Reappropriated Histories and a Different Set of Tools

by Ada Palmer on April 12, 2017

Reappropriated Histories

a response to Neville Morley, “Future’s Past.”

I was very excited looking forward to a classicist’s response to these books, and very satisfied that the references to antiquity loomed large for him as I expected. My use of the Enlightenment is intentionally conspicuous, even ostentatious, throughout the book. Antiquity is a quieter presence, but still, as Morley observed, deeply pervasive, in the Masons, and in Mycroft’s own thought and imagery.

I actually worked in an intentionally cumulative momentum to the presence of antiquity in the book, and especially the presence of the Iliad, as Mycroft’s references to Homeric imagery become more frequent, and as his use of grand Homeric similes become more frequent and more explicit over the course of the first two books. Ganymede is the Sun in the first book but Helios in the second, and the first time dawn has “rose fingers” as she always does in Homer is the morning of the Sixth Day of Mycroft’s history, the irrevocable day when civilization’s rose-tinted daydream breaks. This momentum builds toward the revelations of the book’s end, both the final revelation in the chapter “Hero,” and final solidification of that word which Mycroft begs Providence not to bring into his history: war. Like many subtle writing things, I don’t expect most people to be conscious of it, or for it even to have a strong effect on everyone, but especially for a classicist its presence was intended to add a more epic feeling as momentum built, and to make the end of Seven Surrenders feel, not predictable, but correct, as when a long, elaborate algebraic exercise yields a solid 1=1.

Morley also wonderfully observed how many different histories are being used as tools by the characters in Terra Ignota. Antiquity as invoked and wielded by the Masons, Mycroft has his more personal obsession with Greek antiquity, the Enlightenment is reappropriated and deployed by Madame, and the 20th Century 30 Years War (our WWI & WWII) and the Church War (from our perspective WWIII) are used and distorted by the Mardi bash’. Many good and many bad things result from these distortions, because history is a very powerful tool, and when I depict O.S.’s roots in one distorted way of seeing the World Wars, and the Mardi bash’s plans based in another, and Madame’s Enlightenment-based human monsters, I am thinking of how real world individuals, groups and nations have used particular histories and ways of presenting those histories for both great and terrible purposes, from spreading education, revitalizing cities, and aiding ancient allies, to justifying colonialism, invasions, or purges.

Morley’s description of the experience of reading the book, plunging into an alien time with few cues and having to assemble the puzzle pieces of the world yourself, is precisely what I intended. It is also why I think really well world-built speculative fiction is so much like history. He writes:

“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.”

There are two categories of people who spend all day doing precisely this: historians, and children.

Children do it because, as children, this world is new to us, and every piece of media or culture we experience is saturated with references to things we don’t yet know, and have to piece together. I can remember as a child trying to piece together how British pre-decimal currency worked from references in Sherlock Holmes and All Creatures Great and Small, or picking up my first fragmentary references to World War II from Loony Toons. What are these big events and systems? Surely I can work it out if I remember and pay attention! As kids we’re resilient, we embrace this process, we don’t expect to get the references but rather expect our knowledge of our world to expand through the work of remembering the unexplained, and eventually tracing it. Just like my novels do, and many of my favorite F&SF works. I think this is why it’s so easy for kids to start reading science fiction and fantasy—tracking world building uses the same skillset kids use on everything—whereas it’s harder for those adults who have become used to media where you understand everything, and then struggle to track on speculative fiction worlds where you don’t.

But as historians we’re all children, since our knowledge is so partial, and those few documents we have are filled with references to people, objects, and structures we don’t yet understand. Fellow historians and I are constantly finding references to some bizarre and unexpected thing we’ve never heard of, and e-mailing each other in desperation, “Have you heard of this thing? Is this a thing? What is this thing?” Just the other day the excellent David M. Perry e-mailed me having run across a 1559 song addressed to female fencers, basically to ask, “Women fencing in 1559—is this a thing?” Because even in a period we know a lot about, like the Renaissance, Poliziano suddenly writes to the friend “when one of my [students] loses [our ball game] he pays tribute to Sir Humid,” and you’re like, “What? Who is… Huh?!” and thence launches the investigation. (For an extended example see Robert Darnton’s famous investigation of why a group of 18th century printers’ apprentices rounded up, put on trial, and hanged, a bunch of alley cats.) Classicists understand this particularly well, since in the ancient world we don’t have lots of documentation, so to answer a particular question we usually have two contradictory totally-biased histories, one letter, three possibly-forged letters, two archaeological digs, some DNA analysis from tooth enamel, and an image on a coin. From this we cobble together our understanding, as children do from Loony Toons, and as readers do from Terra Ignota.

Morley adds:

“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…. Whose version is least incorrect in this world remains in the balance.”

Precisely. Which is why sometimes two different historians can use different methods and write two contradictory histories of the same thing, and both can be great histories. And why we have very different assessments of our own society, how it works, and how to change it. Because there are many methods to try to make sense of a world—our world, past worlds, and future worlds—and much of the art of being a historian and evaluating the past, or of living in the present is trying to evaluate our own world, is one of trying to figure out which of many assessments is least incorrect. A skill that it’s useful to practice in fiction, to hone our skills for the higher-stakes of reality.

A Different Set of Tools
a response to
Henry Farrell “De Sade, War, Civil Society

Henry’s essay has answered in two ways, both more elegant than I have ever managed, a question I am often asked, “Why are these novels about the Enlightenment when you study the Renaissance?”

Describing the system of Hives, strats, polylaw and bash’es which, in this 2454 have replaced the defunct “geographic nation” Henry writes:

“The results might seem more readily comprehensible to a time traveller from Medieval Europe or the Renaissance than to us – a web of cross-cutting allegiances, in which it is sometimes hard to tell where the jurisdiction of one political system ends and another begins, and where a lot of practical politics is mediated through the intimacies of sex, reproduction and actual or fictive kinship.”


When I tried to imagine the new political institutions that would develop in response to society being globalized by instant communications and near-instant global transit, my training as a historian meant that the cultural and political institutions I turned to for potential sources included a huge range of pre-modern ones—far more pre-modern ones than anyone is likely to think of who doesn’t spend each working day half in the past. Alfred Bester’s magnificent The Stars My Destination (an inspiration for both my books and my general passion for science fiction) took on this same question—how teleportation would reorder society—but Bester’s answers were grounded in the 20th century, in capitalism, modern social relations, and in his book the archaic luxuries that the mega-rich use for self-display were limited to the steam engine and the top hat. My instincts trend earlier, so if Bester’s newly-invented prison system drew on the underground hell of industrial mining, my brain hopped straight to More’s Utopia to answer the same question. Masonic law and Cousins’ law cohabitate like Roman Law and Church Law in Medieval courts, when working on a farm belonging to an abbey meant you faced a totally different legal system from your brother on the Duke’s farm, and if you were born in France of parents exiled from Florence, no one would call you anything but Florentine.

The world of Terra Ignota is also having a Renaissance, in its deepest structures rather than its fashions and mottos. The Re-naissance, re-birth, that the Renaissance is named for was the rebirth of antiquity. Zooming out one level of generalization, the Renaissance was an era which appropriated the idea of an earlier era—Mediterranean antiquity—and transformed that era into a tool for self-exploration, and for change, which rapidly revolutionized every facet of society from politics and religion to architecture and spelling. But the Renaissance’s antiquity wasn’t our antiquity—not only were they missing a lot of texts and data we now have, but they (like we, and any era) picked and chose and made their own readings of ancient sources, so that our ancient Rome (Nero & gladiators, bread & circuses) is not the Renaissance’s ancient Rome (Plato & philosopher-statesmen, peace & plenty). Henry observed that the Enlightenment described in Terra Ignota is very unlike anything you are likely to find in a general textbook; the reading of de Sade is unconventional, Kant, Hume, and Adam Smith are nowhere to be found, and many threads are interpreted in novel or unfamiliar ways. This is partly because my personal reading of Enlightenment texts is strongly shaped by that of the excellent historian Alan C. Kors (whose work is less influential than I would like, and whose lectures “The Birth of the Modern Mind” available through The Teaching Company I cannot recommend enough). But it’s also partly because I decided to let that spin out even farther from mainstream readings to create an alien reading of the Enlightenment. My 25th century’s version of the Enlightenment is accurate in that every Enlightenment author or idea Mycroft describes is real, and I feel all the readings are fair and bring out important and often-overlooked elements of the period and the authors (especially Diderot), but it is also alien to the way we in 2016 usually describe the Enlightenment, as our Enlightenment is alien to the way it was characterized in 1950, or 1850, and as our ancient Rome is alien to the Renaissance’s ancient Rome. And since I’ve spent so many hours looking at how the Renaissance used antiquity to transform itself (and how that transformation was far more powerful and explosive than it expected), I can write a strong parallel in how this imagined era uses the Enlightenment (and how it similarly gets out of hand).

But Henry also put his finger on the non-Renaissance angle of my work, and my goal. I am a cultural and intellectual historian. This means I don’t study dynasties, or wars, or crops, or buildings, I study the mind: how we think, and how we thought differently at different points in time and space. This goes deeper than what people believed was true, but how people arrived at truth, what factors people consulted, how people ranked different kinds of evidence, and what kinds of argumentation were used or trusted. In reviewing the list of different in-world explanations that Mycroft and the other characters give for their long peace, Henry instead reviewed the political science questions of civil society, and how it could address the macro-state of war that Hobbes describes among the Leviathans. Then he observes,

“What’s interesting is that [these social science readings] are completely different kinds of explanation than the ones that Palmer’s characters would be comfortable with. Being social-scientific, they try to construct rules and laws based on generalizations about entire classes of actors. People seem not to think in this kind of way in the 25th century – returning to Carlo Ginzburg, there are few, if any Galileans in Palmer’s future.”

Adding a little later,

“This puts Canner-as-unreliable-narrator in an interesting light. He is not only unreliable because of his personal history and motivations, but because of the array of assumptions, both considered and unconsidered, through which he tries to make sense of the world, some of which are shared with his contemporaries.”

Precisely. What I study, all day every day, is the fact that the tools by which we try to understand things have changed over the course of human history, and will change again. Questions, arguments, plausibility, even “obvious” truths and “obvious” absurdities have changed over time. As I discussed in my own essay here on Jo Walton’s Thessaly books, our biggest barrier to understanding why Plato’s model city made sense to him in the Republic is that he and his contemporaries had different basic assumptions about how the world, people, and thought itself function. That, to me, is the most fascinating part of studying history, encountering alien minds, real ones, that really have existed. It’s why, when I consume historical fiction, I’m more excited by what I call historicity—whether the characters feel period, with genuinely un-modern period fears and motivations—than accuracy in things like clothing, food, or metallurgy. And it’s why in my science fiction I wanted to create a 25th century with alien minds, as alien to our own as ours to Diderot’s. That’s why I chose to have such a bizarre narrator, or narrators counting the few chapters authored by others, to show the reader that the differences between us and our successors, like the differences with our predecessors, won’t only be in technology, language, clothing, politics, but in the mind itself. Thus Henry’s final paragraph perfectly identified why I turned to science fiction as another way to get across the historical sense which I work so hard to communicate to students in the classroom, and to readers in nonfiction, the fact that minds, that logic, that the tools of thought itself, change over time:

“We, of course have absolutely no guarantee that the very different set of tools that we employ to make sense of things are at all superior [to Mycroft Canner’s], and some reason to suspect that they are not (we haven’t achieved anything like the qualified utopia that Palmer describes). Still, there are plausibly aspects of Canner’s world that are comprehensible to us in ways that they are not to him. Perhaps (as in Charles Palliser’s unreliable-narrator novel, The Quincunx), there will be other, equally valid interpretations of the events of the third and fourth books, when war does or does not break out than the explanations that Canner offers us, which he cannot simply cannot see or treat as credible, any more than we can readily reason in the manner of Canner and his contemporaries.”

I’m trying not to make these responses infinitely long, particularly since I still have so many essays to respond to, so I’ll save most of my discussions of gender to another essay. But I very much appreciated Henry’s observation that neither Mycroft Canner nor any of the characters he depicts are gender essentialists. Rather, in a world that has successfully overthrown the gender binary, the gender binary itself is now an archaic and forbidden thing ripe to enter the palette of forbidden fantasies, much as so much of today’s iconic imagery of “naughty sex” so often involves play-acting in some other century’s underwear, or power relationships. For Madame’s clients, gender is a tool for play, self-expression, and a way to transgress without danger, precisely because that binary’s power is shattered. As Henry put it:

“Hence, perhaps, their desire to escape from it so as to enjoy the thrills of gender essentialism, thrills which may be no less exciting for being based on a series of mistakes about what gender relations actually were in the eighteenth century – a de Sadism without the accompanying sadism.”

For those of us who are working right now toward gender equality and gender liberation, it can be uncomfortable imagining that a post-liberation world would enjoy play-acting the very social poisons we are battling. Alfred Bester has a magnificent short story “Hobson’s Choice” which [SPOILER WARNING] includes streams of happy time travelers coming from the future as tourists to visit post-nuclear Hiroshima, much to the shock and bafflement of a contemporary observer who can’t imagine why anyone would want to visit such horrors. But we do the same thing when the Globe Theater in London Gift Shop sells a Plushie Plague Rat, and when people stand in line at a Renaissance Festival to have their photo taken in the stocks. And similarly many real people today enjoy a modern S&M which uses a reappropriated sadism, with consent, safe words, and mutual respect, stripped of all the horrors of real power which saturated it in Sade’s era hierarchy, violence, and real unfreedom; the discourse of sex and power had one purpose for Sade, a different one for Angela Carter, and a different one for these people in 2454, just as Petrarch, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Robert Graves used very different antiquities.

Also, thank you, Henry, for the sentence, “Philosophy is forbidden in the agora and has hence retreated to the boudoir.” Perfect synthesis.

Finally, Henry’s observations about Hobbes and his relationship with the text are wonderful, but I am not going to respond to them. I can’t yet. Not until December, when The Will to Battle comes out, with its titular quote, taken from Hobbes’ own Leviathan:

“For Warre, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather.”

Or, as Shakespeare and I may add, in the nature of Lightning.



Pickle 04.12.17 at 4:14 pm

I’ve really enjoyed reading this series, and now getting Ada’s responses just makes it all better!

Just a heads-up, though, there’s a formatting issue in the post: after

if any Galileans in Palmer’s future.”

the block quote isn’t closed, so the rest of the post is a level indented from where it should be. EDS – TX – FIXED!


Luis 04.13.17 at 12:09 am

Just to say that this seminar has enriched my reading of the basic text more than any CT seminar in a long time. Kudos to everyone who participated.


Ellen Badgley 04.14.17 at 4:36 am

This entire series of essays and responses are so wonderful that I hesitate to focus on such a small tidbit of what you’ve written, but… Do you have any more info on that 1559 song on female fencers? I mentioned it to my husband (in the course of bubbling to him about Terra Ignota and historicity and multiple other topics) and his ears perked up, as he is a Western Martial Arts scholar (along with a SCAdian) and would really like to show that to a few people.

Seriously, though… Terra Ignota and this wonderful series of discussions have given me, as an amateur historian and reenactor, a whole new appreciation of history and the historian’s calling in situating ourselves in the flow of current events. Thank you all for that.


Neville Morley 04.14.17 at 5:00 pm

Two things among many that I’d want to say in response to the response, besides “thank you”.

(1) Ada’s invocation of Darnton’s ‘Great Cat Massacre’ article crystallises one of the things that I liked about TLtL and SS, which often annoys me about other attempts at large-scale world-building: the dialectic of unexplained and inexplicable. There’s a tendency in historical studies – perhaps especially prominent in one of the areas I work on, economic history, perhaps because it also involves the intersection of two different disciplinary traditions – to deal with the ‘odd’ either by reducing it to something familiar or by taking it as evidence of irreducible weirdness. Darnton shows that the cat massacre is not inexplicable, but it makes sense only after a lengthy ‘thick description’ in the sense of Geertzian anthropology. What I look for in an imaginary world are similar signs of difference, where I feel the author has thought things out to the point of being capable, if forced, to provide a similar article-length explanation – but doesn’t feel the need to do this. In other worlds, that the world has depth and texture, without this having to be painstakingly demonstrated.

(2) ‘Hobson’s Choice’. I had a whole other commentary conceived if not written, about TLtL/SS as a Reception/reinvention of Bester, who is one of my personal pantheon of SF writers. One reason I held back is that Tiger,Tiger (aka The Stars My Destination) is by a fair distance my least favourite Bester, but clearly an important influence on multiple levels (plus the Count of Monte Cristo intertext). But if we bring in the short stories as well… Was It just me who started wondering about echoes of ‘Oddy and Id’ as we started to get to know Bridger?


Ada Palmer 04.16.17 at 3:58 pm

Yes indeed, “Oddy and Id” is one of my favorite Bester shorts.

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