A very spoiler-heavy discussion of the bits I liked most about Too Like The Lightning follows.
If you have any interest in reading the book, I would suggest doing so first, as having spoilers may significantly reduce your enjoyment of the novel – more so than most novels IMHO. But OTOH it seems like a fair bit of the reading public was not as heavily affected by the mid-book Reveal as I was. Still, please consider. This post will still be here in a week, or month, or year.
I – Mycroft
So, obviously I have to start with the Big Reveal that made me have to put down the book for X days. Since at least one commenter said he’s not sure which one I mean (there’s lots of twists and reveals), it’s obvious not everyone is as affected. I call it the Mycroft Reveal, wherein we get actual visceral details on the horrific crimes he committed.
I am, by nature, not a very forgiving person. This is tempered by the fact that it takes a lot to actually get me to the point of hating someone. But I have an ingrained sense that while people can change, very almost never actually do. And that no matter how much you change, your crime still hurt your victim, and your changes won’t fix that.
Palmer spends much of the first half of the book making me love Mycroft. He is humble, he’s smart, he does his best to help others. He’s charming, engaging the reader in conversation directly. Once he goes off on a tangent lamenting how visor should be spelled with a ‘z’ because it’s a futuristic-sounding word, and it’s not fair that it isn’t, and then the next time you see the word “visor” in narration its spelled “vizor” and you laugh out loud at his little rebellion (or you do if you’re me). He is shown to be a good person, and I like him.
And then you see that he’s a torturer, a rapist, and a murderer. Killing his foster family, people who loved and trusted him, in the most horrific ways he can, recording parts of it for media titillation. This is a person who deserves to die. A person who deserves to die by the most painful execution method we have available. Yet he’s still alive, and mostly happy, and I do not give a single fuck that he has changed, you made me like him!!
I was so pissed. I am still pissed, actually. Because current-day Mycroft seems to be a good person, and he has unique abilities that the world needs to keep running, and sure sure, he’s not a danger to anyone anymore. I still don’t care. I want him dead, and I’m not apologizing. If current-day Mycroft has to be snuffed out for past-Mycrofts sins, I’m OK with that.
Honestly, I feel like Palmer cheated. Because in real life, no one who does that sort of thing could ever be a good person. But since she can create the entire world, and the people within it, she can create this Literally Impossible situation where the person who could do those acts can somehow also be a good person. Because he was disturbed, and emotionally shattered. Because he was driven to it by a violent sociopath. Because he literally had to do these things in order to prevent world war that would result in basically a planet-wide Rwanda-style genocide/massacre. Isn’t it worth torturing your loved ones, in order to prevent that level of planetary horror? The utilitarian answer is yes. But this would never happen, this is equivalent to the 24-style torture-apologetics. It smacks of Ender’s Game-style genocide-apologetics. I can read about these people. But I will not sympathize with them. I reject any bid that I consider them equal human beings, and that I should forgive them. I leave that to the priests.
I was super-conflicted about this, because less than one week prior to that, I sat on the “Creating the Anti-Hero” panel at MALcon. I put forth the proposition that a good anti-hero is someone who pursues goals that we admire, but is forced to do so using methods we find repellant by their circumstances, and their emotional struggle with this. Firefly is the go-to example, as that show can legitimately be said to be about the villains of that universe. I always go with Watchmen, because I find both Rorschach and Ozymandias fit this perfectly, altho in opposing ways. In the end, Ozy prevents world-wide nuclear war. He saved the human race. And he only had to murder everyone in New York City to do it. I’ll be honest – I admire him. I think he is both a villain and a hero. Preserving the human race is a hell of a goal, and (to paraphrase Too Like The Lightning) you should be happy to sacrifice any subset of the world if you are literally saving the world, because you would have lost that subset anyway if the world ended PLUS everything else.
But that Mycroft seems to delight in it! Maybe I can thank him for saving the world. But I still want him dead. Call me human.
I did keep reading anyway.
Of course there’s three more books to come. Much is still to be revealed. My reactions are to this book alone. I hope they do not change though. I will have to wonder what it says about me if they do. This is what I meant when I said “this book is about your reaction to it,” altho again, it seems not everyone felt it hit home as deeply as I did.
II – The author as God
This novel reminded me of The Etched City in that both are about nominally mundane worlds wherein miracles suddenly occur, and people struggle to understand what the hell that means. But The Etched City takes place in a fictional world, in a pre-WW1 era. There are some simple firearms, but it’s enough in the past that it doesn’t feel contemporary. The furniture is Fantasy, not Sci-Fi. So having a miracle(s) produced by (one assumes) a god, didn’t throw me out of the story. In an Sci Fi setting, it kinda did. I finally got over this during one of the novel’s many dialogs, wherein J.E.D.D. says “the protagonist of every work of fiction is Humanity, and the antagonist is God.” (I was primed with an earlier reference to Greek Heroes being “beloved of the gods”)
I’m currently in the process of attempting to write a novel that grapples with a similar theme. So when I read this, what I saw is “the inhabitants of fictional worlds are put in awful situations by the author, for entertainment. The author has created them, and is responsible for everything in existence, and they have no say in the matter and exist in a separate reality that can never affect the author directly. The author is literally their God.” This is a massive Fourth-Wall Break, and it is done within the novel. Beautifully so. The inhabitants of this novel don’t know they are in a fictional world. The reader probably doesn’t realize they are creating that world in their mind, and that its framework was constructed by that world’s God, Ada Palmer.
The book keeps bringing us back to this theme with Jehovah, who I think has created a world of his own as well. At first I thought he was running a Reality Simulation on a supercomputer hidden somewhere. Later I thought maybe that supercomputer is his own mind, and the beings that exist in it are literally “thoughts in the mind of God”. By the end of the book I’m not sure anymore, as it is said that his powers mirror those of Bridger, and that Bridger is the God of the novel’s world.
This brings up interesting questions about Bridger. Is Bridger the author-insert in this story? Every other name in the book has major significance, and this would be the most significant naming of all – Bridger is literally the bridge that brings Ada-Palmer-The-Author from our real world, into the world she’s writing, as a character within it.
That’s why I became OK with Bridger having god-powers. Because if he is Palmer, then of course he can do anything. He is literally the author. There is no magic. There is only a reminder that these are words on a page, put there to stimulate my mind in ways the author thinks I will find enjoyable. If that means writing that plastic turns into flesh at a touch, then so be it. I accept that. It works for me.
III – Jehovah
Holy crap, Jehovah is awesome. Not just because he is a stone-cold badass. Not just because he strongly reminds me of one of my favorite anime characters, L/Lawliet. But because he is the me-insert in this novel. Other characters speaking of him – “Oh yes, [Jehovah really does hate this universe that much], He just doesn’t realize yet that what He feels is named hate.” And “if He met the callous Bastard who designed this universe of suffering, He’d… criticize, protest, scream […] if He did scream, if He wore His sacred throat to blisters screaming, this universe’s Maker wouldn’t care.” Oh. My. God. So good. All the sympathy, all the admiration. I hope to see so much more of him.
IV – Set-Sets
I love how Palmer whip-lashed my opinions of them. I loved them at first! They are what I aspired to be in my younger years. Renounce the flesh, live the mental life, upload if possible. I cheered at “you’ve never seen a six-dimensional homoscedastic crest up from the data sea, and you never will because you’re wasting those nerves on telling you your knee itches.” They have great personality and wit, they are people!
And then late in the book I discovered they never change. Never grow. And I was horrified. I was reminded of Diaspora, which finally truly drove home to me that Life Is Change. A person that is not changing can just as easily be replaced by a hard drive containing an archive of their thoughts. A species that doesn’t change can be replaced by a galaxy-sized statue made of memory crystal containing a saved state of all their simulated interactions. It was one of the most influential books on my personal view of what it means to be human. And these Set-Sets… they are things that were forced into mental stasis by their “parents”. They are not humans, they aren’t even people. They’re p-zombies. I shuddered.
OK, I think I got all of that off my chest. Whew! I’m looking forward to the next book!
Just finished reading this book (based on your recomendation). Excited to finally be able to read this post which I skipped when you first posted it.
I really like this book and thought it was very good.
I think I’m very surprised how different my reaction to a lot of it was.
I – That scene
From reading your non spoiler review, I knew there was a “that scene” so I was kinda waiting for it, and when I finally reached it, I knew it when I saw it. The witch and the priest were investigating and had followed clues into the “black hole” (even though this is comments section for the spoiler review I’m still trying to be somewhat oblique, but I think you’ll know why I mean). When all of a sudden they are surrounded by men, threatened with violence and with implied sexual violence. They encounter a nun. They wander into the heart of the place and are greeted by dukes and presidents. Up till that moment I’ve seen a world that a utopia, the world has banished so many ills. Violence is basically gone, but for a few outbursts. Religion is neutered and tamed. Gender is largely removed form society. The tyranny of work is rolled back to where very few need to work more than 20 hours. Nations and the accident of brith is gone, people chose what society to live in based on fit and values. And all of a sudden I find that none of these evils were defeated, they were driven underground, but they are all still there, all in one place, and that place is the seat of power. I was shocked and my perceptions of the world building were turned upside-down.
Obviously, having now read the spoiler review, I see we picked different scenes.
II – Mycroft
I felt like there was a lot of context leading up to the Mycroft reveal to let us know that what he did was pretty bad. I mean, someone early on mentions that Mycroft used to be the most popular name on the planet and now its pretty rare. You gotta do something significant to make a change like that. So I was, I think, less surprised than you.
Current Mycroft feels to me like a deeply changed person. As if its a different person and they happen to have known each other in the past, been roommates or something. The Saladin reveal and interaction doesn’t seem fully within continuity to me. Then and now Mycroft feel too different to have the same friend and lover. Maybe later books will change my thoughts on this.
Lastly, in reaction not to the book, but to your comments, I think you may be mis calibrated as to the frequency with which people who do truly awful things later go on to be normal functionally decent people. In wars, there is a lot of historical records of soldiers doing terrible things, not only on the battlefield, but of slaughtering civilians, burning whole villages, etc. Not only in “ye olden dayes” but as recently as the Vietnam war. Now, your modal war atrocity is probably not quite as bad as what Mycroft did, but I think the record shows that people can commit horrors and change.
III – Jehovah
What a badass. Not much for me to say here :)
IV – Set Sets
I also think set sets are awesome. I’m not sure that I agree with you that it is revealed to us that they are non human p zombies. A character certainly says that. But we know anti set set prejudice is a real thing in this world, to the point of violence against them and riots about them being something that happens.
When a member of a group subject to prejudice says they are human, and acts human, and takes pride in their work like a human, and comes up with original novel jokes and grasps humor like a human, and expresses admiration for good qualities in another like a human; and a member of another group says they are not human based on ‘revealed reasons’; bitterly every time in human history it has been correct to ignore the ‘revealed reason’ and judge based on the evidence of experience. So that’s what I’m included to do here.
In the chapters we see set sets up close, they act human to me. In deep ways, not superficial. Their family members treat them as human. I’m much more included to see this as world building showing us an example of prejudice than as a revelation.
> I – That scene
Hah! That is great! :)
> II – Mycroft
> I think you may be mis calibrated as to the frequency with which people who do truly awful things later go on to be normal functionally decent people.
I think this is possible. I seem to be far less likely to forgive people than others are? At least, once they’ve crossed a certain threshold. I believe people *can* change… I just don’t think they ever *do*. Outside of very rare outliers. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.
> IV – Set Sets
You make very good points. I think I bought into the Set-theory propaganda far too quickly when I read it. I guess I was looking for something secretly-horrifying? But yeah, everything I’ve seen of them shows them to be very human, sapient people. Thank you.
I’m reading through these entries to remind myself what happened in the book before I dive into Book 2. Thanks for the names.
I knew it had to be MyCroft. My reaction was puzzlement as I too have a high opinion of MyCroft. I see his actions and concerns in the present as evidence of some kind of discontinuity with that past; i think more shoes have to drop before I can say whether this Damascene moment was real or an elaborate ploy.
I just had a fascinating discussion with my niece about Severus Snape and she expressd the same kind of hard set notion that despite his repeated acts of self sacrifice after he made his ‘unforgivable’ mistake Snape should not be accepted nor admired. I’m a big believer in redemption and except for cases of incurable socio/ psycho-pathy I am looking for an Edmund moment where the dragon scales of pride and ego are painfully torn off. Snape meets that bar. Does MyCroft?
I see the ambiguity here and am waiting to learn more. Isn’t this some kind of play on pure reason in humans? Isn’t this walking into a debate on the Turing test and when we start to prefer AIs to people in medicine and live I doubt this distinction will ever clear up entirely.