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Why Read a Utopian Novel in 2017?

Science-fiction author and historian Ada Palmer challenges readers to imagine a difficult future in which the world has solved some of its most pressing problems only to create new ones.
The first and second books in Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series.

The first and second books in Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series.

57th Street Books is a large bookstore sprawling through the basement of a brownstone just two blocks off the main campus of the University of Chicago. Bestsellers gleam invitingly in the front room; in the back, a broad collection of esoteric books about history, mythology, and magic, among dozens of other topics, turns the store into a hall of literary curiosities.

One day last March, Ada Palmer, an emerging star of science fiction, sat down at a small table here to launch the second book of the Terra Ignota series, Seven Surrenders. Her first book, Too Like the Lightning, nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel in April, introduced readers to a future in which rapid and cheap transit allows one to cross the planet in a little under two hours. It's a future in which everyone has enough to eat; "citizenship" no longer depends on geography, but on vocation or values; and gender norming and religion are both taboo. Peace is seemingly here at last, but society has made tradeoffs for these advances—Terra Ignota is a surveillance state.

Palmer came up with the idea of post-geography nationhood years ago, long before red and blue maps proliferated online after the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Someday, Palmer's work suggests, whether through virtual realities or rapid transit, humans will erode contemporary geographic borders. At the same time, her work suggests, we'll find new ways to divide ourselves—into interest-based factions devoted to pleasures and sport, versus those who want only power, for instance.

Over the course of an hour in Chicago, I sat down with Palmer in front of a small audience to discuss her work. We talked about her choice to introduce magic or miracles into an otherwise technology-driven fantasy, and the links between her work as a historian and her visions of a weird future. An excerpt from our conversation appears below.


What do newcomers need to know to get us into Terra Ignota, your debut series?

In the 25th century there are no longer geographic nations or geographically oriented citizenship. There is a system of automated flying cars that are so fast that they can get you anywhere in the world to anywhere else in the world in about two hours, which means the whole world is in commuting distance from the rest of it. You can live in the Bahamas and work in Tokyo and have lunch in Paris and your spouse or roommate can also live in the Bahamas but work in Antarctica and have lunch in Buenos Aires, and this is a perfectly reasonable day. Socially speaking, that sort of collapses the world.

Ada Palmer.

Ada Palmer.

Within the first few pages of Book One, you introduce Bridger, a boy who can work miracles. Why did you add this fantasy element to your sci-fi?

Bridger is a 13-year-old boy who has been raised in secret. He has—it seems—the ability to touch the representation of anything and make it become a real thing. So he has some plastic soldiers he brought to life when he was little, and a toy dog, and a doll called "Mamma Doll" that does all the cooking.

The very first idea was inspired from the line in Romeo and Juliet, "Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be. Ere one can say 'It lightens.'" I was sitting in the audience waiting for a friend's rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet and it made me think about a particular way to structure a narrative [with] something incredibly precious. No matter how important the other things are that are going on, it's more important than that. I have [world-spanning] politics [in the book] and the most important power in the world may be about to fall, but that doesn't matter compared to Bridger's power.

That sounds like the opposite of a MacGuffin, a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock to refer to a generic plot device intended to spur the characters into action.

Right, it's the opposite. Everything else, no matter how important, is a mere MacGuffin in comparison to this new thing. I wanted to depict characters who were struggling to grapple with the pressure, and characters saying, "I worked my life for this incredibly important political thing and I'm gonna walk away" because of what Bridger means.

In science fiction, that anti-MacGuffin force is often aliens.

Yeah. And it's exactly the same narrative strength of an alien thing and the stakes have to be really high where you can say, "Would you rather have world peace or contact with aliens?"

Let's talk about world peace. Since the election of Donald Trump, there's been a lot of talk about dystopia. 1984 hit the bestseller list. The Handmaid's Tale is now on television. You've written a future that looks like a utopia, and you study an era, the Renaissance, that thought it was pretty good.

The Renaissance is so much worse than the Medieval period, so much worse. My favorite single line from anything from the Renaissance is this letter [from a friend] to Machiavelli, who had been writing a history of Florence and stopped partway through. His friend wrote, "Machiavelli, you must finish your history of Florence because without a good history of this period, future generations will never believe how bad it was and they will never forgive us for losing so much so quickly." That's the on-the-ground experience of being in the Renaissance—that it felt apocalyptic to so many of them.

The wars got bigger and bloodier, faster, and a lot of this is because of progress. Progress means more wealth and faster trade. Faster trade means diseases spread more rapidly; more wealth means armies are larger and better equipped, wars are deadlier, and all of these things makes the life expectancy go down. Wealthier, denser, more prosperous cities cram more people into a small area with more wealth and higher-stakes politics, which leads to more murder, more street violence, more upheaval. It's terrible.

But they were obsessed with the Classical era?

Everyone in the Renaissance had really strong opinions about every single ancient Roman poet and which ones were better, which were their best works, and [even] which were their best adverbs.

And how does your historical work then translate to the 25th century?

I wanted to show a future that was also using history as much as we use history. Eighteenth-century ideas are transformative in this 25th century exactly as the re-appropriated and transformed Classical ideas were a powerful catalyst of the changes that happened in the Renaissance. If we really want to talk about differences between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it's not that the Renaissance is better, but that the Renaissance is doing this active appropriation of antiquity, and using it to try to transform itself into something different.

Why write a utopia? What do we, as readers, get out of a utopia in this moment, when dystopias are dominating bestseller lists? You create a world that's basically working.

"Basically working" is a good descriptor because what I was after was a world that feels to us the way I think our present would feel to Voltaire—a lot of things are better. We've eradicated smallpox, our life expectancy is up, the frequency with which women die in childbirth is way down. Women have the vote.

But there's a whole bunch of other things that aren't better. If Voltaire looked forward he would say: "You guys are still working on eradicating judicial torture? We practically wiped it out in my lifetime, I was sure we were done."

I wanted to depict that—a future that is difficult. Wow, I can have a 20-hour work week, a 150-year lifespan, I can live anywhere on Earth I want to, and still see all of my friends whenever I want, and there's been 300 years of world peace. And yet there's censorship, and people are still incompetent about gender and [some] race relations, and some things that are incredibly precious to us, like religious freedom, are gone. That isn't an easy utopia. That is also not a dystopia.

I wanted to push the reader and ask—if that were the future your efforts built, would you feel your efforts had paid off?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.