Linguists will tell you the ancients were less sensitive to gendered language than we are, that we react to it because it’s rare, but that in ages that heard ‘he’ and ‘she’ in every sentence they grew stale, as the glimpse of an ankle holds no sensuality when skirts grow short. I don’t believe it. I think gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors as it is to us, but they admitted the place of sex in every thought and gesture, while our prudish era, hiding behind the neutered ‘they,’ pretends that we do not assume any two people who lock eyes may have fornicated in their minds if not their flesh. You protest: My mind is not as dirty as thine, Mycroft. My distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place. Would that you were right, good reader. Would that ‘he’ and ‘she’ and their electric power were unknown in my day. Alas, it is from these very words that the transformation came which I am commanded to describe, so I must use them to describe it. I am sorry, reader. I cannot offer wine without the poison of the alcohol within.
(Mild spoilers ahead. The book’s fantastic and I urge you to read it blind, if you’re willing to take my word for it.)
Too Like the Lightning begins both with an in-universe content warning page, precise to the degree that would get you branded a snowflake in the real world, and with an antiquated, elongated title page like the ones common in pre-19th century English literature like Gulliver’s Travels or Tristram Shandy. The first chapter is a declaration of intent on the part of the narrator, Mycroft Canner, addressing the reader as someone from the future instead of the past. From there comes the most fascinating political system I’ve yet to see in a science fiction book.
Once the reader gets their bearings and a feel for the setting, it seems like the reactionary’s ultimate nightmare. Traditional notions of family and nation have been abolished by flying cars that can take people anywhere in the world in minutes. Now people live in communes defined by social bonds rather than blood relations, and the governments of the world separate themselves along philosophical borders instead of geographical ones. A twenty-hour work week is now standard for everyone who isn’t in love with their job, and yet society still functions, producing new wonders every day for people to enjoy and marvel at. I fell in love with this future almost immediately; it represents a monument to human progress, a rebuttal to everyone who ever complained about the evils of globalism. Of course it’s too good to be true, and even if it wasn’t, a boy with the magical ability to turn representations of things into the genuine article will somehow bring this era of human history to an end.
This, Mycroft insists, is his story. Mycroft’s narration is the factor that makes Too Like the Lightning engrossing as a story, despite his assertion that he is not the protagonist. In addition to emulating prose from a bygone era for stylistic effect, he frequently injects his own opinion and biases into the narrative. Sometimes this takes the form of his arguments with what he guesses the reader is thinking when he leans to hard on a subject like gender pronouns, and sometimes it subtly takes the form of information that could pose as general information about the world to an early reader who doesn’t know enough to tell them apart yet. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Mycroft is not just a pushy, opinionated servitor. He is a very abnormal man whose presence becomes more uncomfortable and unbearable in perfect sync with more information on the hidden warts of the hive system coming to light. This is unreliable narration at its finest.
I also appreciate a bunch of little details: glimpses of how entertainment culture has changed and remained the same (America may be gone, but the Academy Awards endure.); evocative names like Martin Guildbreaker, J.E.D.D. Mason and Cornel MASON (all-caps to indicate the Masonic Emperor); and the way different translated languages are indicated using grammatical symbols like French chevron quotes, Japanese bracket quotes, and Spanish inverted question and exclamation marks. The only problem thus far, and the reason it’s second on my ballot, is because it is nowhere near a complete story. Too Like the Lightning ends halfway through Mycroft’s history, leaving multiple cliffhangers, but one sequel’s out and another’s on its way. My expectations for Seven Surrenders are about as high as they can get.