First of three essays discussing the underlying themes of Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning.
Content warnings: Brief mention of gender erasure. Spoilers for the book abound (but not for subsequent books).
Too Like The Lightning constructs a utopian society — but not one it thinks can survive. It plots the course of that society’s collapse — but not because they did anything wrong.
As is often the case with stories addressing utopia, Too Like The Lightning ultimately portrays the insufficiency of the “idyllic” world it’s built up. What’s less usual, though, is that it isn’t merely setting up a strawman, a false ideal, and then knocking it down. Instead, it is genuinely searching, trying to answer the question, “What do we want our future to look like?”. When we understand the Seven Hives’ inexorable slide towards war, it is not the inevitable rejection of a naive thesis. It’s a tragic cry: If this is not enough, what is?
And there is even, perhaps, an answer to that cry.
It’s my opinion that this dynamic is clear, and fundamental to understanding Too Like The Lightning. In this piece, I’d like to gather up the hints and threads, and bring the book’s statement, as I see it, to the surface.
So let‘s take a look at what it is that make the Seven Hives utopian — and what it is that makes them collapse.
What Makes The Seven Hives Utopian?
When we discuss whether or not the Seven Hives are a utopia, what is it we actually mean? What are the defining characteristics of this society, that may or may not be viewed as being ideal? Things like “an anonymous blogger as an influential world power” or “the revival of the Latin language” are fantastic details, but they’re obviously not the elements which define, for good and for ill, Terra Ignota’s society.
Other elements seem nearer to the core — flying cars; elective bash’es; hidden gender; religion as taboo; and others as well. And with key elements, we can notice that the significance and the intention of these is often the removal of restrictions:
- Flying cars are significant because they remove the restrictions of geography, of one’s life being determined by where they were born.
- Elective bash’es are significant because they remove the restrictions of family structure, of assumed obligation to blood relatives.
- Hiding gender is significant because it prevents oppressive biases towards gender and sexuality — thus removing, for every individual, the restrictions of a biased and limiting society.
Too Like The Lightning’s intriguing re-conception of religion — intensely personal; intensely private; each person hand-crafting his own religion for himself — both fits and breaks this mold. On the one hand, religion is extremely restricted — to the point where the idea of religious freedom, as we know it today, is seen as this society’s greatest anathema. On the other hand, this restriction’s purpose is to prevent worse restrictions — that is, religion is held in check, for fear that otherwise it will grow, gain power, and become a force of rule and oppression.
Obscured gender is, in fact, exactly the same thing. Not being able to express one’s gender is restrictive in the extreme. The mere idea of being expected to keep, as a polite secret, what gender you’re attracted to, is pretty horrifying. And yet, this is a society that prefers to reeducate and rewire itself in the most fundamental ways, rather than divide people from birth into classes and categories.
This, then, is the rule: not freedom of choice, but preventing any one choice from dominating. This is what makes the Seven Hives feel utopian: that the society opposes discrimination — most particularly over those things no person chooses themselves — and is devoted to crippling anything that might lead to discrimination. This is the idea that underpins the entire society: the Death of Majority.
Do you still believe in the Death of Majority, reader? The First Anonymous’s first essay, lauding what they saw as the promise of eternal peace. (…)
Majority died with Church and Nation, the Anonymous proclaimed, and with it war and genocide died too, for they require a majority united, an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ in which ‘us’ is normal, larger, more powerful, capable of overwhelming and defeating ‘them.’ I could ask any contemporary here, ‘Are you a majority?’, and I know what he or she would answer: Of course not, Mycroft. (p.294)
As founding principles go, this one strikes me as being fundamentally pluralistic. It is a disavowal of power; more than that, it is a disavowal of moral authority over others. The value this principle enshrines and enforces is that of coexistence.
The enemy of coexistence, observes the principle, is power that has risen to dominance. There is no faith here in benevolent domination — the fact of power, real or perceived, will eventually spark the need to tame and crush “the other side.” And so the solution is to prevent the rise of any dominant power or identity.
On the one hand, it is difficult to credit a society with no dominant factions. On the other hand, this is compelling logic: won’t minorities and outliers always be marginalized, sidelined, disadvantaged, unless we’re able to disarm the concept of minority itself? And aren’t we all too familiar with how power leads to dogmatism, abuse, and oppression? If we could create a society with no Majority, could it truly be a better place?
What Too Like The Lightning does, then, is set up a thought experiment, of a society defined by pluralistic coexistence. The Death of Majority has already been achieved. In many other ways, as well, conditions that are fantastically hospitable. And particularly, note:
- The major factions aren’t inherently in conflict. They have their differences, and plenty of friction — but we don’t see any intractable issues between them, anything that might be a hard barrier to peace.
- Within each of the sub-societies, people seem happy. Even more than that, they seem passionate about their way of life. The Mitsubishi Directors are not merely paying lip-service; they sincerely value Nature and Land over People. The Romanovans we meet, Ancelet and Papadelias, are singularly committed to good governance and civil service. There are no Utopians who think this whole Mars business is taking things a bit far.
So, if there’s no major tension within the factions, and there’s no major conflict between the factions, and what everybody on this planet wants is the coexistence of the factions…
Then why is everything so fucked up?
What is poised to fell the Seven Hives is not a dastardly villain or plot. It’s dull, boring systemic dynamics — and it terrifies Mycroft. We see our first glimpse of this in the Censor’s Office:
<<Population 33 percent Masons, 67 percent other Hives; land holdings 67 percent Mitsubishi, 33 percent other Hives; income 29 percent Utopians, 71 percent other Hives. 33–67; 67–33; 29–71. I’ve seen these numbers before.>> (p.85)
This — this is our real threat:
<<It’s the point of no return, sir.>> (p.86)
The combination of a Masonic majority, a monopoly on land ownership, and an aloof hi-tech superpower, build up enough pressure to wreak havoc on the social order. Ancelet thinks it would be “the worst recession in two hundred years,” but Kohaku Mardi’s dying warning isn’t about a recession. Tully Mardi repeats the same analysis with more force, to Mycroft’s sheer horror:
“Don’t let them say it.”
“It’s happening already all around us. The property flows first, blood later. It’s going to happen. It is happening!”
“Saladin, don’t let them say it!”
“War! I’m talking about war!” (p.357)
Those dull, arbitrary numbers signify the collapse of civilization.
And, make no mistake: Too Like The Lightning is not a treatise on real estate allocation. This isn’t about land, or population, or technology. It could be those, but the details are unimportant — as Mycroft himself makes clear as soon as he and the Censor are poring over their 33–67, 67–33 data:
Perhaps, my distant reader, you are floundering again amongst the names and details of our forgotten politics. The specifics mean little… (p.86)
This isn’t about what the precise point-of-no-return is. We don’t meet a single avaricious Mitsubishi landlord in person; nor any Masons laboring to recruit new Hive members. It’s about realizing that some point-of-no-return is looming — and, perhaps, the sense that society is hurling itself towards it. It’s very easy to see this as a reflection of tipping points closer to home.
So, Palmer is telling us that a pluralistic society — even an idyllic one — can’t keep its balance. Sooner or later, it’s going to reach a tipping point.
Too Like The Lightning shows us that process, that inevitability. It suffuses the book — rarely addressed directly, yet still the story’s driving force. In Part #2, “Five Reasons The Seven Hives Are Collapsing,” we’ll see the movements beneath the surface, which will guarantee the system’s fall.