How we get to Tomorrow: Futuristic Ideas from Too Like the Lightning

13 min readMay 27


Network states, gender, and artificial intelligence

The concept of a “network state” has captured the imagination of technologists and governance tinkerers worldwide.

In July 2022, Balaji Srinivasan published his book, “The Network State: How To Start a New Country.” Since then, he’s embarked on a mission to spread the ideas in the book, his message conveniently amplified by the unraveling of monetary policy controls as high inflation, global recession, and excessive government debt collide.

In 2016, six years before Balaji published The Network State, Ada Palmer published a science fiction book, “Too Like the Lightning.” The book was a finalist for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel and a finalist for the 2022 Hugo Award for Best Series. A historian and associate professor at the University of Chicago, Palmer specializes in Renaissance history, and the book is liberally informed by the social and political upheavals of that period.

The basic plot of Too Like the Lightning (“TLTL”) goes as follows:

  • In 2454, advanced technology led to the advent of a near-Utopian golden age. The world has seen several centuries of near-total peace and prosperity. However, there are still tensions among political groups over matters like the distribution of land and income
  • The protagonist, Mycroft Canner, has been commissioned to write a history of the present times, especially about a time in which a critical document was stolen and planted in a powerful family’s home
  • The storyline that Mycroft has to keep secret is his discovery of a young child who has a “Midas touch,” turning inanimate objects into living beings
  • To protect this child, Mycroft engages in intrigues and machinations that become ever more complex as the different global powers get entangled in a game of political kabuki

I read both books within a few months of each other and was struck by how The Network State seemed like a plausible starting point for a future global hegemony like that in TLTL.

This is not intended to be a book summary. Instead, I will parse some of the social themes that ply the book, including but not limited to ideas related to the Network State.

Here are the themes I find most interesting, which I explore below:

  • Network States aka the Hive system
  • Gender: changes to conventions of linguistics and dress
  • Human-AI assimilation: physical merger between humans and AI hardware

Here are other themes that I may explore in a later post:

  • Death of the majority
  • Establishment of a new communal family unit
  • Tension between privacy and surveillance

Network States: opt-in affiliation

The most prominent piece of social technology in the book is the system of “Hives.” Rather than organize into geographic nations, people voluntarily join Hives based on shared values 1

There are seven Hives: the Humanists who value sports and arts; Cousins, philanthropy; Masons, logic; Gordians, intelligence; Europe, national identity; Mitsubishi, land and business; and Utopians, the future. Within the Hive system, different forms of governance are adopted, including non-hereditary Monarchy, shareholder democracy, aretocracy (rule by excellence), corporate board, and the humblest of governance tools — the suggestion box.

Similarly, people join network states by choice, creating ideologically aligned but geographically decentralized communities. In his book, Balaji describes the ideal organizational structure for network states as one where “People are spread around the world… but their hearts are in one place.” As someone who’s often felt out of place in her birthplace, the sentiment resonates.

Each Hive has a role to play in global trade and stability. Humanists run the global flying-car transport system. Cousins provide spiritual counseling. Gordians specialize in cognitive research to improve productivity and intelligence. 2

In the same way, Balaji’s startup societies begin by identifying a moral issue in today’s culture and take action to resolve the issue. He talks about defining “the One Commandment,” which is one moral premise you believe current society is missing.

You are a moral entrepreneur telling potential future citizens about a better way of life, about a single thing that the broader world has gotten wrong that your community is setting right 3 — Balaji

For example, a network state could define its One Commandment as: “individuals must have personal medical sovereignty.” In other words, organizations like the FDA cannot prevent these individuals from choosing their preferred medical treatment. Anyone can buy or sell any medical product without third-party interference. “Your body, your choice.” 4

Presumably, the more people (voluntarily) experiment with treatments not otherwise approved by the FDA, the faster medical science will progress, creating positive externalities for other Hives.

The Hives each contribute uniquely to society, as do individual network states.

In terms of genesis, the world of TLTL was made possible by advancing the speed of travel: if one could circumnavigate the globe in 4.5 hours, there is no reason to confine your identity and neighbors to one particular locale. Instead, you choose the people whose ideas and habits most align with yours and call yourselves a Hive.

While we are far from that level of travel technology (at scale), Balaji’s Network States are enabled by similarly consequential inventions like cryptocurrencies and smart contracts. If you agree to denote payments in self-sovereign cryptocurrencies and to transact in a code-enforced fashion (without the need for a centralized dispute resolution system, aka the courts), you could create a system of social organization.

Finally, we turn to the eerily similar social conditions that motivate leaders to create breakaway systems like the Hives and Network States. In the case of Balaji’s book (which reads more like a manifesto), he points to extreme fragmentation of America across political lines, profligate money-printing that’s occurred in recent years, and increasingly tense rise of competing national and financial powers (China and cryptocurrency, respectively). He believes Network States find their raison d’etre under these conditions.

In the case of TLTL, the situation that led to a complete re-engineering of the global world order was illuminated in a rousing speech delivered in 2131. Enjoy.

“No nation, whatever its power, can be called great when it imposes tyranny upon its citizens — worse, upon people it claims as its citizens, not because they have enjoyed the fruits of its soil, or benefitted from its protections, but because by chance their grandparents were born within that blotch of color on a map it calls its own. These free people — who have never spent more than an afternoon beneath its skies — these free people proud America now commands to surrender the fruits of their labors. Why? To finance a war — no, a campaign of destruction — waged, not between peoples, but between the members of governments, and justified in the name of two gods — two interpretations of God — in whom most of those who must now pay do not believe. Worse, this so-called nation dares, not merely to ask, but to compel these free people to send their children to fight and die for a group of men they do not call leaders, against a foe they do not call enemy, over a patch of ground they have never called home. Friends, an America who would impose these orders is no longer the champion of liberty its founders set out to create. It cannot command your loyalty.”

“What is a people?” the speech continues, the actor’s voice resonating through the dome. “It is a group of human beings united by a common bond, not of blood or geography, but of friendship and trust. What is a nation? It is a government formed by a people to protect that common bond with common laws, so its members may enjoy life, liberty, happiness, justice, and all those rights we love. Americans, America is no longer your nation. Your nation is the friends who live and work with you, in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, all of the Americas, and all the other corners of this Earth. Your nation is those who went to school with you, who cheered beside you at games, who grew up with you, traded intimacies with you over the internet, and still today break bread with you in your own house, on whatever continent it stands. Your nation is the organization which you chose to protect your family and property, in sickness and in health, as you traveled the globe to find your ideal home. “Friends, I stand here today with the leaders of these organizations, to tell you that, once again, the time has come to found a new kind of nation, freer than any that has come before. We speak today for the Cousins, for the Olympians, and for Gordian, three groups which have the means to allow a human being, or a family, to live in this world without a country, without citizenship, without obligations to any power you have not chosen to join.

For more than a generation we have not just been your travel agents but your banks, your lawyers, your hospitals, your schools. Now let us be your nations. I call on all Americans who do not support this war to renounce your citizenship and trust us — any one of us, you have your pick. Let us protect you and your families in this new, free world.

I call on the citizens of all other countries of the world to respect our members, and accept the passports we will issue, just as you would the passports printed by a country which can boast a blotch of territory somewhere on the globe. Join us if you like, or remain loyal to those geographic nations which still merit loyalty, but either way acknowledge us, and in acknowledging us acknowledge the right of all human beings to choose a different nation if the nations of their birth betray their trust.

Gender: de-gendering and re-gendering

In the world of TLTL, more than 300 years from today, gender pronouns have been dropped. In official publications, everyone is referred to as they/them. Names have been “de-gendered”; Julia and Julian become Jules. Dress has also been de-gendered, meaning overtly feminine and masculine clothing and accessories are no longer contemporary. Legacy, gendered dress is described as profane and seen only in brothels.

Given the direction in which we as a society are trending, this is not a surprising extrapolation. What I found more interesting is the “re-gendering” in the storytelling. The author narrates the story with traditional gender pronouns but uses them in a peculiar pattern. He assigns he/him and she/her pronouns based on a character’s most pronounced character traits.

For example, the character Dominic Seneschal is an investigator and personal valet to one of the most powerful people in the novel. She is ostensibly a woman, but her behavior is dominant and ruthless, so she is granted male pronouns. On the other hand, Gibraltar Chagatai, who serves the same master as a housekeeper, is a biological male but is given female pronouns:

It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes. I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood berserks them. That strength wins her ‘she.’

This gender-pronoun witchcraft is how I found the book in the first place, as I was searching for sci-fi books that question gender assumptions. The narrator usually does not disclose a character’s gender until well after the character has been introduced through their actions and relationships. That tickled my brain because it exposed the stereotypes I myself superimpose onto characters based on whether they were introduced as men or women — despite being a feminist and someone who has always competed against men in male-dominated front-line roles.

To create a more equal, less biased world, we could do worse than take a page from the world of TLTL: de-gender all pronouns.

Human-AI assimilation

It blew my mind when I realized what Ada Palmer had in mind on machine intelligence. At the foundations of a world in which you could travel with unprecedented efficiency are the people and machines that run the system. In this case, the people AND the machines were a single unit. 5

A set-set is a person who has been raised via set-set training. The training process begins at or before birth and is adhered to strictly for the first several years of the child’s life. It can have surgical, pharmacological, and educational components. Traditionally, the child is connected to a virtual-reality interface immediately after birth and brought up in a virtual environment of multidimensional datasets rather than the material world. Training follows one of several inflexible protocols, to prevent unpredictable results caused by deviation.

Set-sets develop very limited ability with traditional motor functions and will often be incapable of walking for the rest of their lives. They also do not learn to use traditional senses, relying instead on any cameras or sensors they have network access to. However, set-sets instead develop extreme fluency with datasets of all kinds, accessed via the virtual world. Set-sets far exceed non-set-sets in economic modeling, data science, mathematics, computational sociology, predictive psychology, and many other informational domains. The work of set-sets is foundational to modern society, not least by enabling the complex routing of the car transit network.

In the vein of Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company Neuralink, in TLTL, humans and AI have achieved a consummate, irreversible union.

The novel was published in May 2016 and pre-dated Neuralink (first publicly reported in March 2017) and the explosion of LLMs in 2022 (which continues with new versions of OpenAI’s ChatGPT and its competitors). This month, a man with paralysis managed to walk with a natural gait after being fitted with brain and spine implants.

Before these cutting-edge technologies emerged, set-sets could be interpreted as a fun parody of today’s children, who would be permanently glued to their devices if not for parental intervention. In today’s contexts, however, the set-sets of TLTL could just as well serve to kick off discussions on what limits we should put on creating human-AI hybrids.

Ada Palmer refrains from exercising judgment about the morality of the system of set-sets. Regardless, it provokes questions about what it means to be human, how consciousness can or should be upgraded with machine intelligence, and whether this creates a class of god-like actors or slave-like servants. And if the “servants” have so much power in their hands (well, heads), who then is master and who is slave?

Aside: between today and the world of TLTL lies an entertaining middle ground, portrayed in the Amazon Prime sci-fi TV series “The Peripheral,” based on William Gibson’s 2014 novel of the same name. In The Peripheral, the year is 2032, and one can transport your consciousness into a parallel world, where you use disposable physical bodies. 6

Here are some other thought-provoking ideas from the book that I may delve into in future posts.

Death of the majority

After the Church War of the 2100s, there were no more majorities of religion, language, or nationality. Along with the death of the majority came the demise of war and genocide because “they require a majority united… an ‘us’ and ‘them.’” This is a seductive theory in the context of excessive polarization and unstable geopolitics.

Establishment of a new family unit

People have abandoned the nuclear family. Instead, they live in collective households with a handful of friends. These modern families are called Bash’s. 7

Your parents are “ba-parents” and your siblings are “ba-siblings.” This family structure resembles communes, where groups of people live intentionally together. 8

I would love to raise children with like-minded friends for resource efficiency (especially time) and so that children can get a holistic education through exposure to different adults.

Well-negotiated tension between privacy and surveillance

In the technologically advanced future of TLTL, privacy is described as “inviolate.” And yet due to the advancement of surveillance technologies, criminals do not expect to get away with anything. Criminals often turn themselves in after acting “in the grip of rage, or else in the calm confidence that the deed was worth the price.

It’s unclear how the lines between privacy and security are drawn. Still, I appreciate that Ada Palmer did not create a dystopia where privacy was entirely subservient to technological advances and simplistic arguments for security.


Ada Palmer spent many years on world-building for TLTL, which ended up being the first in a 4-book series called Terra Ignota. As a testament to her eye for detail and her expansive knowledge of history, TLTL ended up as a rich, dense 452-page book of ideas.

Ada Palmer’s ideas are ready to be chewed on, picked apart, and re-purposed for those interested in today’s hot topics, Network States and AI.

One article does not do the book justice. If there is a particular theme you’d like me to explore further, let me know in the comments or in a DM on Twitter/Telegram.

PS — The name “Too Like the Lightning” comes from the famous line in Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet compares their sudden exchange of vows to the lightning, “It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden, Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be Ere one can say ‘It lightens’.” According to Ada Palmer, the title comes from the idea that in the middle of the story, something valuable is abruptly lost.




I do business things and nerd things. Also crypto things. Twitter: @michlai007