ASK A PROPHET | Ada Palmer's Sci-Fi Novels Are Historical Fictions From the Deep Future

Palmer talks about her new book 'Too Like The Lightning,' and why the future the Golden Age of sci-fi imagined was wrong. 


In Ask a Prophet, we use our alien probes on the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers. This week, we spoke to author Ada Palmer, whose work is often between the language she employs and the story she tells. Her writing style resembles Dickens, but her dystopian preoccupations are much more Frank Herbert or Isaac Asimov. Her latest book, the first in the Terra Ignota series, is just out from Tor Books and follows two men, a convict who must atone for his crimes through itinerant community service and a spiritual adviser in a world nearly devoid of spirituality. It’s a bit Candide and a bit Starship Troopers, but mostly it’s an unnerving look into the future, as projected by the past.

You call your work ‘future historical fiction.’ Where did that idea come from?

It reflects two things. First, the narrative voice that it’s written in is this 18th century period style. Lots of historical fiction will imitate a historical voice, but not generally science fiction. In that sense, it’s science fiction but it also feels like historical fiction. The other has to do with the way that I set up the future. The narrator is constantly talking about the events from the past, such as the 22nd century — which is the past for the narrator. It’s very uncommon for things set in the future to look at the past this much. We tend to look forward from the present or backward from the present. This book is trying to look backward from the future.

What was most difficult part of writing the story?

Trying to keep pace with advances in the present in the time between when I started designing the world and when the book is actually being published. Even when you’re trying to design something far in the future and the short term changes of what’s happening in the present shouldn’t affect what you build into your world — it does affect the degree to which a reader is thinking about your world. For example, the book touches on transgender issues. When I first wrote it, there wasn’t a very substantial public conversation yet. That conversation has really picked up momentum in the last couple years, which meant I needed to change the way the characters talk about it. Now my reader is familiar with it.

What’s the most interesting thing that didn’t make it into the book?

How the judicial system works. People’s nationality doesn’t match the geography. People are members of governments but the governments are without territory, and people are members of each government live all over the place. And you’re governed by your set of laws, which are not the same set of laws as your next door neighbor, probably. This sounds like it would be implausibly complicated, but historically speaking, this happened all the time. If you look at Europe in the Middle Ages with church law that is separate from regular law, you may very well have a murder happen in one house and be under one legal code and happen in the abbey next door and be under completely different judicial systems. It’s something we’ve taken care of in the past, and I think we could handle in the future. I’ve worked out lots of details of how that works.

Why do you think in general we’ve seen more dystopian stories than utopian? And what made you decide you wanted utopian?

There’s a lot of negative rhetoric in political discourse. I think the discourse of fear and anxiety that is part of our public space is one of the reasons. I also think we’ve hit an interesting crisis entering the new millennium. Earlier science fiction — especially golden age science fiction — had the idea that our exciting, super high-tech space-faring future was going to come really fast. If you think of the second Back to the Future movie, in 2015 they have flying cars and all of these things that we don’t have now. A lot of older science fiction works are set around now with humanity much more advanced than we are. The future has come more slowly than science fiction used to promise.

One of the things that’s set up — not just for science fiction readers but broadly culturally — is this kind of frustration and disappointment with the world of tomorrow, which feels as though it hasn’t come in time. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature are part of a response to that. It’s not a happy Star Trek deep space adventures future, but depicting that somehow, we cut off from our rightful good future.

But we’re just entering a space in which it’s possible to start exploring the possibilities that there is a future and it’s a good future, but it’s a slow future. It’s realistic to look at Earth several centuries in the future and say, ‘Well, it’s going to be a little farther but the majority of human society may well be on Earth in 400 years’ and start asking what that culture will look like. Later 20th century science fiction was unrealistic in most people’s imagination to think that in a few centuries we would be still on Earth unless something terrible disrupted our natural path to the stars.

Setting utopia farther off than we usually look at Earth society is a way of trying to start exploring a new space that is newly plausible in science fiction. The longer future of Earth, space, and society.

What excites you most about the direction that sci-fi is going in?

A lot of interesting, new voices are starting up. The conversation of science fiction fandom is in a sophisticated place right now so that lots of authors are not just writing books but are writing books that are responding to an interesting conversation. A conversation about inclusion and diversity, not only in the straightforward sense but just trying to bring more variety, more subjects and point of views into science fiction. That’s good even if you’re not someone who cares deeply about diversity as a political platform. I was watching Gotham recently, the TV series, and it has very dedicated fans who love it.

The first season has an African-American female mob boss. In the second season she was replaced by a white, male mob boss and he was just less interesting. We’ve seen three thousand white male mob bosses and like 12 female mob bosses. Whatever your political views are, having a diverse science fiction is the key to having new, interesting science fiction.

An important element in [Too like The Lightning] is it looking at a future that doesn’t think the 20th century is the most important century. Frequently when we look at science fiction, people in Star Trek all know the general modern WWII history. My future is one where, what if it’s not the 20th century that becomes the deep and seminal one in human history? What if it’s the 19th century? Or the century that people think of as foundational is not now, but is the century in the future from now? Now is one of the less-celebrated centuries, like the less celebrated antiquities. That’s something we don’t speculate about much. We think a lot about what’s privileged in science fiction — whether its privileging the west, white people, males. One of the things we almost always privilege is the 20th and 21st centuries, granting that they will somehow be extremely important to the formation of later things. What will the future look like if we’re not privileged in that way?