommendations: Too Like The Lightning is a strange kind of book, that manages to be interesting and frustrating at the same time. I found its ideas very stimulating, perhaps even more so when they didn’t immediately resonate with mine, but at the same time I wish it hadn’t come to the detriment of a more satisfying story. At any rate, I surely want to keep on reading the series – out of interest, not just as a matter of principle. If the next books manage to be a bit more entertaining, I’ll rejoyce, however even if it’s just more philosophy I’m okay with it.
Content Warning: Sexual Content – Torture – Murder – Rape – Cannibalism – Incest – Suicide