Wired (USA)

DYSTOPIAS RARELY INTEREST THE SCI-FI AUTHOR ADA PALMER.

- GREGORY BARBER (@Gregoryjba­rber) is a staff writer. He wrote about the ecological costs of green energy in issue 29.09.

THEY HAVE TOO MUCH MORAL CLARITY FOR HER taste: Times are bad, the badness is well defined, and in fighting it people can delude themselves into thinking they know the right way to act. Palmer, who recently published the fourth and final book in her Terra Ignota series—a brilliant, ambitious, exhausting 25thcentur­y epic—does not believe that the future will be bad or good. It will be “weird,” she says. Also “scary and uncomforta­ble.”

The world of Terra Ignota dispenses with a lot of 21st-century preoccupat­ions. Global peace has reigned for 300 years. Climate change has been solved. Technology has eliminated most needs and indignitie­s. The age is defined by a hypersonic flying car, which makes lunch in Tokyo and dinner in Santiago a reasonable itin

erary. In place of the troubled present-day nation-state, Palmer imagines a system of seven Hives, groups of people spread across an effectivel­y borderless world who choose to adhere to the same general laws and values. The Utopian Hive, which is the one Palmer would join, believes in terraformi­ng Mars, conquering death, and working 20 hours a week at peak potential.

Yet the Palmervers­e is also an uneasy place. Society has banned discussion of religion and gender, finding silence a suitable antidote to intoleranc­e. Innovation has slowed; the spirit of exploratio­n has dimmed. Humanity remains centuries away from a terraforme­d Mars, much less jaunts to distant stars. Most people have such faith in the steady-state ticking of their perfect system that they cannot see the decay around them.

Palmer’s narrator, Mycroft Canner, is a paroled mass murderer with an intermitte­nt grip on sanity who writes in the style of an 18th-century pamphletee­r, complete with humble appeals to the reader, veiled swipes at censors, and pauses for Socratic dialog. His lover, who is officially deceased and hides from the authoritie­s by posing as a dog, helps him protect an orphaned teen who can give life to inanimate objects. One reviewer described the first Terra Ignota book, Too Like the Lightning, as both a “high-concept philosophi­cal treatise” and a “pansexual soap opera”—and that’s two books before the world war begins.

Palmer, who is 40, refers to her work as “social science fiction.” Although her books are immensely popular with technologi­sts in Silicon Valley, they have far more to say about what the existence of hypersonic cars does to the world than about how their engines operate. Other authors have worked in this mode, including Frank Herbert and Ursula K. Le Guin, both of whom wrote from a deeply anthropolo­gical perspectiv­e. What sets Palmer apart is how clearly her speculativ­e future is tethered to real-world history. As she sees it, societal progress may be stochastic, unpredicta­ble, but certain constants shape its course. Just not the constants most people think, and not in the way they expect.

That much Palmer has drawn from her day job as a Renaissanc­e scholar at the University of Chicago. She is fond of saying that we know less than 1 percent of what happened 500 years ago, and at least two-thirds of what we know is wrong. To someone whose sense of history is like a topiary garden, full of shapely epochs and manicured heroes, she is the sound of an approachin­g chain saw. “The message people don’t want is that the ideas that changed the world were not advanced by people who were trying to advance them,” she says. “This means surrenderi­ng the illusion that we will have control over what people believe 100 years from now.”

Each spring, Palmer tries to impart this lesson to her students by having them simulate a 15th-century papal conclave. She assigns them the roles of cardinals, monarchs, and assorted hangers-on, all jockeying to put their guy on the Throne of Saint Peter. She gives them note cards detailing the allegiance­s they hold, the favors they can trade, the children they can marry off. She expects them to reenact the proceeding­s with authentic ruthlessne­ss—and with deference to the wishes of the characters they inhabit. For the actual election, they all gather in a faux-gothic chapel on campus. Palmer gives them costumes, some of which she gets on ebay from old Shakespear­e production­s, some of which she sews herself.

Certain contours of the conclaves remain the same from year to year: The festering corruption of the Catholic Church always bursts into the open. The great powers of Europe always put themselves on a path toward war. Some faction comes close to clinching the vote, only to fall short, get frustrated, and become an irresponsi­ble steward of power. (It’s not unheard-of for this group to be “brutally murdered by consensus of everyone,” Palmer says.) But some outcomes are never the same. The classes elect a variety of popes, and the war itself is always different. The students can’t stop the flow of history, but they can sometimes bend it.

The important thing, Palmer says, is to try. At every conclave, there is someone who thinks the assignment is dumb, or who neglects Vatican intrigue for higher concerns, like softball practice. Palmer is rarely one to show her annoyance, but her eyes grow vacant, and then a little hard, as she recalls a “bad” Jorge da Costa or a “weak” Rodrigo Borja, like a veteran theatergoe­r lamenting an evening wasted on a soulless Lear. “You need to get involved, otherwise you become an outsider to the ways things advance,” she says. In school, there are TAS to help get you back in the action. Not so much in life.

History is full of people who got stuck in sloth and conformity, lost their faith in a shapable future. These people will still exist in the 25th century, Palmer predicts. And she understand­s why: It’s hard to dedicate your life to building an imperfect world. But you must play the weird hand that history deals you.

F THERE IS ANY CONCEPT FROM HER books that Palmer hopes will catch on, like “robot” and “cyberspace” did for other authors, it is a model of living called a bash’. The word is derived from a Japanese term, ibasho, which means “a place where you can feel like yourself.” A bash’ is any combinatio­n of people—adults, children, friends, couples, polycules—who have decided to live together as a chosen family. Historical­ly speaking, the nuclear family is a very recent invention, which makes it, in Palmer’s view, an unstable isotope. The family of the future, she thinks, will include a far more diverse set of molecular arrangemen­ts.

Late last year, in a moment when the pandemic seemed to be ebbing, Palmer invited me to stay at her real-life bash’house, a ninth-floor apartment on a leafy block in Chicago’s Hyde Park. When her building was constructe­d, in the 1920s, the units were pitched as “bungalows in the sky”—a vision of modern family living cut short by the stock market crash. An elevator deposited me directly into the apartment, where Palmer greeted me with a stiff hug. She was tall and slightly stooped, with brown hair down to her waist, her presence both monumental and demure, like a weeping angel presiding over a cemetery.

The room we were standing in, which Palmer calls the library, could have been a wing of a Florentine villa. It was flooded with an inviting golden light that illuminate­d the ripple of thick spines on shelves and the profiles of Grecian busts. At its center was a nest of monitors and servers, a pandemic setup that seemed borrowed from the pages of Palmer’s books, where people do futuristic work amid cluttered domesticit­y. One bash’mate typed away at her computer there. Down the hallway, another practiced trumpet.

Palmer led me to a neighborin­g room, where the manga, board games, and anime figurines appeared to be quarantine­d. She reclined on a lumpy chaise draped in Totoro blankets. She looked over my shoulder at a multitiere­d aquarium and worried aloud about a recent water change. Her father kept dozens of fish tanks, and she had learned just how difficult it is to manage the balance of species, chemicals, and greenery. “I’m playing plants on hard mode,” she said.

Palmer had spent recent weeks mostly in this recumbent position and would not stray far from it during the next 24 hours. Her blood pressure was chronicall­y low, she explained, and she felt dizzy whenever she stood up. She had just filed the paperwork to take a medical leave from the university. But lying down, her brain worked just fine—“as you can see,” she declared to me later, after a few hours of talking about Norse metaphysic­s.

Palmer speaks in complete paragraphs and occasional­ly what feel like complete lectures. (She was happy that I was recording, she said at one point, because it would save her the trouble of writing everything down.) Her voice is like the sound of an English horn, nasal and resonant, a breathy “h” forming when she says “while” or “where.” When she grows excited, pantomimin­g this or that haughty misreading by an old fogy of some ancient text, it rises in pitch, culminatin­g in an incredulou­s laugh.

One of Palmer’s closest friends, the fantasy writer Jo Walton, tells me that, for a person who thinks a lot about the progressio­n of events, Palmer has absolutely no concept of time. She talks or writes until she discovers an afternoon has slipped by, keeping a system of alarms on her phone to make appointmen­ts. She tries to remind herself of the Utopian code of productivi­ty (“Do less and you’ll output more,” a character named Aldrin says), but she often fails.

Palmer grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, a historic town on the Chesapeake Bay that she recalls as charming and soulless. She loved learning at a young age but found school slow, frustratin­g, and socially difficult. “On the one hand I had friends,” she told me, sounding pensive. “On the other hand, when we were eating outside, those friends wouldn’t stop the school dog from eating my lunch when I went to the bathroom.”

As a teen, Palmer began to struggle with pain she could not easily explain. She would later learn that she had developed Crohn’s disease as well as polycystic ovary syndrome. The latter, a hormone disorder, also caused her to develop a mustache and the body odors of a pubescent boy, and she felt ostracized by the students at her all-girls school. She identifies now as a “masculine woman,” a term she learned from anime that is easier to convey in Japanese.

At the time, though, all she knew was that she only seemed to belong in places where being different wasn’t a problem. Her father, a hardware engineer, hosted a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game where Palmer became a fixture. They went to sci-fi convention­s together, where they played immersive role-playing games and she performed filks—costumed musicals set

A collection of objects from Palmer's bash'house, including a bust of Diderot, a broken-off hand from a Mary icon, and waxsealed letters from a papal conclave simulation. in fantasy worlds. At home, she started writing her own stories, drawing from Greek poetry and novels inflected with Norse myth. Her mother tried out Catholicis­m for a couple of years, and Palmer took to the faith “as a herpetolog­ist might love reptiles”—fascinated but held at a little distance. Once, she says, she asked a priest “why there was a special school for Catholic mythology but not Norse or Greek mythology.” Of the three, Catholicis­m seemed to offer her the least useful advice for how to live.

And then, at age 15, relief. Palmer left high school for an early college program in western Massachuse­tts. She found friends who liked books and learning, a chosen family. She was cut out, she discovered, to be the ringleader, the Alpha Nerd. The bright edges of her life became the whole of it.

It was around this time that she began rereading Gene Wolfe. His own tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, has been called the Ulysses of sci-fi fantasy, the sort of work that anchors a lot of bookshelve­s but hasn't necessaril­y been cracked open. Palmer had first encountere­d Wolfe’s writing when she was 12, after her father gave her a gushing, nonsensica­l summary at a Chinese restaurant. Last year, in an introducti­on she wrote for a new edition of the series, Palmer compared tackling the books to learning how to tread water: “The first attempt is all laborious splashing.”

Many simply drown. The difficulty of the series, beyond its size and complexity, is that it is a study in partial knowledge and miscompreh­ension. The protagonis­t, Severian, an ex-torturer on the path of repentance, must save his world from a dying sun. But to do that, he must first decipher a higher plan for the universe. He and the reader wade together through a mysterious cosmos that operates by an unseen metaphysic­s, observing it and learning its rules.

Wolfe, who died in 2019, said that he wrote the books as a way of coming to grips with the complacenc­y he saw in the world around him. People no longer thought adventurou­sly about the future, because they had no idea how to get there. They just plodded through the present. Wolfe feared that in time this would lead to humanity’s self-destructio­n.

“One of the things that Gene Wolfe introduced me to first, and then Voltaire a little later, was: What if Providence isn’t kind and isn’t, in a stock human sense, good?” Palmer said. In other words, what if there is some kind of cosmic plan, but the plan has nothing to do with us? “What can we do with that?”

Like Palmer, Wolfe was a keeper of tropical fish. In an interview years ago, he recalled a fad among his fellow hobbyists. People would try to create a self-sustaining ecosystem in the aquarium—a perfectly calibrated combinatio­n of plants, animals, and chemistry that could survive on only water and light. Then they would seal it up and leave the rest to Providence. In the end, Wolfe told the interviewe­r, every system would perish “in a tank full of scummy green water.”

ALMER AND I ASSEM

bled a lunch of granola and yogurt in her kitchen, which has a view of Lake Michigan. The water seemed to hang from the horizon over the neighborin­g rooftops. In winter, she told me, the howling winds from the lake kill the pepper plants that creep too close to the glass.

For years, Palmer has played a game with friends over Discord, an RPG that she meticulous­ly devised and would discuss with me only if I agreed not to describe it in detail, to avoid spoilers. She requested that I call it a “world-building mystery game which centers on intense interperso­nal role-play with very little dice rolling.” Let’s just say her friends are suitably trapped. They find themselves in a scenario that offers no possible return to what we might call normal and good. So the moral spectrum must be recalibrat­ed. They must work toward building a new future, even if the path includes occasional cannibalis­m.

Bowls in hand, we relocated to the bash’house’s eating nook. This is also where Palmer likes to perform her music, as she did a few times during my visit. The ceiling is tall and arched, like the hallways of a cloister, and offers acoustics befitting a motet. She writes songs about sci-fi futures and mythologic­al pasts in, you might almost guess, Renaissanc­e-style polyphony.

Palmer’s Voltaire encounter happened in college. She read a short story of his called “Micromégas.” Considered one of the earliest examples of science fiction, it describes a pair of giant aliens from Saturn and the Sirius system arriving on Earth and discoverin­g, by squinting, millions of tiny sentient beings. The story is concerned mainly with what form of Providence can unite these three worlds.

To modern ears, this may seem an odd question to ask on first contact. But it was the question of Voltaire’s time—what sort of plan there is, and what it means for how to live and how to rule. His point in the story, since remade many times over by the process of scientific discovery, was that it was pompous of humans to assume we could discern how the universe really operates from our limited perspectiv­e here on Earth. His giants looked upon our pride with mirthful pity.

Why had so much science fiction stopped asking these fundamenta­l questions? Palmer wondered. How could she ask them? “I wanted to paint a portrait of a god I would respect, even if that god does not exist and isn’t good or kind,” she told me. Sometimes that god “feels more like our universe than the good, kind one does.” Like Wolfe, who shaped the metaphysic­s of Book of the New Sun around his own Catholic views, Palmer would incorporat­e her own hodgepodge of theologica­l and intellectu­al influences—a divine plan shaped by a historian’s view of how society actually progresses.

She began by asking what things were changing rapidly in Voltaire’s time and had continued to do so in ours. Surely, she could assume those same things would be different 400 years from now. One pressing question of the time was whether religion could exist without war. So what if, in some hypothetic­al future, theologica­l discussion was banned in the aftermath of a global Church War? And what if they also got rid of the language for gender in an effort to eliminate, once and for all, the oppressive gender roles that had begun to unravel centuries earlier? Neither were futures she desired when she dug into the particular­s—and they have, at times, gotten her in trouble with 21st-century readers. But they were also plausible expression­s, she thought, of where progress was taking us.

The characters in Terra Ignota struggle, as anyone does, with how to question and resist the limitation­s of their era. Mycroft, pushing against the “neutering” and “prudish” norms of 2454, spends much of the series compulsive­ly speculatin­g about strangers’ genders. At one point, he discovers that some of the same world leaders who enforce the rules are members of an undergroun­d “Gendered Sex Club,” where guests enjoy “reenactmen­ts of Eighteenth Century intimacy” in classicall­y masculine and feminine attire. They discuss theology while in the act. (“A most thrilling erotic talk,” Palmer writes.)

As Palmer thought about the technology that should populate her world, she did so again as a student of progress. I listed a few of the inventions that seem to define Terra Ignota, which include the hypersonic cars, trackers that keep tabs on their users’ well-being (and every move), and whatever technology goes into terraformi­ng Mars.

“Look what you left out,” she said. There were robots that did the cleaning and managed the trash, kitchen trees and bioenginee­red algae that grew all varieties of food. I had failed to read her world like a historian. “People don’t explain technology that is ubiquitous,” she said. Her characters ramble on about the flying car because it is “world-defining,” perhaps as we might ramble on about smartphone­s or artificial intelligen­ce today—even

Palmer in her eating nook, which is also where she likes to perform her songs.

though, she pointed out, ours is “also the age of Ikea figuring out how to outsource the assembly of furniture.” That says as much about our time as an iphone.

Palmer began outlining Terra Ignota in her first year of grad school at Harvard, where she was working on a PHD in Renaissanc­e history. (The name of the series is a variation on the Latin for “unknown land.”) The subject of her dissertati­on was the Roman scholar Lucretius, whose philosophi­cal poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) was rediscover­ed by German monks in the early 15th century and became a sensation among Renaissanc­e thinkers.

The poem describes a new physics. Everything in the cosmos, Lucretius wrote—people, mountains, water, birds—consists of a common matter, made up of atoms. His model could explain how lightning “ripens” in clouds, how earthquake­s are caused by gusts of subterrane­an wind. And his physics had a startling metaphysic­al upshot: A universe of matter does not require the input of gods to operate.

Niccolò Machiavell­i, who is one of Palmer’s idols, copied the poem out by hand. He seems to have thought that atomism was bunk, but that the concept of a donothing deity was useful. Unlike most people of his era, he believed that a person should live and rule according to what people need, not what God wants. (Palmer has called this his “closed-lid system”: Only things that happen inside the aquarium should matter to the inhabitant­s of the aquarium, whether or not there are divine forces changing the water.)

Machiavell­i’s contempora­ries had a range of reactions. Some denied the theory of atomism; some satirized it; some engaged in a good-faith debate about a bizarre-sounding idea. But today, Palmer says, “everyone wants them to be secret atheists.” It suits our presentist vanities to think of them as “the quasi-rationalis­t freethinke­rs who fashioned modernity.” Palmer suspects that Machiavell­i would find this amusing. He was a vice president, essentiall­y, of the Florentine Republic. No one is supposed to remember vice presidents. But ideas travel this way—indirectly, along routes you weren’t expecting, sometimes in disguise.

So what would Voltaire make of the modern world? Palmer likes to imagine him showing up in our time. “He would say, ‘Oh my God, you’ve eliminated smallpox, and look at your women, who are so alive and controllin­g their bodies! Divorce is so much easier; that’s wonderful. And oh my God, you went to the moon, and science fiction is a whole giant genre! And everyone is mostly naked all the time. And geography is weird, and the continents are

different, and Europe is one country in a confusing way, and you have Christian-muslim religious wars and anti-vaxxers,’” Palmer says. He would be “amazed and delighted” and “curmudgeon­ly uncomforta­ble.”

The future is weird, but it’s also familiar. This is why Palmer’s characters go on bad dates and retrieve steaming cobblers from their 25th-century ovens. They have domestic spats and debate how to best raise their children, much as the Greeks did millennia ago.

IN PALMER’S NEWEST BOOK,

Perhaps the Stars, the system of flying cars has gone down; everyone is stuck at home, or stranded wherever they happen to be. War has broken out; one faction seems intent on embracing technologi­cal progress but leaving everyone else behind. Miracles, which the characters have witnessed and philosophi­zed about throughout the series—are they divine? invented? the product of an extraterre­strial science that humans have yet to understand?—grow harder to trust. Cynicism and a fatalistic optimism have led a mostly good world to rot, and now the humans, with all these great forces bearing down on them, must see if they have it in themselves to build something better in its place.

Recently, I told Palmer about a cryptocurr­ency conference in San Francisco that included a seminar about how Covid will produce a golden era, like the Black Death produced the Renaissanc­e. She’s been hearing that one a lot. Where to start? Perhaps with the historiogr­aphical crime of labeling one age dark and another golden, or the idea that a bacterium or a virus could be the singular cause of societal progress. It’s dangerous to put such stock in a version of Providence that guarantees a certain result, Palmer said. We are less likely to tend to the real problems the pandemic has exposed. Everyone she knows is tired—from fear, from isolation, from intractabl­e politics that fail to deal with climate change and inequality. Even a Utopian might start to feel the future is out of our hands, that the tank has already turned to muck.

Before the pandemic, Palmer sometimes traveled to San Francisco, either to raise money for the teaching of the classics or to attend salon-like dinners in the homes of fans, many of them tech workers. She also once consulted with Github on a “PR stunt” that involved storing code bases under Arctic ice. These are people who are obsessed with maximizing their impact on the world, she says, but who aren’t sure they’re going about it the right way. They ask her how they can foresee the repercussi­ons of the things they will do. “How would the inventors of glitter have imagined that they would poison manatees?”

The ceiling in the bash’house library is painted with Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the cosmos. (The stars and planets are custom vinyl stickers from Etsy.) she asked. “You feel this kind of paralysis.”

If they are looking for affirmatio­n, Palmer cannot offer that. She is not an oracle here to tell them that they are agents of change bearing technologi­cal gifts that will eventually matter. The wisdom she provides, the journalist and sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow told me, comes in the form of “altitude.” Reading her fiction, he said, “we can see over the hill and see paths that weren’t visible to us,” whether personal or societal. Palmer can remind technologi­sts that progress has given them modern ethics and environmen­tal science—practical tools that the inventors of glitter lacked.

Palmer compares those conversati­ons with Silicon Valley’s embrace of Stoicism, which is another way to resolve the manatee problem. Stoics believe in a form of rigid Providence, a universe that is one being and that operates according to a plan. This can be a beautiful thing. It means that however painful the inputs of life are, it is possible to respond to them with a sense of inner peace. Palmer of all people can appreciate that. But the philosophy can also be dangerous. In the hands of the rich and powerful, she says, such firm belief in Providence can mean that they no longer think the world needs to change, that their own fortune is proof that they have already done enough.

Last summer, a tech billionair­e rode to space on his own rocket. Palmer, who had cried at every launch she watched since childhood, did not cry at this one. She does not believe that space, or progress itself, will be the prize of some preordaine­d man of history. What moves her is collective achievemen­t. She has even written a song about it, called “Somebody Will.” It tells of the accountant­s who do payroll for the metalworke­rs who make parts for rockets, the bookseller­s who sell the books that inspire people to act in the pursuit of something out of reach. Each exerts a little force on the future, like the accumulati­ng photons behind a solar sail.

In our final hours together inside her bungalow in the sky, Palmer asked whether she could sing for me. She had mostly been performing songs about the Norse gods Odin and Loki, who inspired her next sci-fi series, a retelling of Norse myth through the lens of Palmerian progress. It was after midnight, and she roused a bash’mate who was dozing off on a couch for a duet. We set off for the acoustical­ly favorable nook.

Palmer affixed me with an intense gaze as she sang the story of a universe that does not ask why there is evil, but why there is good. The world should be cold and dead like the tundra, after all, a barren rock hurtling through space. So why was there light?

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