As a child in Maryland, Ada Palmer was looking for a Dr. Seuss book at the public library when she stumbled upon something that would change her life—a mis-shelved copy of The Hobbit. One book led to another, and Palmer fell in love with science fiction and fantasy.
The fictional worlds described in those novels, “full of places and customs and assumptions that you don't understand,” inspired Palmer’s second great love—history. Specifically, the history of ideas.
Today, Palmer is an assistant professor of European history at the University of Chicago. She lives nearby in Hyde Park, where she can see the Museum of Science and History from her window. That museum plays a role in her award-winning series of science fiction novels, called Terra Ignota. In her near-utopian vision of the 25th century, flying cars can cross the globe in minutes, people join whatever non-geographic nation they choose, poverty and disease have been all but eradicated, and 150-year lifespans have become the norm.
What makes these books so special? First of all, even though they’re set 400 years in the future, they’re written in the language of the Enlightenment (think Voltaire’s Candide), because that era’s culture and philosophy has come back into vogue. Secondly, despite our current obsession with dystopian fiction (Black Mirror, The Handmaid’s Tale), Palmer is more interested in our progress toward utopia and its potential costs.
The first book in the series, Too Like the Lightning, won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, an honor previously bestowed upon Andy Weir (The Martian) and Chicago sci-fi/fantasy stars Mary Robinette Kowal and Wes Chu. Released last spring, the second novel Seven Surrenders ended with a mind-blowing twist.
The third novel, The Will to Battle, is out now. I caught up with Palmer to talk about the future, whether or not we’re living in a real-world dystopia, and why her novels don’t say much about what happened to America.
Where did the idea for Terra Ignota come from?
I was sitting through a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet and I heard the line…
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens”
… which later became the title of the first book, Too Like the Lightning. The instant I heard that line, I had this idea for a narrative. There would be something enormously precious, and then halfway through the narrative, that thing would be lost.
So then I started asking, what would be so precious? What kind of world could have it? I gradually developed this world that is somewhere between utopia and dystopia, that has so many things we desperately want—world peace, an unprecedented degree of political self-determination, a 20-hour work week, and the end of violence, particularly religious violence. But it also has elements that should set off quasi-dystopian warning bells.
It's fascinating that it all started with that line!
Yeah! The other big component that came fairly early was the Hive system, these non-geographic nations. That came from my time at Harvard, when I was living and working with groups of international scholars. A lot of them were from fascinating international families, where the mother is from Australia, the father is from Italy, and the children were born in London but spent their first couple years in France.
The children spoke this amazing, homemade mixture of five different languages. And the parents would talk about the different citizenships that they were eligible for, and which one they thought their children would be best served by. It made me think—imagine if we all got to have that conversation instead of being born automatically into one citizenship?
Do you think non-geographical nations will inevitably happen in the real world?
I don't think they will inevitably happen, but I think it’s plausible. Right now we’re experiencing a lot of economic, social, and political turmoil related to diaspora. If you make a list of the top 100 people you interact with, many of those people don’t live where you do. That wasn't nearly as true even a few decades ago. Instantaneous communications wasn’t on anyone's radar several centuries ago. But a lot of the problems we're seeing right now come from the fact that we don't have a good system for dealing with groups of people who have shared interests and shared needs.
Your time in Europe clearly made a huge impact on these books. Has your life in Chicago made an impact?
I finished the first three books before I got a job in Chicago, and now I live two blocks away from the Museum of Science and Industry. I visited the museum as a kid because my dad was from Downers Grove. The MSI was one of the little pieces of America I wanted to appear in the books.
There's this big conspicuous silence about what happened to America in the story. We hear a lot about the European Union, China, Korea, Japan, and India, but not America, which is incredibly conspicuous because science fiction is usually about what happened to America, or Russia, sometimes China, sometimes England.
So I played with that intentional silence, and the Museum of Science and Industry was a perfect choice, because if you know it exists, it doesn't necessarily tell you whether the city still exists. And it doesn't tell you what happened to Washington, D.C. For once, Americans get to taste this. What happened to my country? Normally, almost every country in the world experiences that feeling when reading science fiction, so that was one of my goals. That, and you can do a lot of world-building through silence.
How is The Will to Battle different from the first two?
It’s the difference between a history and a chronicle. A history is written by somebody after the fact—someone who knows what happened, who wants to tell a particular story and can therefore do analytic work like framing and foreshadowing. In the first two books, the narrator knows everything that happened when he starts writing. In the third and fourth books, he doesn’t know the endpoint; he’s writing a chronicle as it's happening. So the narrator is much less certain of what's happening, of what’s important and what's not important.
What are we looking at on the cover of The Will to Battle?
That’s Esperanza City, the first and largest city in Antarctica. It’s going to be the first city in Antarctica to host the summer Olympics
I love all three covers and I can't wait to see the fourth one.
I don't get to pick the covers, but they told me they wanted cityscapes and asked me to suggest which cities. For the first one I suggested Cielo de Pajaros [in Chile] and they liked that idea. For the second one I suggested Paris, but they preferred Romanova. For the final book, I’m going to suggest three different cities and I don't know which one they'll pick.
Which Hive would you join?
That's my answer, too.
Well, I think there's some selection bias in the kind of people who would read these books! But yes, I work very hard on building a better future. I spend a lot of time studying the history of progress.
Ever since Brexit and the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., many people have asked if we’re living in a real-world, present-day dystopia. How do you respond to that?
I often have students in class, especially after the presidential election last year, who feel like things are worse now than they've ever been. But if you're a historian, it's a very easy “no.”
Things are not worse now than they’ve ever been. Things are hard. Things need a lot of work. It wasn't until the 19th century that science got good enough to make technologies and social changes. We're still learning how to master that incredibly elaborate process, but we are making progress, and we are getting better at it.
If you’re capable of saying “we’re in a dystopia,” you're not in a real dystopia like Orwell and Huxley described. We live in a world filled with vocabulary and tools for talking about tyranny, dystopia, and totalitarianism. For me, Trump's election is not proof that we are in a hopeless dystopia because within a week of the election, copies of Orwell's 1984 sold out all over the world. We immediately recognized it for what it was.