Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"Too Like the Lightning"

Ada Palmer is a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. She is also a composer of folk and Renaissance-tinged a capella vocal music on historical themes, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass. She writes about history for a popular audience at and about SF and fantasy-related matters at

Palmer applied the Page 69 Test to Too Like the Lightning, her debut fiction book, and reported the following:
The first line of page 69 of Too Like the Lightning gives a great taste of the book, especially an important issue which none of the online plot summaries really captures. The first words we see are “...cult belief. This is a question of uncovering the deep truth about the provable reality humanity lives in, and someday sharing that.”

As the page continues, we character called Carlyle is talking about a child who has a “power” of some supernatural/miraculous sort. Carlyle argues that it’s important to consider the potential human and humanitarian consequences of this power as well as the theological and metaphysical consequences, how cults and theologians will care about it but it could also do great things for society, like cure disease. Someone responds that they’re already using the power to cure disease, and created a cure for a major plague which they left it on the doorstep of a lab they hope will study and manufacture it. They’re also working using scientific instruments to study the “power” and learn how to explain it, and reproduce it scientifically.

Too Like the Lightning is science fiction, with flying cars, futuristic cities, student field trips to a Moon Base, and all the trappings of golden age, techno-utopian science fiction fun. So people are often puzzled, and sometimes distressed, when, at the very beginning, I introduce a boy who can inexplicably bring toys to life with a touch. Some people have said it turned them off, that they wanted science fiction, not something “unrealistic.” But a big part of the book is about that very conflict, and about trying to show extremely intelligent, scientifically-minded people in a technologically sophisticated world and how they would react to something supernatural. The characters who are dealing with Bridger’s “power” on page 69 aren’t deep in action, not having a high-speed chase scene trying to seize this power or prevent it from being seized by others. They’re calmly debating, thinking through social implications, “moral calculus” as one calls it in the last paragraph. Carlyle is in fact a theologian, technically trained exactly for this situation, how to think about the “miraculous” in a scientific world, and the only conspiracy to hide the “power” that results is in service of trying to figure out the most socially useful and efficient way to eventually reveal it, to the benefit of all.

Science and the supernatural aren’t in tension in these character’s minds, they’re perfectly compatible, and the appearance of a “miracle” doesn’t mean they throw science out the window, it means they add this new discovery to their knowledge pool, another piece of data. In a sense, the conversation in this scene is opposing the binary of science versus magic, just as it’s opposing the binary of science versus religion. My inspiration here is reading eighteenth century Enlightenment books, the works of Voltaire and Diderot. Currently many people think the “religion vs. science” conversation, which is so heated right now, is an ancient binary, but (speaking in my historian hat for a moment) it’s actually very recent. There are a few vague threads in the Middle Ages that, but it remains extremely marginal even in the 19th century, and doesn’t become hot topic until recent decades. In the Enlightenment in particular, most people assumed that learning more about science would strengthen religion by revealing the nature of the Creator from looking at the Creation. I love eighteenth century fiction, and how Eighteenth century scientists, philosophers and authors mixed things we usually think of as opposing genres, not just mixing fantasy and science fiction (though Voltaire mixed those plenty) but also mixing the scientific treatise and the theological treatise, producing works that really are both scientific and theological, without the authors seeing any contradiction. We don’t look at that kind of mindset much in science fiction, so I thought it would be fun to explore. I wanted to do a story where I explore the supernatural rationally, the way we do when we sit down and debate what you should really do to help the world if you had the powers of a telepath, or Superman, or Doctor Strange. There’s plenty of action in the book too, a mystery, conspiracies, but page 69 shows you what may be the most surprising part of all, a calm, open-minded science fiction investigation of the scientific implications of something we usually banish to the far side of the double yellow line between SF and Fantasy.
Visit Ada Palmer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue