Ada Palmer Interview – Seven Surrenders
Ada Palmer is the winner of this year’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her debut novel Too Like The Lightning, first in the Terra Ignota sequence, was nominated for the Hugo Award, and its sequel Seven Surrenders is out now. Ada Palmer was attending the Edinburgh International Book Festival and kindly agreed to talk to Fantasy-Faction while she was there.
Congratulations on winning the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer! How does that feel?
It feels absolutely amazing. It’s an honor I have aspired to, but usually it comes in the second year of eligibility, not exclusively in the first. It’s still stunning.
Too Like The Lightning has been nominated for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Tiptree Award, and won the 2017 Compton Crook Award for the best first novel in the genre. Are you pleased with the book’s reception, given how unique it is?
Yeah, I mean I expected it to have a very small niche audience, it’s not a book for everyone. So I never imagined it would have something like the Hugo nomination, because that really requires lots and lots of readers. And I didn’t think it would have lots and lots. I thought it would have a few enthusiastic readers. And so did Tor when they first put it out. In fact, they printed very few copies of it in the first place. It sold out in pre-order and they had to reprint it before it came out. Cause they, like me, expected a smaller audience than it had.
How does your background as a professor of history influence how you approach writing science fiction?
I think everyone has commented on the world building being a sort of centrepiece of Terra Ignota. And that world building technique comes from being a historian. It comes from thinking structurally about the evolution of the society over time. I think a lot of people when they go to build a science fictional world jump forward to imagining what that world is like. Or possibly think, how do we get from the present to that world? But I tended to think, alright, going back four hundred years, what trends are already in place that are unstable now? How will they continue to change going forward? And I also just asked of this world all the questions a historian asks of the world, you know, what is the evolution of its currency system? What fibres to people wear? Where are they produced? What is the standard economic unit of the household? How recently has it changed? Rather than just projecting the 20th century defaults forward.
Almost all science fiction assumes the nuclear family is the default social unit. But the nuclear family itself is only a really young social unit that’s only recently come into being in the 20th century, and there’s no reason to expect it to be stable long term. So I think all of my training as a historian comes through in the way I world build and the depth of ability to answer questions about the world that I demand of it before I feel that world is ready to write in.
Myrcroft Canner, the narrator of Too Like The Lightning and Seven Surrenders, is a wonderfully unreliable narrator – he plays with the reader, he deliberately withholds information and frames what he tells us, and he’s a convicted murderer. What was it like getting inside his head?
Mycroft is a very complex and carefully crafted narrator. This is going to sound strange cause it’s a very different kind of thing, but I based his voice on [Denis] Diderot’s philosophical novel Jacques The Fatalist And His Master. In that novel, Diderot the narrator addresses the reader in this very playful yet intimate way, where he’s always baring himself to you and sharing ideas, about which he himself is uncertain or timid. Or he’s saying, I’m not telling you this thing right now because if I tell you it will confuse you but I will tell you later, I promise it’s for a good reason. And indeed, it was true, him withholding that wasn’t an act of manipulation or condescension; it was an act of realising that things told in X order will be clear and things told in Y order will be unclear.
I wanted to recreate that feeling of having an intimate personal relationship with the narrator that Diderot achieves. Because usually our first person narrator is either sort of a video camera through whose eyes we watch a world, or a stream of consciousness we watch go by, or someone we pretend to be. But with Mycroft Canner, you never imagine being Mycroft, you imagine sitting in a room with Mycroft who is talking to you, and you have a relationship with him, and he does well by you or he does badly by you. He messes up and he apologises to you and you get irritated at him, he apologises to you again. Much more like interacting with a person than watching a person. I wanted to recreate that.
So Mycroft is in a way an unreliable narrator, but you’re always conscious that he’s doing his best, and that everything he’s doing he’s doing because he genuinely can’t think of a better way to get this information across to the reader. So I would say in many ways rather than an unreliable narrator he’s an imperfect narrator, or a semi-successful narrator, who bares to you all of the ways in which he’s struggling to communicate something so complicated and also for him so emotionally vexed.
Writing genre fiction through the eyes of a character like Mycroft Canner poses a unique challenge, as not only are you placing a reader in an unfamiliar world which you have to build for them, but the reader is then going to have to try to extract the truth about the world from the untrustworthy perspective through which it is presented. How do you go about writing something like that?
Right, so at every stage I’m thinking to what degree will the reader trust him. What here will the reader believe, what here will the reader disbelieve? What here will the reader be questioning? Because the information the reader comes away with isn’t identical to the information the narrator tells you.
For example there’s one character Tully Mardi. The narrator obsessively hates Tully Mardi, and can’t look at Tully Mardi without hallucinating horribleness. And as a result, the reader comes away very acutely aware that we cannot trust what the narrator is saying about this character. Then the reader tries to think, okay what is this character probably really like? How do I filter out Mycroft’s bias?
Mycroft is a narrator whose biases are incredibly transparent, which paradoxically is less manipulative than a narrator whose biases are veiled, like a narrator who tells you someone is a bad person in such a way that you believe someone is a bad person. Mycroft tells you, “I think this person is a bad person, and I’m an insane person! So you shouldn’t believe me!” And you’re saying, “Alright, Mycroft, I won’t believe you! Cause you’re an insane person and I will try to make up my own mind.” And so it’s one of these odd places where Mycroft is so transparently biased that the bias itself invites the reader to make a more careful opinion.
For example, one group in the book are the Utopians. And Mycroft just loves the Utopians, and has nothing but the most glowing, positive, transcendent things to say about the Utopians. As a result of which I’ve talked to a number of readers who are very distrustful of the Utopians and say, “They must be up to something, everything Mycroft says about them is too perfect. It’s very suspicious!” And that’s the kind of result Mycroft’s twisty and complicated narration has. So it makes for an extra critical reader. And similarly when Mycroft uses gender pronouns in really weird ways, it makes you distrust all the pronouns. Because you know they’re not being used in a way that’s either standard or even standard for a typical use of pronouns. They’re being used in this bizarre way that only Mycroft uses pronouns and so you start to distrust all of them. Which in a way frees you from them, because you’re distrusting them so much.
I wanted to specifically ask you about the use of gendered pronouns in the book. The people of the 25th Century are supposed to be beyond gender, so using gendered pronouns is taboo. However Mycroft uses gendered pronouns in order to give the text the feel of an Enlightenment text, but he’s assigning it according to his bizarre misunderstandings of codified gender. Can you tell us more about the way you play with gender and pronouns in the text?
He says, forgive me my thees and thous and hes and shes, meaning that he’s inserting into the language these male and female pronouns that aren’t used anymore. And much like when we try to use thee and thou and get it wrong, he’s getting it wrong, from the standard of what would have been called standard usage. He’s using them in his own invented way he feels is authentically useful for the reader to understand what’s happening, but because he uses them so strangely we distrust them. And it makes us sit back and think, well, how do I feel differently about this scene given Mycroft is using a female pronoun for this person? How would I feel differently if Mycroft were using a male pronoun, or a genderless pronoun?
This is a world where all the speakers just use genderless pronouns, and all the dialogue is using ‘they’. Whereas it’s only the narration that is inserting these gender pronouns. And a lot of people’s experience when reading is to start hating and distrusting the gendered pronouns, and wishing for just ‘they’. Which is one of the goals of the book, to demonstrate how ‘he’ and ‘she’ can be very manipulative when used in normal language. And Mycroft is using them very manipulatively. So we start to prefer a world without gendered pronouns.
Specifically there’s the scene in book two where Dominc Seneschal is questioning Carlyle, and Mycroft changes from having used ‘he’ in the other book and switches over to using ‘she’.
In that case Mycroft says he was commanded to use ‘he’ in the first book and never wanted to use ‘he’, and now is rebelling against this command and using ‘she’. And it’s very disorienting, because even Mycroft isn’t quite sure why at that moment he’s choosing to commit this rebellion. And Mycroft has a long explanation of, “I think that I’m committing this act of rebellion out of respect for Carlyle’s own choices and that this reflects Carlyle’s identity correctly. But on the other hand, in this situation Carlyle is being made a victim, and is that why I’m thinking ‘she’ now instead of ‘he’?” So even Mycroft doesn’t know.
Similarly to how a lot of the time when we in everyday life catch ourselves making assumptions about people’s gender, we’re often not conscious of why and we sit down and try to come up with an explanation, we usually come up with the explanation that makes us feel as little sexist as possible. Which may not be the actual explanation. And so is Mycroft’s explanation there a post-rationalisation or is it not? Even Mycroft doesn’t know, and certainly the reader doesn’t know. So they distrust the pronouns and the instability of these pronouns.
The books deal heavily with theology and religion. Religious discussion amongst three or more people is banned, but people’s spiritual side is served by sensayers, whose job it is to discuss different theologies and religions with their clients and help them towards their own particular truth. In addition, there are characters like Bridger, a child who can turn toys into real objects, and J.E.D.D. Mason, an investigator who extracts confessions and disarms people using theology. Was it intentional to use these contradictions to ask questions about theology head-on?
In a sense, but also questions of how society resolves theology. Because this is a society where organised religion and public discussion of religion are banned and feared. But personal religion and having private beliefs are celebrated and expected. There’s a tension between that, but the two can coexist. And there I was really thinking of something you encounter sometimes in everyday life now.
I’ve lived in different parts of the USA. I’ve lived in Massachusetts which is a very liberal area and I’ve lived in Texas which is a very conservative area. And if you’re at a cocktail party and you’re meeting your colleagues’ spouses and you’re introducing each other and making small talk, in Texas one of the very first small talk questions will be what church do you go to? If you asked that as a small talk question in Massachusetts everyone would be incredibly uncomfortable. Because asking someone to bare their religious views in public is like looking up somebody’s skirt. It’s a private space.
But it’s not as if the people of Massachusetts are all atheists and endorse atheism. In fact, very few of them are. It’s that this is on the other side of the public/private barrier. And so there are people for whom the ideal of religious freedom is for religion to be banished from political discourse and the newspaper, but for all religions to be equally protected and practiced in a private, silent way. There’s some people for who that sounds like religious utopia. But there are other people for which that’s oppression. Because you wouldn’t be able to wear your holy symbol in public and you wouldn’t be able to go with your family to have your religious services.
So in creating a book where that way of doing religion is the only way that’s left, the main part of society has created an intentional tension and a polarising experience. Groups of readers will read this and react totally differently to whether this is a religious utopia or whether this is a religious dystopia. For some people they’ll say, “This sounds great, the best of all possible ways to have religion! Everyone has private religion, everyone has a sensayer to be their religious counsellor. No one pressures anyone else with their religion but everybody can explore ideas freely.” And others say, “But my family and my culture and my ability to get together and have a Sabbath or other things – taking that away would be oppression.” They don’t realise they have these contradictory ideals of religious freedom until they talk to each other about it.
Readers talking to each other about how the book made them feel brings out that tension. And I think it’s important for us as a society as we’re trying to figure out what is the best way for religion to coexist in modern life, is to realise there are those contradictory models of what is the ideal space for religion to occupy in society, and how can we make something that makes both of those population groups comfortable?
By making religion and genders taboo, the society in the books has made both more powerful. Did you explicitly want to explore this aspect of taboo and transgression?
That was a big part of what I wanted to get across. Again I very much used 18th Century Enlightenment literature as my model for this in a lot of ways. One of the odd experiences we have when we read Enlightenment literature is a lot of the things they were doing for their audiences were shocking and transgressive and exciting, but aren’t shocking and transgressive and exciting to us because we do them all the time, because that aspect of the Enlightenment was victorious.
The Marquis De Sade will write a pornographic scene that will break off in the middle for an analysis of politics and criticism of the king’s actions vis-à-vis taxation. And, we’re like, “This is kind of dry. What is this doing in the middle of a sex scene?” But for the readers at the time this was shocking and scandalous and exciting and taboo in the same way the sex scene was shocking and exciting and scandalous and taboo. So, it’s fascinating reading about a society’s taboos that you don’t have. You learn a lot about a society from seeing what in it is taboo, what is forbidden.
The opening pages of the book gives all of the censorship permissions and says all the different groups that have given permission for this to be published who could have censored it. And it also gives the ratings of how offensive it is, and how much religious discussion there is, and how much sex there is, and how much violence there is. And even just seeing that, you learn so much about a world by learning what it hates or fears and who has the power to censor something in it. The Mitsubishi Executive Director and the King of Spain have the ability to censor this book. That tells you a lot about the 25th Century. And religion, violence and sex are considered equally problematic elements of a text. That also tells you an enormous amount about the world where that would be the case.
Too Like The Lightning and Seven Surrenders are written in the style of Enlightenment texts, and are explicitly in dialogue with the ideas of Voltaire, Dennis Diderot, and de Sade. Was the Enlightenment approach always part of the process or did it develop as the idea developed?
Yes, very much so. Particularly when I read Voltaire’s short story “Micromegas”. It’s a science fiction short story. In it aliens come to the Earth, one of them from a world near the star Sirius, and one of them from Saturn. They come to the earth and encounter people and they have trouble communicating because the aliens are miles tall. But eventually they communicate with the little tiny humans, and as soon as they make first contact, they want to talk about how much you can deduce about God’s character from observation of nature, and whether Plato or Descartes was more correct about the ways solar bodies intersect with each other, and whether the heliocentric or geocentric set up of the cosmos tells you different things about whether the universe was designed for humankind. And we giggle, because these are not the questions we would imagine ourselves asking of an alien. But when we write first contact stories, we use them to explore the ideas that are hot topics for us.
Our first contact stories are about heroism, about the limits of the human and what it means to be human and whether technology takes us beyond the human. They’re about the Other and race and whether we can make peace with the Other or whether there is inherent tension with the Other, because these are the questions for us which weren’t the questions for Voltaire and vice versa. Every era asks its own hot topic questions of aliens in a first contact scenario. And I was amazed by seeing how different Voltaire’s extremely simple first contact story felt, not because the content was different, but because the ideas it was trying to get at were different.
I wanted to write science fiction that would use the ideal palette of an 18th Century science fiction story but all the sophistication of modern science fiction, with our flying cars and advanced technology and ideas of how future cities would be set up. I wanted to use a world that had all the strengths the genre has gained from Asimov and Heinlein but asked Voltaire’s questions about is there Providence? What can you tell about the nature of the maker of the universe from the universe itself? And the political questions of the Enlightenment, can religion and the government coexist? Because those questions have not been asked of a sophisticated science fiction world before.
Were there any political parallels between then and now that made you choose the Enlightenment as a model for the future?
Before the Lisbon earthquake, the Enlightenment was very, very much confident that this world was going well. That progress is going well. That progress is going fast. That pretty soon, the fruits of all these changes are going to come about.
And this doesn’t mean the early Enlightenment was naively confident it was making a utopian world. In fact, when you look at some of the more private writings of Enlightenment leaders like Diderot, they’re much more aware that they don’t know what the consequences are going to be of the changes they’re introducing. They are radically transforming education, they’re radically transforming all the citizenry, they’re giving the encyclopaedia and scientific knowledge to everyone, and encouraging everyone to question everything including social values and social mores. Diderot in particular, you see in his writings like Jacques The Fatalist and Rameau’s Nephew was aware of the fact that what they were really doing was destroying the society they lived in and they didn’t know what the attributes of the next society that developed would be. It wouldn’t share their values, it would be a society they themselves wouldn’t be comfortable in. But it would be more rational, and Diderot then had faith that a rational world would be better, even if it would not be a place comfortable for him.
It’s funny to say he has faith when he’s one of the most famous atheists in all of human history, but he had faith in reason, in that sense. Faith that it would bring about a world worth bringing about, and worth destroying his own world for. That is a very sophisticated relationship to have with progress. I think we often see, many of the tensions we’re having right now around liberalism and progress have to do with people enthusiastically supporting progress, thinking yes, I and my family and everyone will be better off, and then it advances a bit, and they’re like, wait a minute, this is changing things more than I expected. I am no longer comfortable in the new order that’s being created by this and now I feel like this is wrong. And they don’t recognise this is the nature of progress, and instead try to turn it into a progress has gone wrong because of something, we direct blame somewhere.
And we certainly right now live in a world full of political blame, more so than when I wrote these books. I think that was one of the questions I wanted to get at, is those figures in the Enlightenment like Diderot had a healthier if less optimistic relationship with progress than a lot of us do, in that they recognised progress is the act of destroying our world to make a better one. And the book asks many times this question, would you destroy this world to save a better one, or conversely would you destroy a better world to save this one, not meaning, you know, there are all multiple universes and inside another one there’s a better world than this. But if the future world will come about, that will be better than this one because of progress, will you destroy that to protect the world you already have and are comfortable in. And that’s a very important tension we don’t talk about very much but underlies almost all I think of our current, certainly political and social upheavals.
And the Enlightenment did talk about it. Not in a huge public way. The public face was always progress will make everything better. But the private face was no, progress will make everything better at the cost of making everything scary and uncomfortable for us, but better for those who come after.
The Terra Ignota books explore the idea of Utopias and dystopias, without being strictly one or the other. The future you describe is Utopian in some aspects, but horribly dystopian in others, and I can imagine what aspects one would file under either heading could change depending on perspective. What fascinates you about Utopias and dystopias, and was it fun to play with the ideas and set ups behind both?
I’ve loved dystopias for a long time. One of my first ever lengthy research papers was on early dystopias, Zamyatin, Orwell, and Huxley. I am interested in dystopia and utopia, and how we use them to explore ideas of directions the world could develop into, or alternate societies that could be better or worse. Especially because I’m a historian, I often ask myself the question, if you took somebody from time A forward to time B, and showed them around, what would they see? Would they see a dystopia? Would they see a utopia? And the answer is always both.
If we took Voltaire or Diderot and brought them to right now, and they looked around, and they said, we have an 80 year average lifespan, and we can cure all of these different diseases, and smallpox is gone, and you can fly around the world in a day and go to America and back without risking your life. And there is this enormous amount of food but hunger is still a problem, but it’s a problem of infrastructural distribution not of actual crop failure. They would be stunned by that. And books cost what a loaf of bread costs, instead of a month’s wages, and women have the vote, and all of this stuff. And yet, France doesn’t have an empire anymore. The supremacy of the society they came from has been broken. The French language is no longer dominant in the way that it was, and now has peer languages that co-dominate with it. They would find it difficult understanding how to live without servants, and how to live with the very different kinds of social class we have now to the kinds of social class they were used to living with.
So there would be things that would be indispensably precious to them that were gone. And other things they never even dreamed could be solved. Smallpox not existing is amazing. This is something Voltaire himself worked on. He campaigned for inoculation against smallpox. If you showed him we don’t have smallpox he would be overjoyed. On the other hand, he himself campaigned to get rid of judicial torture, and here it is back again. He campaigned to get rid of religious violence, and here it is being just as bad as it ever was, and it would be depressingly familiar. And so I think when anyone looks at the real future, it’s one third dystopia, one third utopia and one third depressingly familiar. And I wanted to write a book that was like that.
150 year lifespan, 20 hour work week, flying cars, you can have lunch in Paris and live in the Bahamas and go to work in Tokyo and this is no problem. Everyone can have field trips to the moon in science class, and there’s effectively no poverty, or at least, everyone has become sufficiently more affluent and the poorest people then are living as well as fairly affluent people now, and there is unprecedented political self-determination, and political freedom in that sense. But, on the other hand, there’s still uncomfortable race relations between East and West, gender is still not in a healthy space in this culture, and other aspects of it are depressingly familiar. And others, there’s censorship everywhere that no one even questions! Censorship is very dystopian to us but perfectly normal to them. So it’s a mixture. I wanted this book to feel to us the way I think now would feel to Voltaire.
The society in the book has also been shaped by the trackers, which allow the characters to be monitored by law enforcement all the time, and the set-sets, people bred as human computers. These are amongst the most frighteningly dystopian elements of the text. Are these elements you see in our own society that you wanted to explore the future of?
They’re really different. With the surveillance thing, we are getting very casual about surveillance. And one of the interesting things with the trackers is you can just switch them off. And we see people just switch them off. It’s a perfectly normal thing. Unlike in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, where for Winston the idea that you could turn off the telescreen was mind blowing. So it’s a situation where everyone is very casual, nobody questions it’s a good idea to have this. Which reflects in part that sometimes you get used to a thing someone from another era would say, “Wah! Don’t do that! That would be terrible!” These people have always had it, and don’t question it.
The other is the enormous degree of trust they have in their governments. Because this is a world where a citizen who’s dissatisfied with their government can leave within 24 hours, and be a citizen of a different nation. And so in a sense it’s a buyer’s market rather than a seller’s market of citizenship. Because if your government does something you disagree with, you leave in an instant and have a different government. The governments are held to a high degree of accountability to their people. And if their people don’t like what they’re doing, boom! Gone! Which makes people feel their government is working for them. Instead of feeling as we often do that the government is this big blob over here and we hope it’ll work and we complain when it doesn’t. But for them they’re like no, even the Masons which has a literal absolute monarchy, if they don’t like what their absolute monarch is doing, bam! You’re not a subject anymore. You go and join the Cousins and be huggy feely.
As a result of that, people trust the government with this information. And they think of it as, this is a benign caretaker I personally chose, I trust it with my information, if I feel they’re misusing my information, I’ll just leave. And the question is, is a surveillance state bad if the state is good? Because these states genuinely are. We see some of their underbellies, but even the ones with the darkest underbellies are all much better governments than most of the governments we have now. They’re probably the best governments that have existed in the history of human civilisation, in fact. Is the best state in human civilisation worthy of being trusted with surveillance? It’s an interesting question. Would a perfect government be one that you would trust with this, or is even a perfect government not something you should trust to be a surveillance state? Because you can think of this as well, I can check in on my friends at any time, if I’m ever in any trouble it will know, if I’m injured help will come and get me.
Right now the XPRIZE Foundation is working on a device you can carry that if you’re in trouble will summon help within 90 seconds. And it’s designed as a women’s safety thing, and the government of India is one of the financial backers. And it’s great, but it’s also surveillance state. On the one hand, it would be wonderful to walk through the city at night knowing if you were in trouble within 90 seconds help would be there, and everything would be okay. That would be wonderful. Does that create a surveillance state? Maybe. The organisers of the Let’s-Send-Police-To-Help-People-Who-Are-In-Danger are probably incredibly benevolent. Does it also have a secondary interest? So that’s the tracker system.
With the set-sets it’s a bit different. If you look over the past several centuries, or even zoom in on the past several decades, we’ve been through continuing levels of different “what is the social controversy of the day?”, and what is the sort of social cruelty that people are worried about now? Is it child labour? Is it workers being forced to put in long hours? Is it coal miners being exposed to dangerous chemicals? And we keep having these different frontiers where we discover a point at which people are being treated in a way we consider bad and we have a debate about it. Right now, one of the things since writing this book that has moved into a heated conversation is transgender children.
People are debating whether young kids have sufficient understanding of society to know the implications of choosing to be trans at that age? Are the guardians responsible, are schools responsible? Lots of people are making very, very earnest pleas, others are making very hatful ones, about whether this is good or bad or harmful, or in what ways it can be managed in order to be positive as much as possible. I wanted to imagine where that frontier would be in the future. What is the future space where such a debate could land? And the idea of these children who are raised connected to computers, so that they’re raised in a way that makes them really happy, but they are totally different from everyone else and really can’t interface with normal life, they can only interface with their computer life. But they really love their computer life!
It’s a great example of the kind of social debate we have been having over many different topics, and we still have. Is it ok to raise a child in such a way that they’re incredibly happy but also totally cut off from normal human interaction? And so that felt to me like a good realistic science fictional future arena where debate could be happening. And it gets at the larger question which the book asks a lot, whether it’s immoral in some way to raise a child so the child cannot have a sort of averagely normal life. Because that is the larger question being debated by this narrow question.
If you’re going to say no you can’t do that, what if you wanted to raise your child speaking a language few people speak? That also cuts the child off from others. Or what if you want to raise your child very much in a particular ethnic heritage or community, in such a way that they’re comfortable there and not elsewhere, and you can see if a law were passed banning set-sets, or banning raising children in that way, would people then aim this at Amish people, who raise their kids in a way that they’re very happy but not living among the majority of society? Then how small a minority does it have to be? Can an entire Hive, like the Utopians, be accused of raising their kids to not get along with the majority that is everyone who isn’t a Utopian, therefore do we want to ban Utopians from having children? There can be these slippery slopes if you imagine the possibility of that small debate widening into a large one.
The society in the Terra Ignota books is incredibly complicated and detailed. How much research and planning is involved in bringing something like that to life?
Tons! Five years of world building, then six months of outlining the entire series, all four books, before I sat down to write chapter one of book one. And the world building consists not only of coming up with stuff but writing elaborate timelines. I have a huge timeline of the history of the world from now to 2454, and I have spreadsheets of people’s relationships and ages and names and dates, and I have terminology, and the distribution of different voting blocks and different political groups and the history of art collecting, and fashion and a giant map with notes on every city with a population of 10 million or more, and what the political history and ratio of Hives is in that city. There’s a giant customised google map with millions of pins all over it. Dozens and dozens of them. Lots and lots of planning to make the fabric all the way through. But again as I said, I want to be able to interrogate this the way a historian does. And if I come to it with a historian’s question and there isn’t an answer here then the world isn’t mature yet. Which is what makes the world feel so thick and real and like it goes all the way down.
The books also feature a large cast of memorable characters. Which comes first, the society or the characters? Are both equally important to you?
Often a concept for a character and then a chunk of the world will come into being at the same time. I’ll get a notion for something. So for example we have Sniper, who is a professional living doll. And I just got the idea of wouldn’t that be interesting? Then I thought, ok if there were someone in this world who was a professional living doll, what would that mean? How would that interface with politics? How would that interface with the way sexuality is practiced in this world? How would that interface with the interesting gender stuff that I’m doing in this world? And so Sniper by coming into existence brought a bunch of content that then adds to the world. So the characters come into being as chunks of the world, often bringing with them relationships or the idea of, what if there is a character who has X problem? Well what circumstances would need to exist in this world for that character to have that problem?
Your books feature many characters with viewpoints very different to our own, whether Mycroft or Bridger or J.E.D.D. Mason. Which character was the most difficult to write?
Certainly when writing line by line dialogue, J.E.D.D. Mason is by far the most challenging character. I’ll sometimes spend a whole morning just doing one sentence or one paragraph of J.E.D.D. Mason saying things, because his language is very complex. What he is, is very complex. He has a huge build up before he shows up, you’ve heard the name in a bunch of different places and know this person has these close relationships of trust with all of the world leaders of politics and what is this person going to be like? And I knew that if I planned him with that much build up he had to be an order of magnitude stranger than the reader was imagining before getting to that point. And he is an order of magnitude stranger because of what he is and what he does and how he speaks. And that is very hard.
One of the least spoilery things I can say about him is that separate from everything else he’s a heptaglot. He was raised speaking seven different languages, and jumbles them up in his mind. So when I sit down to write a sentence, I’m thinking through what the sentence structure and word choice would be in Latin, in Japanese, in French, and producing a kind of stilted translation from different things. His sentences read much like when we’re in school and we have to translate a sentence and it comes out in what teachers often call ‘translationese’ rather than English. Where no English speaker would ever speak like that even though yes, I can tell what the sentence says.
In a way J.E.D.D. Mason speaks translationese not English, and all of his sentences have a lot of tension within the sentence itself, in terms of the words being almost too precise in their meaning so that you struggle to figure out exactly what he just said. And that takes a lot of time, but creates this strangeness that really sets him off as even weirder than a world full of weird people. Everyone else you’ve met is weird. And J.E.D.D. Mason is really weird, compared to even someone as strange as Dominic Seneschal or Cornel MASON or Sniper.
The plot of Too Like The Lightning is set off by the theft of the Seven-Ten list, something which seems trivial, but brings the world to the brink of collapse. How difficult was it to create the cultural context in which the reader can understand the importance of things we don’t really have analogues for?
Someone stole a draft of a newspaper article and dropped it in the trash. How can this start the avalanche that transforms the world? Mycroft promises you at the beginning that it does. Because that’s very frequently how major world events start. In order to understand how A leads to B you have to go through the whole system of the world. Think about how World War I got started. If you’re trying to explain this to an alien, and you’re like well there was an assassination in this place, and the next thing you know people from Australia and people from Turkey are killing each other a million miles away. And they would say, what? That doesn’t make any sense, this has nothing to do with that! And you have to go through well, this is allied with this, and historically these people and these others had this tension because there was a war four hundred years ago, and there was this family alliance and this and that. And we’re very accustomed to that idea, that sometimes there will be something that has big implications but you have to trace every step of the web.
I designed it that way because a) that’s how real history often operates and b) that’s a way we’re used to learning about history. We’re very used to learning about history from, okay, here’s A, it’s going to lead to B, now let’s find out how A leads to B. And so at the beginning you know there’s going to be a huge political upheaval of some sort, and it’s going to be caused by this strange moment, a theft of a newspaper draft. That makes the reader have a lot of patience. To say, okay I don’t see it, I will wait until I do.
The strange structure of the first two books, really, in as much as this is a whodunnit, the entire first book is learning what the ‘it’ is that someone has done. You don’t understand until the last page of book one exactly what has just happened. And so it’s a two part whodunnit in which the ‘whodun’ doesn’t begin until book two, because the entire first book is ‘it’. If you think of the structure of murder mysteries, usually that’s been gotten over with in the first chapter, and the rest is the ‘who’, but this is just the ‘it’, before you understand, because you can’t start to investigate who before you know, the full reach of ‘it’. The world is that interconnected, both our real world and this imagined future world. And so that is the way I found that I could bring people into this world and trace through knot after knot after knot so that everyone would see exactly how interrelated everything was. By the time you understand ‘it’ you also understand the entire political structure of this future.
The books explore radically different forms of governments and how they might co-exist, but also the potential for corruption and abuse of power. Is it as important to imagine the failings of new societies we dream up as well as their triumphs?
I think so. Especially keeping in mind we’re looking at this Hive system, this system of giant globe spanning, non-geographic nations, three hundred years into this system existing, and over that time the system has worked very well. It has also accumulated some negative elements. And I think we see that a lot in real government as well. A system will come into place and it will work well for a long time, but incremental changes will build up pressure on it. Whether it’s something like how, in the modern US, different groups have gradually gotten better at gaming the system, whether through gerrymandering or other forms of electoral manipulation, so the system of straight voting democracy is now less functional than it was before despite being the same system.
Or if you look at the Roman Empire, and how it worked, and then gradually developed until it didn’t work, and then switched systems. It was a republican empire and worked for a while, and then stopped working and switches over to being a monarchy and works for quite a while, and then has some convulsions and switches into a different form of monarchy, and keeps going for a while. We’re seeing a day of transformation being one in which this system that has worked better than any other government system in the history of the world, still has been accumulating flaws and is now reaching the day when those flaws will come to the surface, and some sort of way of dealing with them has to happen. It can no longer be postponed.
One thing that becomes clear, it was mentioned briefly but we’re reminded of it in book three, there used to be dozens of Hives. And over time the smaller ones have weakened and been swallowed up by the larger ones. Everyone used to grow up with the option of four dozen governments, and could pick which one reflected them best, and now you grow up with seven. Which is far more than we who grow up with one or maybe two have, but it is still a lot more limited than several dozen, and makes it much more possible for them to collude with each other. Much like how when corporations eat each other up until you have giant mega corporations. Those are threatening to common citizens in a different way, so similarly these mega Hives that have eaten up the earlier Hives have a different kind of weight.
The society in the books has been completely changed by the fact that flying cars exist. They are such a staple of golden age science fiction, but people have rarely thought about the impact this would have on global trade and nation states. Was it intentional to use something that on the surface is so retro-futuristic and really drill down into the implications?
Yeah, very much so. If we take this very simple retro-future classic concept, flying cars, and then say, no, really, flying cars. What would really happen if we really had flying cars? And often science fiction stories come from that. Of, oh here’s a fun idea that has been thrown in as aesthetic, as decoration, in another story but you’re saying, “No, no, no, what if really this?” Sometimes you’ll have a story where people very casually communicate with another planet, and then you say, “No, no, no, seriously, think about it, you can communicate with another planet, what does that do to your society?” Or sometimes it’ll be an artificial womb. Right? Artificial wombs. Yeah, we just have them. Or, artificial wombs, no really, artificial wombs, what does that do to the society?
The model I used, however, for thinking through the flying cars in a lot of ways was Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, which has easy teleportation come in. It does do a bit of exploration of what easy teleportation does to society, how it affects prisons, how it affects wealth and ostentation. I don’t think Bester builds his world as deeply as I built mine, because he was not a historian and so he wasn’t concerned with what fibres people’s clothes were made out of, but it was him thinking about this question that I used as my model of thinking about flying cars, no really, flying cars.
You are a composer and musician as well. What is it about folk music and Renaissance music that appeals to you, and does it feed into your writing?
A little bit. I really enjoy complicated close harmony. I also really enjoy what you can do when you have multiple lines going on at the same time, because you can make all kinds of emotional structure and emotional peaks that our usual method of one voice against instruments and potentially backup singers doesn’t have. For those familiar with the Les Misérables musical there’s that duet for Valjean and Javert in the middle called “Confrontation” where each of them is reviewing their grievances with the other and they’re yelling at each other at the same time with two sets of lyrics going on at once, and it’s incredibly emotionally powerful. I remember thinking, why aren’t all musicals two angry men yelling at each other for the whole musical? That would be so much more interesting.
I enjoy performing Renaissance music, especially rare stuff that hasn’t been performed in modernity. I’m working on recording a couple of pieces that there are no recordings of, singing with friends. But when I compose, I’m usually composing complicated narrative music. So I have a song cycle of Viking mythology set to music, based very closely on the prose and Poetic Eddas. Which is telling these complicated and contradictory stories at the same time, because the primary sources we have for Viking mythology contradict each other. And when you’re doing it in a song with harmony, you can have one voice singing the version that’s in Snorri’s prose Edda and a different voice singing the version that’s in the Poetic Edda, and they contradict each other. That way you get the only accurate narrative. Because the only accurate narrative is the one that acknowledges the narratives are contradictory.
So I have a bunch of songs. There’s the creation myth song, there’s the murder of Baldur, Ragnarok song, there’s “My Brother, My Enemy”, which is an angry duet for Odin and Loki, and these fit together into a narrative. We had a big concert at Helsinki Worldcon, which was really great. And really well attended. And yeah, it’s another way of telling stories and crafting emotion.
When I was a tiny kid I was part of an experimental programme to try to teach the Peabody music theory stuff that’s usually done in advanced or college level to little kids. And it worked. I’m still composing very complicated story stuff. So it meshes in that way. But then also I’ll sometimes explore, in a song, ideas that are explored in the books. There’s a song called “Somebody Will” which is about space exploration, where I explore some of the ideas that are in Too Like The Lightning. I’ve had a number of people ask me, is that the Utopian anthem? And I was like, not officially but yes, it’s the Utopian anthem. And the next novel series I’m going to do after this four book series is over is going to be Vikings and will use a lot of the same ideas I’m doing with music.
Seven Surrenders was published in the states earlier this year, Too Like The Lightning is being published in the UK now, and book three, The Will To Battle, is being published in the states in December. What’s next for Ada Palmer?
So this is four books. I’m working on the fourth book, which is coming well. A little slowly because I was up for tenure last year, but it’s coming. After that’s done, I world build very far in advance, but I world build multiple worlds at once. So I’ve got four more worlds built that are fully mature enough to set a series in. The next one planned is the Viking Norse mythology one, and then I have a couple more after that. I’m not quite sure which order they’ll come in. It’ll depend on how mature or ready they are. But yeah, I have a number of worlds I’m working on.
One of them is very difficult to describe. One of them is extremely dark. Everyone who’s been saying, “It’s so nice seeing Terra Ignota be positive and kind of utopian in contrast to all this grimdark stuff,” are going to be really surprised when I get to that one! Compared to normal grim and dark things this is grimmer and darker. But a cool world and a cool story. So that will come up at some point. But that one, I don’t know how to describe the genre, sort of survival horror? Vikings and then survival horror will follow utopian future.
Any short stories?
I admire people who can write short stories. I keep trying to write short stories but… I’ve started one.
No I do admire people who can manage short stories. It’s a very different medium. And I read a lot of short stories, hoping that I will learn the structure but nothing I come up with is ever short!
Thank you so much Ada Palmer for speaking to us, and to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for hosting us!