Future’s Past

by Neville Morley on March 9, 2017

In the five million years following the Great Nebula Burst, our people were one people. But then came the Zactor Migration, and then the Melosian Shift and a dark period of discontent spread through the land. Fighting among Treeb sects and Largoths. The foolishness! And it was in this time of dissension … *

Almost all science fiction, as J.G. Ballard remarked in the introduction to Vermilion Sands, is really about the present day. This is certainly less true today than it was in 1971, but it is still often the case that the relationship between our present and the future world that is depicted – or between the present of the imagined world and that future’s past, when anyone inside the story decides to look back – is oddly straightforward and uninteresting. This is certainly not something that can be said of Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books.

Why look back to the past when we’re interested in the future, or spend any time considering the less developed form of that future? Sometimes, especially in the case of film franchises desperate to keep an existing audience happy with something that’s new but not too different, it’s just a matter of expanding the known universe by answering some questions that weren’t actually in need of answering – how did humanity come to develop the warp drive and conquer the stars, why did the Rebellion start? – with varying degrees of success. The resultant products offer their consumers the usual fare of time travel stories or historical novels: the thrill of recognising the germ of a familiar artefact or institution, or the ancestor of a familiar character, or other nuggets of intertextuality. In most cases there is little or nothing at stake; we know where things are going, so this is just a matter of filling in the gaps between then and now.

With worlds that are not yet familiar to their audience, the invocation of back story plays a more important role in explaining and justifying the difference of the future: a strange society is made plausible through a plausible story of how it came into being. For ‘near future’ stories, this usually involves a minor tweak to existing technological possibilities, since the whole point is that the new world is still recognisably kin to ours in important respects. For more dramatic creations, we are primed to look for a single, more or less straightforward moment of When It Changed, grounded in different theories or grand narratives of historical development – the technological breakthrough, the plague, the unavoidable environmental catastrophe, the terrible war, the moment of first contact – which was either itself the driving force of subsequent developments, or presented the opportunity for them (e.g. the post-crisis establishment of a patriarchal dictatorship, the out-lawing of electrical equipment etc.).

Palmer offers us a few gestures towards When It Changed: the invention of a flying machine that can travel at 9640 km/h, setting the scene for a time-space compression far beyond the dreams of David Harvey; hints of the sort of unlimited, cost-free power and material abundance that can support 20-hour working weeks and magic food trees; the Church War that destroyed the old power structures and nation states and led to the outlawing of all churches and sects. However, these are largely hints, leaving the reader to fill in most of the gaps through imagination (despite an explicit warning from our narrator – albeit talking about the more limited problem of reconstructing conversations without having been there – that our imaginations will be far less accurate and reliable than his). This makes perfect internal sense, given that the narrative is ostensibly offered either to a contemporary of Mycroft Canner or to some future reader – either of whom can be assumed to be already familiar with key events and individuals, needing no more than passing references – rather than to us.

But obviously it’s an authorial choice to make things difficult for the reader in this way; we are made to work at making sense of what on earth is going on. We’re catapulted into the middle of an apparently chaotic torrent of images, names, social practices, costumes, speech patterns and references, all of them taken for granted by the narrator, the supposed addressee of the narrative and the other characters. Very occasionally, one character explains things to another in terms which help us understand (Bridger is frequently our proxy in this respect), but most of the time we are left to our own floundering devices, required to extrapolate from apparently familiar terms and ideas (even as it’s clear that some of them are being used quite differently from our experience) or to apply logic and reason, even as the ‘magic’ of futuristic technology is supplemented by things that even this world considers magic.

This isn’t an authorial error – though I can imagine some readers finding it heavy going – but one of the key aims of the novel. We’re not given a fully-developed narrative of future historical development to evaluate, and thereby empowered to evaluate the plausibility of the imagined world presented to us in terms of a few clear characteristics. Rather, we have to make use of the passing hints about this future’s past, combined with our own knowledge and theories about the dynamics of historical development, to invent plausible narratives that might then help us make sense of the bewildering kaleidoscope of the books’ present. We endeavour, effectively, to replicate the author’s imaginative processes, tracing the possible course of development from our present, extrapolating and anticipating how things might change – still, despite all of Reinhart Koselleck’s strictures, trying to draw together the space of experience and the horizon of expectation. This imagined world developed (in the author’s imagination, in its own reality) out of ours; it must be possible, then, to make some sense of it by filling in the gaps between now and then.

The crucial point, however, is that this world of the future is not a fixed, known thing, but something that its own inhabitants understand in different, mutually incompatible ways. This is highlighted by the moment, early in Too Like the Lightning, where I at least fell in love with the whole concept. Mycroft is in the Censor’s office, where they are studying the full grid of the Seven-Ten lists.

Shall we play a little game here, reader? First you read the Seven-Ten lists, then I shall read your mind and tell you in what order you read them, which you read and which you skimmed. You think I can’t do it? The Censor would not call on me if I did not have some little skill at prophecy. Try me. Read naturally, skipping what you choose, not forcing yourself to study every name just so you can scoff: Thou underestimatest me, Mycroft – I am unbiased and skim nothing. It is not natural to study all with equal keenness, reader. Men only read every line of a contract so they may boast about it later. Read what you will – even the Censor reads only what he will.

It’s an irresistible challenge: I can’t be the only one then to have read those lists with extra care, trying to avoid every temptation to skip, trying out different patterns of reading beyond the obvious approaches that I imagined Mycroft/Palmer was anticipating – only for the joke to be on me, as of course Mycroft’s reader is someone with quite different assumptions, ideas and habits. It’s a perfect way of emphasising not only the gap between then and now, but also the fact that different people in this future world think about it differently; there is no single objective perspective – least of all from our thoroughly unreliable narrator.

There is also no single consistent history on display, though the past – above all the past that we share with this future, rather than the future’s past that is our possible future – permeates this society, and this narrative, to a remarkable degree. The classical seems to play an especially prominent role – I don’t think this is just my professional bias – and especially its most monumental aspects: Alexander, Alexandria and Rome as symbols of conquest and imperial greatness, a few Key Moments in Western Philosophy, and the heroic warriors of Sparta and the Iliad, all in the sort of simplified form we’d expect, stripped from any sort of context. The eighteenth century, of course, imagined through a couple of key thinkers and the feverish atmosphere of Choderlos de Laclos. The Thirty Years War of the twentieth century, as the paradigm of what war can do to a world that has become used to peace but accumulated a great deal of powerful technology in the meantime. In the first instance, invocation of the past gives it continuing life (of a sort) as the public face of world order; in the other cases, past ideas are shown to have a disruptive or subversive force, and are drawn upon by different characters as means of imagining alternatives to and possible destinies of their present.

It’s important to keep in mind that these are not simple memories of a real objective past but receptions, recreations and reinventions, carefully (but unconsciously) stripping away complexity (let along pedantic historiographical concerns) to create something that can work powerfully upon individuals in the novels’ present. The rulers of this world may be ensnared by the costumes and licentiousness of a reinvented salon society – but it was created precisely as a snare and a means of control. The image of the destruction and devastation of the Great War may have spurred the Mardi bash’ to their martial preparations, but it was at best a questionable image – the idea of a preceding century of peace would have come as a surprise to many people in Africa and Asia, for example – and one which is shown to be open to manipulation as a means to justify different ideas and programmes, including Sniper’s claim that it demonstrates the historical impact of the fates of just a few individuals.

One theme of the novels is the competition between different theories of history as a basis for action in the present and anticipation of the future. The OS operates according to a perverted version of the Great Man approach of Thomas Carlyle: a complete analysis of human habits and preferences, and of the complex rhythms of the movements of billions of people, initially conceived just as a super-efficient Uber, is claimed to be capable of detecting disturbances and knots in the web and so of identifying the critical individuals to be eliminated in order to keep things running smoothly. The majority of the leaders of the Hives seem to fall quite unconsciously – but naturally, given their roles – into all the assumptions of an old-fashioned political and dynastic historiography, taking personal influence, intrigues and relationships as the driving force of all significant events. The Mardi bash’ expected the recurrence of past developments on the basis of a ‘Thucydidean’ or Hobbesian conception of the inherent, ineradicable potential for violence of ‘the human thing’, coupled with a belief in the role of economic crisis in preparing the ground for such an event. Mycroft believes in Providence, whose ways can always be justified whatever happens – but also, apparently, in Carlyle’s ideas – “In my age we have come anew to see history as driven not by DNA and economics, but by Man. And woman. And so must you” – and at other times pays at least lip service to the theories of others. Whose version is least incorrect in this world remains in the balance.

The world of Terra Ignota is intended to be as incomprehensible to us as our own world would be to someone from the eighteenth century. We are to set about making sense of it with the tools at our disposal, whether that’s the wisdom of the Enlightenment and a knowledge of courtly politics (which for much of the first book feels like the most useful set of concepts, however rusty we may be with their use) or the more social-scientific theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (which most of the time feels like reading completely against the grain, aligning ourselves with the ravings of Tully Mardi – without implying that this is therefore definitively the wrong way of reading this world).

As Mycroft remarks, in another of those little jokes on the reader, “You know it’s very hard for people to deal with a world completely different from their own.” Could Odysseus get used to dealing with guns, or monotheists, or Frenchmen, as Mycroft and Bridger debate? It’s the process of investigation that reveals whether the intellectual and historiographical tools at our command are any use, or if we have the mental agility to forge new ones. The closing section of Seven Surrenders reveals that we are going to find out whether Achilles is indeed possible with powder and lead…

  • From Galaxy Quest (1999); a work of genius, so this quote is intended as a compliment as well as a point of comparison …



Patrick C 03.09.17 at 5:59 pm

I had a similar experience when reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson. You’re really thrown into the deep end of a very strange society and not given any sort of mechanism to connect the dots to familiar points of reference. (even the language is different in many ways, so comprehending the story involves learning a new vocabulary describing new concepts)


Matt 03.09.17 at 6:24 pm

The world of Terra Ignota is intended to be as incomprehensible to us as our own world would be to someone from the eighteenth century. We are to set about making sense of it with the tools at our disposal…

This is a large part of the appeal of science fiction and historical fiction for me. The past is alien, and takes effort to interpret, even when located on familiar geography*. The future should be alien too. I don’t really want to read another book whose author can imagine several revolutions coming to engineering or scientific discovery, but can’t imagine that human social patterns of the year 3000 will be much different from middle class suburban family life in the Anglosphere circa 2000. Palmer, like other SF authors who dare to let the society change along with its material conditions, makes readers part of a first contact mission. The aliens we are meeting: Homo sapiens sapiens, just a few centuries from now.

* Or at least it should be, depending on the setting. I’m not very happy if I’m reading a novel set in 18th century Virginia among the wealthy yet all the on-stage characters have anachronistically modern distastes for religion, slavery, and patriarchy. (I don’t endorse religion, slavery, or patriarchy, but if you’re going to set a story in that milieu I don’t want those attitudes always explained away or backgrounded.)


Gareth Wilson 03.09.17 at 8:50 pm

I thought the quote was from Ghostbusters, it’s similar to:

“Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the Meketrex supplicants, they chose a new form for him – that of a giant Sloar! Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of a Sloar that day, I can tell you!”


Neville Morley 03.09.17 at 11:34 pm

Yes, Anathem – though for reasons I can’t actually remember – long time since I read it – I found it much less alienating and confusing; if anything, I’d cite Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon as throwing you as Reader totally in media res. @Matt, yes, absolutely, and image of ‘first contact mission’ is spot on’. Ghostbusters? See where you’re coming from, and similar inclination to ignore back story completely…


Gabriel 03.10.17 at 12:32 am

I would say that TLTL is very evidently (and interestingly) about our present; specifically, the way in which certain learned and intelligent factions in our societies assume that the particular lessons THEY take from The Enlightenment are both comprehensive and inevitable.


Neville Morley 03.12.17 at 8:47 am

Yes, you’re right. Put another way, it’s a fictionalise version of the standard historian’s trope, “Yes, but it’s more complicated than that”: our understanding of ‘the Enlightenment’ is radically simplified and mythologised, whereas Palmer offers us not just the detail that’s now forgotten (cf. Jonathan Israel’s books) but emphasises the possibility of offering a completely different (mis)reading of it.


William Timberman 03.12.17 at 6:00 pm

Seems to me that Le déréglement de tous les sens is a necessary, if not sufficient precondition for any science fiction worthy of the name. (Science fiction? Oh, dear. Speculative fiction? Oh, dear, again. Isn’t all fiction speculative — about the human condition, I mean.) Well, all the interminable bickering aside, we know it when we see it, right?

The important thing here, it seems to me, is not just imagination, but density. Palmer’s work has that in spades. So does Stephenson’s, although for grace in execution, I’d rather read William Gibson any day. Duty forbids us, of course, to read only what’s congenial. And if you’re one of those folks who come to SF precisely to avoid an unholy slog, you can always load up on David Weber, or George R.R. You-Know-Who. De gustibus, and all that….


Patrick C 03.12.17 at 6:41 pm

I think, coming from a nerdy technical background, I found the Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon to be very cozy and familiar. It’s interesting that we had mirrored experiences.


Tracy Lightcap 03.12.17 at 7:51 pm

Being able to write about a future that is really different is a real gift.

Of all the sci-fi writers I know of, only one consistently pulled it off: Cordwainer Smith. He was actually the IR specialist and old China hand (Sun Yat-Sen was his godfather), Paul Linebarger. The stories he wrote as Cordwainer Smith are among the few that, imho, capture a future that is truly unfamiliar and disorienting. He was able to transmute present themes into that future with great – and entertaining – skill.

But now I’ll have to read some Palmer and see how she how she stacks up. For those interested, Smith’s only sci-fi novel Norstrillia or his novella The Dead Lady of Clown Town are a great way to get familiar with his work.

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