Tuesday, December 20, 2016

History of the Future: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Despite the fact that a lot of science fiction takes place in the future, few science fiction writers have much of a historical consciousness, a sense of how historical eras are both continuous with and disjointed from the eras before and after them.  Frank Herbert's Dune series has historical consciousness in an especially vast sense, but a lot of science fiction seems to basically transplant the people and ideas of the 20th and 21st centuries into some other century (this was, for instance, one of my criticisms of Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star).

Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning isn't quite working on Herbert's scale, but her historical consciousness is something unique.  The fact that she's a history professor probably doesn't hurt either (and gives hope to this SF-loving philosophy professor!).

I loved this book, but it's an unusual book that will no doubt annoy and/or confuse many readers.  It occasionally annoyed and often confused me, too.  I loved it despite the fact that I'm not entirely sure what happened or who was who and who did what.

The main arcs of the plot (as I understood them) involve global factions vying for dominance in a fairly utopian 25th century, a former criminal in service as penitence for his crimes, a kid that makes inanimate objects come to life, non-priests that are basically priests in a world that has outlawed explicit organized religion, and much, much more.  I'm still hazy about many basic details of the world -- I couldn't tell you anything specific about Seven-Ten Lists or set-sets.  I have no idea what the deal is with that kid that brings things to life (there's maybe a hint, but I'm not sure).

So, dear reader, you may ask: what was it that made me love this novel?  I admit I was seduced by the flowery 18th century style prose, not to mention all the mysteries surrounding the narrator, Mycroft Canner.  I love the imagined dialogues with the reader. The use of "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is something I expect to become standard English sooner than the 25th century, but the narrator's reflection on the contemporary immodest indecency of gendered pronouns and his reasons for using them is a nice touch.  Palmer doesn't make things easy for her readers.  You often have to read about something for dozens or hundreds of pages before it's explained, if it's ever explained at all.  But somehow I kept reading.

The Philosophy Report: History and Religion

Reading Too Like the Lightning is like uncovering a historical document in an archive, but one from a place and era you have never studied.  There is no glossary (I kept checking).  There is no commentary aside from what the narrator provides.  There are no journal articles or websites (okay, there's a lot out there about the book, but, dear reader, please permit me to stick with my analogy for a moment).  As would be the case with this imagined historical document, you're largely on your own.  But, as when reading an unfamiliar text from an unfamiliar era, you have to keep moving through the text and hope you learn to swim before you drown.

This is probably the biggest lesson I've had to learn in reading philosophy from a wide range of eras and traditions, a point where I find common ground between my interests in science fiction and philosophy from authors temporally and culturally remote from myself.  Making sense of difficult material from remote contexts is probably the basic skill so many philosophy and history students have trouble developing.  Most students will give up if things aren't immediately apparent to them, but that would be to lose out on possible treasures buried within these texts.  As the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza said, "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."  Much like reading Spinoza, Palmer's text is weird and often incomprehensible, but worth reading in virtue of its eccentricities, not despite them.

The fate of religion in this world seems plausible to me, more so, anyway, than the complete eradication fantasized by many 20th century science fiction authors and "New Atheists."  For a person who is not a religious person himself, I spend an awful lot of time with texts and authors that most 21st century Americans would - with precious little reflection on the term itself - probably call "religious."  The multitude of things we call "religious" (the contemporary Western understanding of the term is, I argue, almost entirely a product of the European Enlightenment) are simply too important as frameworks of meaning and understanding, comfort in difficult times, moral and artistic inspiration, social glue for communities, and so much more.  Despite the fact that religion isn't my thing personally, I seriously doubt religion is going away any time soon any more than professional sports are going away (I personally don't understand sports any more than I understand religion).

Still, you may object, nobody would be bothered by religion if all religious people were nice, like Quakers or Unitarians.  It would be great if we could get rid of the bad parts of some religions - the hatred, violence, oppression, bigotry, petty tribalism, anti-intellectualism, etc.  And that's just what the world of Too Like the Lightning has done via draconian laws against any religious organization.  But, recognizing people's inner spiritual needs and desires to discuss the deeper questions of life, they've set up a group called sensayers, who meet with people one-on-one, but never in groups lest the bad parts of religion resurface.

It's an interesting idea, one that I think greatly underestimates the social dimensions of religion, but such an internalized concept of religion is unsurprisingly itself a product of the European Enlightenment.  This is why "religion," "faith," and "belief" are synonyms for many of us today, whereas in many earlier ages religion was more explicitly a function of one's membership in a community.  Would the sensayers and the prohibition of organized religion work?  Would it give us the benefits of religion without its harms?  Maybe this issue will receive some treatment in the sequel.  I hope it does.

Critique of Science Fictional Reason

Despite my enthusiasm for this book, I have to admit that sometimes it was all a bit too much plot and style to be contained in one book.  And it's slightly Eurocentric (perhaps this is a function of the author's academic specialization).  Although there are characters from Asia and one of the main factions is dominated by Japanese people, very little about the world system other than a few names seems to be based on non-Western ideas.  Is 18th century Europe really the ur-source of everything?  Oddly, Africa or people of the African diaspora seem to barely exist in the 2400's.

There's also the typical utopian science fiction weirdness of imaging a world that divides so neatly into a handful of categories (the Hive system run by a handful of people is complex, but still seems a bit too tidy to be realistic).

These criticisms in mind, not to mention the fact that I'm still hazy about an awful lot of what I just read, this book is well worth reading.  It will help to be slightly familiar with the European Enlightenment, especially French figures like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, but you could probably enjoy this book without that background knowledge, since some of it is explained.  If a depth of historical consciousness and the schtick of bringing 18th century European literary cleverness into a global 25th century civilization sounds like something you'd enjoy, then you might enjoy this book as much as I did.

Rating: 92/100

See also my Goodreads review.

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