Too Like the Lightning
TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING
nonbinary, genderqueer, polyamory, pansexual, bisexual
It is the year 2454, and humankind has not experienced a war for over three hundred years. The world is also free of religion, nations, gender, capitalism, and everything else that once caused strife between people. Everyone goes by they/ them pronouns, you only have to work 20 hours a week if you don’t want a career, and instead of nuclear families people just live with a bunch of their friends and raise kids collectively. Is this a utopia? Not quite. Welcome to Terra Ignota, my favorite anime-book.
In author Ada Palmer’s own words, the Terra Ignota series is about “the future’s growing pains.” The growing pains she speaks of are the unexpected consequences of this world’s premises, which drive the plot—in between the interpersonal dramas between the characters, who are a cross between the casts of Gossip Girl and House of Cards.
Terra Ignota is a high-concept philosophical treatise on religion, ethics, and statecraft. It is also a pansexual soap opera about a clique of beautiful people who, despite being human garbage fires, somehow manage to rule the world in secret as an Eyes-Wide-Shut-style sex cult. It is both these things at the same time, in a combination that is as intoxicating as it is intellectually impressive.
Too Like The Lightning, the first book of the series, takes its name from a Romeo and Juliet quote, and sure enough there’s plenty of forbidden lust and bitter rivalry in these books. Sometimes the Terra Ignota books are an erudite Jane-Austen-meets-Game-of-Thrones thriller, and sometimes they're a torrid anime-esque gay love-fest. Sexuality is fluid, liberated, and polyamorous, and for many of the characters there are a variety of philosophy-based kinks involved.
That’s right, I said philosophy-based kinks.
Let’s back up: when our narrator Mycroft Canner was 17, they were convicted of crimes against humanity, and sentenced to be a Servicer—one of a laborer caste. Instead of serving a prison sentence, they atones for their crimes by working for anyone who gives them a task. Most Servicers spend their days doing taxes and cleaning up the streets.
However, despite Mycroft’s gruesome crimes, they are indispensable to almost every world leader, so instead they work to cover up a global conspiracy between the governments of all seven “Hives,” the global organizations that have replaced countries.
In the process of uncovering the several interlocking global conspiracies that ultimately come to light in Terra Ignota (so far), we discover that gender is nowhere near as dead as the world thinks.
The secrets Mycroft protects could unleash war back into the world. After three hundred years without war, humanity could eradicate itself with all the untested technology it has developed since. Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, whose third installment will be out this winter, is Mycroft’s account of the buildup to that potentially annihilating war.
In an era of simplistic black-and-white dystopias like Divergent, and black-and-white-but-pretending-to-be-gray dystopias like The Hunger Games, a scifi world that actually explores new ways the future can be wonderful and terrifying. Instead the same old “everyone is in categories based on X variable” trope, this is something we deserve to read, and that deserves to have us read it.
It’s also nice to get a vision of a future where Donald Trump doesn’t cause humanity’s extinction within the next decade or so.