Friends! Romanovans! Genderless countrypeople! Lend us your ears–so Mycroft can promptly eat them! That’s right: Fully 250 pages into Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, we finally learn the gruesome, cannibalistic nature of our narrator’s crimes. But just in case you’re tuning into WIRED Book Club for the first time (welcome, and there’s no turning back now), we’ll wait until the discussion to spoil specifics. Generally speaking, the book’s chewy complexity continues to test some of our daintier constitutions, but we’re mostly in agreement that Palmer is expertly gearing us up for some sort of massive 10-self-driving-flying-car pile-up of a climax. Join us again next week to find out.
Should this book have an index?
Lexi Pandell, Assistant Research Editor: Yes. I DESPERATELY NEED A FAMILY/POLITICAL TREE. And a dictionary and map. And probably a Silmarillion-length book on the history of this world and maaaybe even a few college courses on philosophy and classics. I’ve let a lot of the plot wash over me, focusing my energy on the Bridger-Carlyle-Thisbe-Mycroft dynamic, not only because that plotline is so interesting to me, but because it’s by far the easiest to digest. Initially, I nearly drove myself crazy trying to orient myself. Kudos for the incredibly thorough world-building but, goodness, I’d love to have something to refer back to.
Katie Palmer, Senior Associate Editor: That’s exactly the phrase I’ve been using, Lexi: I’m just letting it all wash over me. It’s not an unpleasant feeling, but I do want an index sometimes–although I think Palmer’s choice to leave it out is very intentional. I don’t think you’re supposed to understand how all of these differently motivated political factions and characters with their marred histories intersect, or even be able to keep track of them all. Just like in real life.
Jay Dayrit, Editorial Operations Manager: Good God, yes! An index would be super handy. I too would appreciate any list, chart, map or footnote (and not footnotes in Latin, thank you very much!) to help me get situated. As it a stands, I’m just sort of along for ride, taking in what I can, hoping that I’m not missing anything too important. As in a complex detective novel, which this is in a sense, there are loads of McGuffins, red herrings, and vital clues. I can’t even begin to parse them out.
Jason Kehe, Associate Editor: I disagree! Sure, it was confusing at first, but I’ve come to find the absence of any back matter freeing. I don’t feel pressure to perfectly understand every word I’m reading (a Type-A compulsion that’s dogged my enjoyment of literature my whole life). Palmer forces you to embrace the confusion and uncertainty and just go with it. I’d even say it’s making me an easier-going, less fussy reader. And if we think back to The Fifth Season, were those appendices really so necessary? Or the map in The Name of the Wind? No and definitely no.
Gaia Filicori, Associate Director of Communications: I would love an appendix a la Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, which is grouped around family lineage. I’m imagining something like: “J.E.D.D. Mason, biological son of Chief Director Hotaka Mitsubishi Ando, adopted son of Caesar, also know as Tai-kun, also known as …”
Peter Rubin: I’m with Jason on this one. Besides, what was that table of the Seven-Ten lists if not a mid-chapter appendix? I chafe at gratuitous world-building, but this is more than that: the relationships matter. The history matters. When we learn how the various hives work, or how they’ve amassed their memberships, it helps inform why characters react the way they do. Palmer (not you, Katie) has managed a compelling novel about political intrigue that only works because she has such a fully realized vision of of this future. Yes, it moves at the speed of sludge–because that’s the only way we can keep up.
So is Mycroft a monster?
Pandell: It’s pretty disturbing that Mycroft thinks back on the murders with a sense of emotionally removed smugness and an insider’s nitpickiness at Carlyle’s getting details wrong. As Mycroft even says when Carlyle calls him the worst criminal in 200 years, “My lost self might have called this flattery.” But perhaps it’s an understandable attitude for someone who has become the most renowned criminal in the world. But has he really changed? Is he tricking us the same way he tricked the Mardis? That’s a tension we’ll have to reckon with for the rest of the book.
Kehe: I wouldn’t be surprised if Mycroft turns out to be the world’s most unreliable narrator, Agatha Christie-style, but somehow I still believe in him. Let’s remember that his book, as the fake-real title page tells us, has been published with the permission of the Seven. You know who IS bothering me, though? That damn wussy Carlyle. Constantly sobbing, then goes all double agent-y when he’s alone in a Muktuber with his Mother Superior. Super sus, girlfriend. (Carlyle IS biologically female, right?)
Rubin: Still sifting through that theory about Carlyle, but I will say this: I’m fully on board with Canner. Not because he did such horrific and indefensible things, but because the more we know about how the Hives work together, the more it makes sense that Mycroft is their shared pawn precisely because his “goodness” is immovable. He fell under someone’s spell when he was 17–we don’t know whose, or how–but Caesar kept him alive for a reason. If you doubt that, folks, then explain to me why he has the sash of the Familiares. (Also: who am I right now?)
Dayrit: I mentioned in the last discussion that I felt in good hands with our narrator. But damn, I didn’t think those same hands could end up tearing my face off and eating it for lunch! The question in the last discussion was “Do we trust our narrator?” No, not anymore. To someone capable of committing those major-league crimes, spinning a narrative full of untruths is tee-ball by comparison. Lexi asked if he has really changed. Carlyle doesn’t think so, while everyone else does, particularly Bridger, who, in the wrong hands, can bring about the end of the world. Sorry, Jason, I’m with Carlyle the Wuss on this one. Mycroft is a manipulative psychopath.
Filicori: No doubt he is a monster. As a reader, I am a delighted that all of Canner’s flouncy obsequiousness has been revealed to be sugar-coating on top of evil.
Rubin: THAT’S WHAT I’M SAYING. Though I do think that the sugar coating is pretty thick at the moment. Let’s call it a fondant of goodness.
Filicori: That said, I am disgusted by the descriptions of his crimes, as well as those moments when Canner seems to slip up and alludes to weird feelings toward Bridger, or has NSFW fantasies about what’s under Thisbe’s robes. (Remember that, you guys? I was like, woah, we are reading some sexy fan fiction in this book club. #awkward)
Pandell: It’s a religious trope that those who encounter saviors or miracle makers are either saved or target the savior for disturbing the status quo, right? So, sure, Mycroft was supposedly “cleared” by the time he came to this new bash’, but encountering someone like Bridger, whose powers are beyond comprehension (the kid is capable of creating a black hole that would swallow the whole Earth, after all), might be what draws out Mycroft’s truest self.
What on Earth is JEDD Mason?
Pandell: I really wish I knew. I’m so confused. Am I the only one?
Kehe: Is he my favorite character? Probably. But that flat affect and supreme dispassion–like, we’re talking AI-level greater good stuff–scares me. I mean, he hangs with Mycroft, known psychopath, and Dominic, evil sex antichrist. We should be terrified. (His chef friend/slave is pretty rad, though. I’d invite him/her/them over to cook me a steamy meat roll-up anytime.)
Rubin: I don’t think I’ve ever done such an idelogical about-face as I did when dude slathered that Carnivore Roll with butter. I mean, sure, delicious, but the verb “plaster” was used. Maybe heart disease doesn’t exist in the future? Also, while we’re on the topic of our friend Gibraltar Chagatai, let me just put this out there: He’s alternate-dimension Kvothe, from our July selection The Name of the Wind!
Dayrit: No, Lexi, you are not alone. I have no idea who J.E.D.D. Mason is. They talk about him a lot. He’s shady figure. That’s about all I know.
Filicori: Is J.E.D.D. Mason a Hiveless and is that why he seems otherworldly, because he lives in a state of constant other-ness, with no home, no bash’, no Hive identity? I also want to know if his unusual behavior is a product of his vocation (like the set-set twins) or if his personality and temperament drove him to become this all-powerful, neutral Other.
Rubin: Jed, or Mike (love the Utopians’ nickname for him, short for “Micromega”), or whichever name you prefer, is a freakshow for real. However, he reminds me a lot of L, the single-minded and sociopathically unflappable detective from the anime Death Note. (In fact, that connection makes me want to see an anime adaptation of this book. You know it would be amazing.) The Emperor has shown some talent in hand-picking singular people, and he clearly saw something in our creepily calm friend–even if he’ll never succeed his dear old adoptive dad.
Is gender becoming clearer to you?
Dayrit: No, but I’m hoping it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to the people in the book who believe that gender is irrelevant. So it shouldn’t matter to us, I guess.
Filicori: I don’t think that the people in the book believe gender is irrelevant at all. They’ve invented a futuristic Victorian society of taboos, and have coded gender as a symbol of aristocracy and power. Separately, Thisbe and Carlyle the Cousin are sleeping together.
Pandell: I’m weirdly still shipping Mycroft and Thisbe, but I think you’re right about Thisbe and Carlyle.
Kehe: ^same. Also, that moment where Mycroft slips and calls Dominic “he”? Terrifying! Mycroft’s gender assignments were supposed to be stylistic, right? If he’s doing it IRL and not just in this retelling, there’s something more going on. But what? I’m disturbed.
What’s keeping you reading?
Pandell: I’m waiting for Mycroft to reveal his motive for the Mardi murders. Perhaps Mycroft was brainwashed by someone else or by his own teenage philosophizing. I suspect that Mycroft, twisted as he already may have been, was a pawn used against the Mardi bash’ to some political end. When he writes in Chapter 21, “I am grateful, so grateful, tolerant reader, that you read on despite learning of my crimes,” I thought, “Uhh, duh! That’s just about all I want to know about now!”
Palmer: How on Earth is Bridger going to collide with this strange Seven-Ten list plot? There has to be a reason for him to be part of the this story–Mycroft’s weird schizophrenic conversations with the reader point to him as at least a potential protagonist–and we’re just beginning to see the investigation into the theft infiltrate Bridger’s perfectly isolated life of learning. Something big is about to go down, and it might just be related to that No-No box.
Dayrit: My interest began to lag around Chapter the Nineteenth, but then we got a little insight into Mycroft’s terribly violent past, which doesn’t at all jibe with the way he is now, and there was mention of the No-No Box, with its little black ball. The stakes just went way up! Mycroft’s crimes and the No-No Box better not be McGuffins, or I’m gonna go all Mycroft Canner’s lost self on this book. Well, maybe not that far.
Filicori: I think Ada Palmer has done a brilliant job with the pacing and keeping us in the close confidences of such a charming and deceitful narrator. The book seems like it burst onto the page fully formed. We have no choices here, no volition, we are completely subdued and in the hands of this sociopath (Canner, not Palmer). I wonder if her writing process was similar to Victor LaValle (author of “Slapboxing with Jesus”), who each day sits down and starts with a fresh page and completely re-writes his current draft.
Is this world really so utopian as it seems?
Dayrit: To paraphrase the great philosopher Tyra Banks, perfect is boring. So I’m glad that in this world of intercontinental commutes, trees of plenty, and technicolor dream coats, not all is what it seems. Horrific murders still happen, international espionage is afoot, and shadowy cults pull the puppet strings. It’s like nothing has changed in 438 years. Sort of a comforting thought.
Filicori: This relates to something that have been bothering me: How come we are never shown the daily lives of normal people in this society, going to work, sitting in cafes, shopping at the grocery store? Where are the “communi hominum” of the Republic? They’re circling overhead in Mukhta’s children, and we the reader are riding around on Mycroft’s shoulder like Bridger’s tiny plastic military platoon. We’re spending all our time in secret meetings with the world’s most powerful people (first time in my life that I’ve complained of too much access to famous people) and are completely oblivious to the lives of the common man. I would like to pull back the camera and get a wide shot of the day-to-day.
Dayrit: I realized the same thing when it was disclosed that Thisbe is an Oscar winner. What? Either everyone if fabulous famous and influential, which is categorically impossible, or we are only dealing with the famous and influential, which is weirdly myopic.
Rubin: We knew from jump that their bash’ was full of extraordinary people–I weirdly wasn’t surprised to learn that Thiz was a smellcraft whiz. Plus she’s got a technique named after her! (And a dance!) That being said, I can’t imagine we won’t meet some commoners at some point. There are 800 million flying cars in the naked city; this cast of characters would only fill about 40 of them.