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Too Like the Lightning cover

The Many Selves of Katherine North UK cover

The Many Selves of Katherine North US cover

So I guess we're being asked to ride this book to the gates of El Dorado. Let us try. Too Like the Lightning is the abruptly terminated first half of a novel set five hundred years hence in what seems to be an extrapolated rendering of our own future, where a planetary utopia founded two hundred years previously in 2136 but younger than springtime continues to flourish, or maybe not. It is Ada Palmer's first novel. The moderately peculiar title may be intended to illuminate an inchoate suspicion that this tale may be all about how lightning precedes comeuppance (as always) but stops short of the thunder: Too Like the Lightning seems to be how two hundred years of an immensely complex and constantly negotiated peace are about to explode in an immense light show, leaving tatters, but does not tell us anything about the thump and consequence of landing. Its large loquacious cast—each member of which is significantly involved in maintaining a utopia responsible for the weal of ten billion souls—seems by the end of this volume to be running out of words: illustrated men and women about to char. You can almost feel the electricity, the lightning of the beat of Story charging its cells, about to blow, teasingly. Too Like the Lightning is all buzz and flash and stageworld, which may seem an ominous way to begin a sustainedly argued presentation of the application of utopian principles to the lives of the ten billion, all of whom remain invisible. It might in this context be suggested that no utopia is worth the paper it eats if the poor are invisible.

But this sense that the first half of Palmer's long tale is a warm-up act, and that it lacks any real jelling of a great deal of postured premising, may be due simply to the shock-and-awe Magicians of Tor, who will be releasing the rest of the novel in December, under the title Seven Surrenders. We can certainly assert that the staging of the first half is at many points highly virtuoso, though mad as a hatter: the basic premise being that in 2136, after the Church Wars, the entire world agrees to be ruled through a consort of interests based on the political thoughts of—and recounted in the language of—the eighteenth century Enlightenment, whose magus is Voltaire. The world depicted is surreally septentrional, terpsichorean, powdered, thespian: cosplay Moliere. There may be a few applauding plebs in the wings, but I missed them. We are in strange country here.

The title, a slightly moany quotation from William Shakespeare's moany Romeo and Juliet (written circa 1595), dates therefore from a bit earlier than Palmer's comfort zone as historian (her day job focuses on the eighteenth century), and is certainly more insinuatingly erotic than she likes to get (a lot of the cast spends a lot of time pretending to fuck like puppies, though they are as fleshless as ghosts); it reads in full

I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say, "It lightens."

And indeed I'm wondering if it is meant circumambulatorally to convey the fact that without eternal vigilance, which in this case means extremely heavy preventive plotting, utopias are very likely to bloom too soon and blow before they can be properly lived in. On yet another hand, Too Like the Lightning may be meant to evoke—it is to be hoped smilingly, for it would be terrible if Palmer took them as seriously as they take themselves—the highly envisibled protagonists of the tale, who skitter across the swarming tourbillion-pocked surface of the book like cuckoo clocks on stilts: a body English of governance we should look at more deeply, and may try to, maybe next volume. Finally, the title may also remind us of the almost unfailingly negative responses to the presentation of its content that are conveyed, from within the tale itself, by an embedded reader or "reader," who may (or may not) have some authority over what actually gets in print (the first page of the novel consists of an elaborated Permission to Print page, which expands on the Nihil obstat branding we used to encounter so frequently from Catholic publishers whose books were approved by the Church). If this embedded reader turns out to be simply a rhetorical figure, a flash on the pan, I'd personally feel let down.

In any case, whatever its ultimate import, the presence of a reader referred to from within the text but who may stand outside the text does remind us that this novel is intended to be read as a text, and that it conspicuously shares not only this narrative structure but some philosophical intensities also associated with the work of Gene Wolfe, specifically The Book of the New Sun. Certainly the sleight-of-hand bedazzle of its rhetorical ticklings of our sensorium-base as readers seems to attempt to create the sensation of heartshake that Wolfe almost always generates: that we are being told something faster than the eye can see, and that we should not expect to be able to read Too Like the Lightning (to repeat the old mantra) for the first time. But the deliberated resemblances to Wolfe clearly reach deeper than that. Over and above a shared and abiding dis-ease with actual descriptions of sex and a "daring" association of eros and power, the similarities between the two long narratives are manifestly intended. Each novel takes the form of a Book that we have been given to read, a Book which has been written, which means that it didn't just happen; each is told in the first person by a narrator who has much to say in an ornate diction well designed to dice with literal meanings, and much to hide, who plays word games with us about telling us the truth, and who is a liar. Each Book is an apologia pro vita sua, which means that each of them, far more incriminatingly than most novels (which in a sense are exactly at the moment of reading just there), has been priorly shaped to persuade.

Most readers of Too Like the Lightning will, all the same, feed its narrator's overt attempts at persuasiveness back into their encompassing experience of the text as a fiction: readers of novels do not exactly expect to be persuaded by persuasiveness, and any author (there are many of them) would be a fool to think so; but nor are we meant not to notice the strategies we encounter: the "author" of this book, Myrcroft Canner, is trying to con its readers, perhaps for our own good. Like Severian in The Book of the New Sun, Mycroft is a torturer, and both Severian and he are in some sense in the service of the State: in both cases, though they each have many reasons to address their books to us in order to persuade, the truth of what they say is subordinate to their high calling. As always, apologia is a platform, and each of these Books is a political document, told in each case by a person who rules or may rule the world (though it is fair to say we're not yet sure of this in the case of Mycroft: or not quite entirely sure). The final consonance between the two books derives from the fact that, because both Severian and Mycroft have effectively implored us to read manuscripts that existed before we read them (which, see above, we can only say of most narratives in a trivial sense), each imploration is a message from the past intended to tell us that the future has already been changed. Too Like the Lightning already knows what its readers are going to find out in Seven Surrenders. It is a prophecy.

Volume two will or will not confirm that it was worth the trouble.

The tale covers a single week beginning 23 March 2454, a very hectic seven days for one utopian planet. To get us to this date, Palmer engages in some peculiar but genuinely intriguing backstory work. She treats the escape of Homo sapiens from the twenty-first-century killing fields her actual readers occupy as a given; after a century of this (or as it were Not This), the planet remains recognizable, and its inhabitants engage in a deadly Church War which inspires the wise and worldly to come together in order to prevent future infestations of the Religion virus, the sort of thing that created Nazism and the rest of the twentieth century in Leo Perutz's St Peter's Snow (1933). Clearly in the language and under the influence of Voltaire and others, the wise of the world disband all religions, forbid the public discussion of religious issues by more than three persons together, and provide a safety release in the form of sensayers, deeply trained individuals capable of shaping religiose queries uttered by individuals into harmless but not dishonestly arrived at bywaters. At the same time, a form of universal floating citizenship is offered, according to which human beings should abandon their psychotic biological/geographical national allegiances and become floating citizens linked to their affinity groups.

Seemingly over time (I suspect I may have missed something here), these affinity groupings settle down into a dance-like group of seven: the Masons, the Cousins, the Mitsubishi, the Europeans, the Humanists, the Brillists, and the Utopians; plus (find me a taxonomy that doesn't incorporate something like this) the Unlisted. That this is surreal, eurocentric, partial, and fatally lacking in any visualization of how it might actually work among ordinary people, is perhaps not to the point. The point (at this point) is that it is a dream worth dramatizing.

Whether or not Too Like the Lightning actually works as a story enacted in seven days (though not one day for each of the seven cohorts), it is not easy to say. That the week is of deep significance follows from the Wolfeian implications of the telling. Mycroft is a criminal punished, as is the custom, by becoming a wandering servitor, at everyone's beck, and allowed only to eat what is given him for service. He is currently resident in the bash' (i.e., extended family compound) whose members ordinate the automated transport systems of the entire planet, partly through neurological enhancements and twinning, and partly through very large computers in the basement (that this sounds more like 1930s SF than Google may be a matter of indifference to Palmer). Strange car crashes have savaged the family who run the bash'. A forged or not-forged newspaper article, announcing prestige rankings of the seven families for the next year, has been stolen and turns up at the bash'. Meanwhile, Mycroft has been raising the child Bridger, whose ability to create living creatures out of inanimate models threatens the stability of the world, or foretells a vast change (wait till next volume).

The extraordinary depth of Palmer's research into her sevenfold septs can be detected, though not necessarily made much sense of, in the drenched and sometimes overloaded referential intensity of almost any sentence of any girth. The virtue of this volume, and its almost fatal inertness, both derive from this realization that Palmer knows far more about her story than she's telling us: for there is some sense she may be telling the wrong story, or perhaps just taking far too long to get up to speed (see next volume). Her instinct is to narrate the Mycroft-sourced perturbations in her world-spanning cohorts as a kind of staged, exceedingly eighteenth-century masque, heavy with dance, elaborately cosplayed, filigreed throughout with verbal thrusts and cocoricos deeply estranging to hoi polloi if they ever got an ear in: pure Fantasy of Manners. Sometimes one is reminded of one of the better moments in one of John C. Wright's early (that is to say tolerable) baroque space operas; but sometimes there is no one there.

It is all to find out. But lightning is the ansatzpunkt of sitzmark: so far, Too Like the Lightning punkts the beat of prehensile insight—as Erich Auerbach sort of said in Mimesis (1946) when he was talking about epiphanic moments of comprehension—but falls short of seeming to know where it's going to land. If it does not land properly, what the lightning shows will be a collapse of stout party.

At least she doesn't turn into a cat. The protagonist of Emma Geen's The Many Selves of Katherine North is in her seventh year as a working phenomenaut for a hi-tech Bristol firm whose apparently long-gone founder had invented an identity-transfer device. Which makes it sound a bit easier than it turns out to be. The firm initially 3D-print an iteration of the species—from insects to fish to whales—which is transported physically to its "natural" habitat, and into which a phenomenaut's identity is to be inserted for long enough (usually) for her to run experiments in the wilds, learning lots about the enteroceptive behaviour of the animals in question. That this seems a ludicrously unprofitable way to spend oodles of money finding out how birds et. al. do it is of little interest to Emma Geen, and perhaps to her market, which we find out—after several quite intoxicatingly well-written pages from within a fox sensorium have fooled us—is Young Adult.

Kit turns out to be a narcissistic dysfunctional twerp who takes very nearly forever to work out what's really going on in the firm at the behest of bad adults; she takes almost the entire book to understand that her inhouse minder, young what's his name, is her BEST FRIEND EVER. The actual internal workings of the firm that employs her remind one of twentieth-century sitcoms. The bad adult scheme, which involves identity transfers into printed human bodies, and their use as avatars, might if concentrated upon have dragged this tale as a whole closer to the level Geen achieves when she is miming animal psyches. But in the end The Many Selves of Katherine North is only about Kit, who suffocates us. Maybe, in the end, it's too bad she never becomes an emoji kitty. She could have been eaten by the fox.

John Clute ( has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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