Interview by Cait Coker.
Ada Palmer is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago. Her first science fiction novel, Too Like the Lightning, was released in June, and describes the future of humanity in the Twenty-Fifth Century in terms that are as familiar and foreign as the period of the Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment is to us.
Cait: I find it fascinating that you’re a historian by day and science-fiction author by night (and more day). You clearly drew upon a deep knowledge of the politics and philosophy of the Enlightenment in writing your book. Can you tell me what first made the connections between past and future for you in writing Too Like the Lightning?
Ada: If you think about it, there’s nothing more similar to the future than the past: both are long blocks of time during which human societies change and evolve, and are affected by crises and gradual transformations. I think being a historian is immensely useful for SF because it gives me a world of examples and test cases to compare to when I want to answer questions about things that might change a society, “What if the transportation system suddenly got faster?” (Look at the spread of railroads). “What if the dominantly-English origins of the internet mean that English comes to be a sort of universal second language?” (Look at Greek in the Roman Empire). “How will space colonies separate culturally from Earth?” (Figure out the travel time, then look at Earth’s many past diasporas and migrations.) In Too Like the Lightning I wanted to imagine Earth’s future in a few hundred years, and it seemed natural to answer my questions by looking at the past and using it for comparison.
I’m going to geek out for a minute: Your knowledge of the period really materializes itself in the book as object, and how it relies on typography and the use of graphs as part of the story. In SFF we talk a lot about how genre texts have influenced scientific and technological developments, but this was history influencing a genre text. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
I love the double-take people often do opening the cover, with its illustration of flying cars and its super-modernist sans serif font, to find that period title page with 18th century fonts, woodblock ornaments, and even 18th century censorship permissions on the front. When the book was in its last stages I sent an eleven page letter to the typography team talking about different eighteenth-century period book layout things I hoped they’d do, and special things I was doing with punctuation, and such. I was overjoyed when I saw how much they’d done with the final version, period-feeling fonts, the little wood block type ornaments on the title page and in the headers. I wanted those small touches because the book intentionally puts the reader in a strange position in terms of time. The narrator is writing a history of the 25th century, so the narrator expects a reader from his future, with sensibilities advanced beyond his own day, “enlightened” compared to the 25th century. But the real reader is from the 21st century, so when the narrator does things like explain how “he” and “she” work because the narrator expects they’ve dropped out of use like “thee” and “thou,” suddenly the real 21st century reader has to wrestle with three time periods at once, the 21st century, the 25th century, and the narrator’s imagined future past the 25th century. Except the narrator is also trying to write in an 18th century style (trying with middling success, as we try with middling success to act like Renaissance people at a Renn Fest), so a fourth moment in time is also involved. In effect, there is no point at time at which this book would be at home, it’s an object out of time, written in the future in the style of the past for an imagined farther future which may or may not ever come to be. People have found the layering of all those time periods delightfully mind-bending, and effective at raising questions about how the future will view the past. So by having period typography the book physically reminds you of its object-out-of-time-ness, making the reading experience more immersive, though the immersion isn’t in the world of 2454, it’s in the book object itself as an object self-consciously out of time. And 18th century fonts are really beautiful. Have you seen the capital Q in the page header of the chapter “The Interlude in Martin Guildbreaker Pursues the Question...”? Most beautiful Q in the world!
What attracted you to speculative fiction in the first place?
I’ve loved F&SF since I was tiny. I remember when it started: one of my oldest memories was going to the public library, and going to the kids’ section as usual to look for a new Doctor Seuss book, and someone had misshelved a big hardcover copy of The Hobbit there, with a *huge* red dragon on the cover. It was one of the heaviest things I’d ever lifted, but I asked Dad if he would read it to me, and we checked it out (though he already had two copies at home, but explaining that books have multiple editions is a little advanced for the One Fish, Two Fish, Red Dragon, Two Towers phase of reading.) I made up stories as a kid, started writing them down in elementary school, and kept it up. So it’s my natural genre, the one I grew up with, the one in which my ideas naturally manifest.
History was a later fascination. I enjoyed all kinds of documentaries as a kid, and expected to go into science since I was great in all my science classes. But when I started at Simon’s Rock College we had a required Great Books reading course. I remember reading in Civilization and its Discontents about Freud’s “Death instinct” and I remembered about a documentary I had watched about WWI, and it felt to me like Freud wouldn’t have had that idea before the war. So I went to the library to his complete works and looked through pre-war pieces and found places where certainly would have mentioned it if he’d had that concept but it wasn’t there. It was the first time I realized that historical events shape ideas, that even the greatest philosophical concepts don’t come from the raw stuff of people’s heads but come into being because people live through changes in the real world. I became fascinated by the history of ideas, how the range of concepts available to us expands over time, and how one era’s heresy might be another era’s truism. If every other subject involves studying what we think is true, then the history of ideas is studying why we think those things are true, how our culture decided on those ideas and not others, when they started, and what other things we might have believed had we been born at different points in time and space.
We often ask how has geography (including place, culture, economics) influences an author’s work. In this case your books, fiction and nonfiction (Lucretius in the Renaissance) have drawn heavily from Renaissance and Enlightenment Italy. What fascinates you the most about that place and time?
Most of the overt historical references in the book are French Enlightenment—Voltaire, Diderot, de Sade, the looming specter of Thomas Hobbes—but the Renaissance comes into it, not in the references, but in the relationship of this world to its past. One important part of every culture is how it describes, chops up, and values its own past. What past eras were there? Which were good or bad? These ideas aren’t defaults, they change over time. In the 1430s the Florentine Leonardo Bruni invented the “Dark Ages” and suddenly history had three parts (ancient (good), dark ages (bad), “modern” i.e. Renaissance (trying to be good again)), whereas before that it had two (before Christ (bad), after Christ (good)), and before that in antiquity, the Greeks and Romans’ imagined history had three or four parts (golden age, silver age, bronze age, iron age). Ours has different parts too, and we idealize some and criticize others. The world I designed in 2454 has a very similar relationship to its past to what the Renaissance had, which is to say that, like the Renaissance, 2454 is having a big revival of the ideas of an earlier era (in its case Enlightenment; in the Renaissance’s case antiquity), and that revival is causing big cultural and political transformations. In both cases it’s not the first revival of such things (antiquity had an earlier revival in the Carolingian period, and my imagined future had a small Enlightenment revival in the 22nd century but is having a bigger one in the 25th). It’s a different kind of cause of change than I think most SF authors think about. When depicting a science fictional world having an upheaval, we usually think of a technological cause (sudden light speed travel! cloning! immortality serum!), or a circumstantial one (out of fuel! overcrowded! incoming asteroid!), or a big discovery (new planet! new aliens!). But big uphevals can also be caused by purely cultural changes, in the case of the Renaissance the impulse to revive antiquity, which was a response to a bunch of other changes but itself became the big transformer. Studying that gave me the idea that the transformation of my 25th century could have a similarly cultural root.
Do you think writing for an audience of historians is different than for an audience of SFF readers?
It’s the reading mode that is different, more than the people. Many academics read and enjoy SFF, including myself, but we read a history in different ways from how we read a science fiction novel. F&SF readers in particular have a certain way of learning about an unfamiliar setting, which is different from how we do it in a history. Histories—both academic histories and popular histories—explain their subjects and settings directly; when a new unfamiliar thing is introduced it’s explained and connected to other things, systematically. A well-crafted history will introduce many new facts and details, planning the order of them carefully so they all fit together, each connecting to the next in order, because connections form long-term arguments, and connections also help us remember things. Reading genre fiction (including historical fiction) we learn new world details a different way. We expect that there will be small references to unfamiliar elements peppering the book constantly, and we know to collect these like puzzle pieces, setting them aside in our memory, trusting that the author will make them fit together later to form a more complete picture. SFF readers do it naturally, but it’s genuinely a learned skill, and very intelligent readers with no experience of genre fiction reading sometimes struggle with SFF because they come to the first unfamiliar thing and stop, puzzling it over, trying to figure it out at that moment, expecting it to be explained at the time, and that if it doesn’t make sense yet they must have missed something. If puzzling and rereading doesn’t solve it, such a reader usually moves on, forgetting the detail, because there’s nothing to connect it to, so it’s hard to remember. In a sense, history means giving the puzzle pieces in order, each followed by the ones it connects to, so they gradually, logically reveal an image; genre fiction means giving the reader scattered puzzle pieces that don’t connect, so fragments of a mysterious image form until it’s partly visible, and the reader is excited by the hints and clues offered by the partial glimpses, and the process of trying to guess what the big picture is before the last pieces are revealed.
The other thing that really struck me about Too Like the Lightning was how it felt like a manga or anime as it would have been produced in the Eighteenth Century. It was incredibly vivid and visual, and I know you’re a fan of those forms as well. Can you tell me how you think genre and format influence each other?
Interesting question. It’s possible that my ways of pacing how I describe facial expressions between dialog is influenced by the pacing of conversation and expression work in anime, though if so I’m not conscious of it; my styles of visual description in the books are consciously based on the way Robert Fagles renders Homer, and the way Arthur Conan Doyle in the Holmes short stories uses descriptions of architecture and atmosphere to control the pacing of revelation in a dialog scene. I would say the main influence that anime and manga have had on Terra Ignota is that, unlike a lot of SF authors, I’m responding to Japanese conversations about science fiction in addition to Anglophone ones. Throughout the 20th century American SF was translated into Japanese, and Japan has had a lot of authors, many working in anime/manga media, who have responded to classic SF concepts and developed them in different ways from how they were developed in the US and UK. To give one example, while US & UK SF authors have been having a conversation about AIs and robotics, and developed certain conventions, default expected developments, and big questions that we’re all familiar with, like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, but over the same years Japan has had its own conversation about robots, AIs, robot laws and ethics, responding to Western ones but contributing lots of new original ideas. I talk about SF as a conversation, and when the golden age proposed ideas, Japan responded. Recent readers of The Three Body Problem have had a taste of a similar phenomenon, seeing how a Chinese author who read classic Western SF responded, but from a different direction, contributing excitingly different new ideas. Because anime and manga are easy to find in English and French, Japan is one of the easiest other science fiction traditions to access, and I really enjoy great works of Japanese SF, like Phoenix, Pluto, They Were 11, or Gunbuster, not because they’re in anime/manga form, but because they’re full of fascinating and original SF ideas and questions. A lot of Western SF authors and readers haven’t accessed what Japan has been doing, so sometimes I’ll see an American SF work that’s dealing with robots and think to myself, “Wow, this author clearly doesn’t know what Japan has done with this concept, but I sure wish he did because his response would be awesome!” Thus Too Like the Lightning isn’t consciously responding anime/manga as media, but it is consciously responding to some of the big SF questions that Japan has explored using those media.
And finally, a very serious question to close: Do you write with a lucky pen or pencil?
No. After so much typing, my wrists are in such bad shape that writing by hand is very challenging, though physical therapy is helping me make great strides. But I do have a favorite pencil—it was a present from my Dad, and is black with a little Greek helmet on the eraser end, and a quotation of one of my favorite lines from the Iliad (Fagles translation of course!): “The God of War is impartial, he hands out death to the man who hands out death.”
Ada Palmer’s next book in the Terra Ignota sequence, Seven Surrenders, will be released in February 2017.