In 1998, the Smashing Pumpkins released a music video for their latest single,
Ava Adore. Like many of the
great music videos of the era, it’s visually engaging, conceptually enticing,
and thematically unrelated to the song it tracks. Too Like the
Lightning is a
science fiction novel written twenty years later, and despite the laws of time
and causality, it explains the Pumpkins’ music video far better than the music
On its surface, Too Like the Lightning is a presentation from a convict named
Mycroft Canner. For reasons which are only partially explained, Mycroft is
involved with almost every powerful organization on 25th-century Earth. They’re
seemingly omnipresent thanks to the availability of extremely fast, cheap, and
distributed air travel. This allows them to be the readers’ guide across
disjoint environments, effortlessly hopping between radically different social
settings as events unfold. In Ava Adore, Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy
Corgan serves exactly this role as the camera trucks between film sets. He
cheekily draws attention to his duty by pantomiming a linkage between two of
the sets, but just like Mycroft, his presence in each is totally ancillary.
That isn’t to say either narrator is meek, though: both have a rock-star
tendency to eat up the entire frame. Mycroft breaks the fourth wall, addressing
the reader and taking diversions on morality and history. The modern music
video is already an absurdly narcissistic medium, but Corgan ups the
self-awareness by only selectively mouthing his own recorded vocals.
Then again, neither guide is completely in control of the storytelling, as
evidenced by their ignorance of external commentary. Mycroft’s words have been
lightly amended by an unidentified editor. Ava Adore’s camera reveals the
crew and equipment in the act of recording the video. These flourishes add an
ironic dimension to both works, making each feel even more convoluted.
Audiences have another reason to mistrust their guides: fear. Corgan’s menace
is overt through his vampiric costume, inhuman movement, and animal snarling.
Mycroft only hints at their own sordid past, preferring to let others reveal
the gory details toward the end of the novel. It’s simultaneously compelling
and repulsive to be guided by a ghoul, and both works have that conflicted
Despite the shared themes*, I’m not suggesting that author Ada Palmer
constructed their 400-page novel around a four-minute music video. The book has
far more depth than one could cram into that format. Besides, there’s probably
no inner logic to the video in the first place; it seems more likely that the
artistic direction was largely aesthetic. Coincidental though my post-hoc
analysis may be, I haven’t been able to shake it. Maybe it’s because Too Like
the Lightning has yet to receive any expression in a visual medium. Maybe I
got caught up in building a personal pneumonic for the book. Or maybe I just
like the idea of a music video sourcing from a novel. Whatever the reason, I’m
happy to pretend that Too Like the Lightning inspired Ava Adore.
* There are a bunch of more literal parallels, too. They don’t carry the same
weight as the thematic commonalities, but they’re still fun to consider.
Ava Adore depicts a nun conferring with a couple socialites, evoking
Sister Heloïse’s conversation with Thisbe and Carlyle. Corgan’s presence in
the Victorian-age scene seems physically impossible, just like Mycroft’s
bursting into the French brothel themed in the same era. Both narrators exit
before the finale, ceding the final moments (and the total lack of
resolution) to others.