Ada Palmer’s Great Conversation

by Lee Konstantinou on March 20, 2017

Around a third of the way through the first book of Terra Ignota, Too Like the Lightning, we finally learn something of substance about the philosophy of the Utopians, one of the seven global Hives that dominate the Earth in Ada Palmer’s imagined twenty-fifth century.

There were hints before, but the truth finally struck me when Mycroft Canner meets two oddly named Utopians: Aldrin Bester and Voltaire Seldon. “Aldrin Bester,” Mycroft informs us in an aside is “a fine Utopian name lifted from their canon, as in the olden days Europe took its names from lists of saints.” The Utopians’ canon, of course, is the canon of science fiction. Voltaire belongs in that canon, Mycroft scrupulously reminds us, because of his 1752 novella “Micromégas,” which “makes him a candidate for the title of world’s first science-fiction author.” The Utopians, it turns out, are SF fans of the future, organized into one of the most powerful political organizations on the planet. A few years ago, Neal Stephenson called for a return to the “techno-optimism” of Golden Age and space age science fiction, expressing fears that we now live in “a world where big stuff can never get done.” (Where are our flying cars?) Palmer’s Utopians have turned Stephenson’s lament into an ideology, a way of life, and an identity. They control the Moon. They’re planning to colonize Mars (which turns out to be something of a big real estate grab, a threat to Mitsubishi, which owns most of the Earth). But more importantly, the Utopians are avatars of the imagination, ideologues of the future.

Palmer’s inclusion of the Utopian hive is, on the one hand, a clever joke, one playful conceit among many in the novel. Why wouldn’t SF fans constitute a significant intellectual and political force in the future? Plenty of people across the world are already willing to list their religions as Jedi, and Scientology is nothing if not a (negative) model of what it might mean to turn science fiction into a way of life. But the Utopians aren’t only a clever joke on Palmer’s part. They’re also her novel’s pathway into the history of science fiction, an anchor point that makes Too Like the Lightning not only a work about an imagined future, but a self-conscious investigation of what it means to imagine a future in the first place. In the acknowledgments of the book, Palmer says as much openly, writing, “I wanted… to add my voice to the Great Conversation, to reply to Diderot, Voltaire, Osamu Tezuka, and Alfred Bester, so people would read my books and think new things, and make new things from those thoughts, my little contribution to the path which flows from Gilgamesh and Homer to the stars.” Diderot and Tezuka… Gilgamesh and The Stars My Destination… Palmer takes seriously the equivalence of the figures on these lists.

For my contribution to this discussion, I’d like to ask what it might mean for us also to take this equivalence seriously. I write this post not having read the entirety of Seven Surrenders, so it’s likely I may be overlooking new developments in our understanding of the Utopians, most prominently in our understanding of Apollo Mojave, whose name hovers ominously on Mycroft’s (and Bridger’s) lips. But my comments will, I think, apply just as well to Seven Surrenders, since I’m not so concerned with the series’ plot as with its approach to world building. Too often, science fiction regurgitates today’s conflicts and ideologies under new labels. Our worries frequently get projected onto the future, leading to the hoary slogan that “science fiction is always about the present.” What Palmer does, instead, is demand that we do what might strictly speaking be impossible: to imagine from within our own vantage point future ideologies. She wants to write science fiction that is, in a sense, actually about the future. Palmer has spoken, in an interview with Mike Zipser at Baltcon, about how her training as an intellectual historian has informed her approach to the genre. Her key insight, she explains, is that human institutions (say, the Roman senate) can radically transform in their composition, structure, and function while nonetheless persisting for centuries, if not millennia. Moreover, Palmer notes, those everyday institutions we take for granted (say, the nuclear family) are actually quite recent creations. What this insight allows Palmer to do is to integrate the history and philosophy of the French Enlightenment into her novel without resorting to a typical sort of science fiction antiquarianism, most often apparent in the post-apocalyptic narrative in which the far future looks mysteriously like the Middle Ages. Instead, Palmer gives us a world in which the French Enlightenment is an explicit object of commentary and analysis, and whose parallels with the twenty-fifth century are openly thematized by Mycroft Canner.

Take for instance the brilliant passage in which Mycroft discusses the sexual identity of Dominic Seneschal, whose dress we learn would make him “seem at home at Versailles, or with the Jacobins scheming revolution in their basements.” Mycroft writes:

Perhaps you argue that a gentle‘man’ of that enlightened age is effeminate, his curls and silks, his poetry and dances, and you are right if we apply the standards of a Goth or other proud barbarian. But would you then oblige me to call all such gentlemen ‘she’? The Patriarch? George Washington? Rousseau? De Sade? Shall I call the Divine Marquis ‘she’? No, good master. To understand what follows, you must anchor yourself in this truth, that, by the standards of the era which sculpted him from childhood, the woman Dominic Seneschal is the boldest and most masculine of men.

Here, Palmer triangulates a variety of perspectives. We, of course, are for the most part not scandalized by Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns. But we learn that his interlocutors in the future are. Palmer thus helps us mark our distance from residents of her imagined future. At the same time, we find ourselves distanced from Mycroft’s specific way of using gendered pronouns. After all, for Mycroft, the pronoun applied to the person should reflect not the anatomy of the person under discussion but that person’s gender performance, regardless of anatomy. And in the twenty-fifth century, an age that has made gender performance itself taboo, Mycroft finds himself free to range backwards to gender configurations that are at variance with our (twenty-first century) assumptions. Our fetishes, taboos, and biases represent but one of a range of historical options Mycroft can reach for. This is a small, almost passing moment in the novel, to be sure, but Palmer here uses insights gleaned from her training as an intellectual historian in two related ways: (i) to destabilize our grounding in our own moment, denaturalizing the present to help us open ourselves up to accepting the plausibility of her imagined future; and (ii) to teach us something about the future by way of its interpretation of the past. We measure ourselves by the standard of an imagined future; and we understand the future by the light of history.

What makes Too Like the Lightning a high-water mark in the history of science fictional world building is that Palmer sustains this dual focus in every paragraph of the novel, thereby producing a novel of enormous complexity, whose sentence-by-sentence gyrations continuously disorient and reconfigure the reader’s understanding. I’ll say in passing that the novel most reminds me of Samuel Delany’s masterpiece, which for my money is a strong candidate for the greatest science fiction novel of all time, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Like Stars, Palmer’s Terra Ignota series seeks to integrate speculations on all forms of human understanding (scientific, artistic, political, cultural) and builds future versions of a range of institutions whose permanence is too often taken for granted today (gender, the family, work). But Palmer’s book doesn’t simply retread territory Delany first explored. She further integrates what I’ll call “speculative intellectual history” into science fiction’s common world building toolkit. It is hard for the first-time reader not to be overwhelmed by the density of the text; yet what makes Too Like the Lightening successful is that we’re never put off from the desire to find out what’s happening. The disorientation, confusion, and density is ultimately hugely fun.

All of which brings me back to the Utopians. We don’t know yet (or rather I don’t know yet) how the projects of the Utopians will work out, though at the risk of expressing anti-Utopian bias there does seem to be something sinister about them. Then again, we live in a culture that is morbidly afraid of Utopian longings and projects, so I might be merely expressing the prejudices of my age. But whatever their real agenda, what Palmer’s Utopians do is help us twenty-first century readers transform the category of science fiction in our present moment. In a recent essay in Critical Inquiry, the literary critic Mark McGurl asks what he calls a “deceptively simple question”: “[A]part from an occasional metaphorical resource, or inspiration for a set of themes; apart even from the ambiguously novelistic subgenre called scientific romance and then, later, science fiction, what has science been to the novel? To judge from literary history, it has not always been of help in allowing texts to realize themselves as serious representations of everyday life.” McGurl’s bracketing off of science fiction from literary history might seem strange, especially at a moment when many so-called literary authors have been turning to the genre, and especially dystopian and apocalyptic narrative.

Nonetheless, what Palmer’s series suggests is that science fiction should indeed not be viewed as just another literary genre, but as the genre where Enlightenment—the hopes for radical human self-improvement, the dream that we might collectively control our own fate as a species, the determination to transcend our own limitations—takes refuge in an anti-Utopian age that seems determined to deflate any such ambitions. We may agree with these hopes, or we may revile them, but what we shouldn’t do is treat SF as an ordinary species of fiction. Its ambitions and achievements far surpass (or, at its best, should attempt to surpass) the limited imagination of fictions that confine themselves to representing everyday life. More than philosophy or political theory, science fiction is the genre through which our age joins what Palmer calls the Great Conversation. It is what the intellectual historian of the twenty-fifth century will understand to be our age’s literary and imaginative originality. Other literary productions of our era, what McGurl calls fictions of “everyday life,” will from that future vantage point be merely a sideshow. Other genres merely represent everyday life. Science fiction hopes to change it.



bob mcmanus 03.20.17 at 2:28 pm

Thomas Disch – The Embarrassments of Science Fiction

Let me see “innocent children with secret special powers” “no tragic dimension of experience and abhorrence of pessimism” “interest in the stories not economic or emotional, but technico-philosophical” “literature of students” (who think reason and knowledge rule, or should rule the world not passion, power, violence or class/social position.)

The Disch is early in the current reaction to the Enlightenment, and a little shallow for a lighter audience without taking advantage of Adorno and the Continental Philosophers, but it’s a start. And it’s all as complicated and nuanced and intellectually perilous as one would wish, with the exemplar of the Romantic Reaction to the enlightenment being no less than Marx himself, interpretable as both/either techno-optimist and social pessimist.

Yes, SF is the leading edge of the Great 18th Century conversation. But that might be to all our detriments and loss.


Neville Morley 03.22.17 at 8:37 am

As you’ll probably now have discovered from continued reading of Seven Surrenders, your sense of the potentially sinister side of the Utopians is spot on; some of them, at least, respond to Stephenson’s “whatever happened to the Great Leap Forward?” question by seeking to return humanity to the state of war that they’ve come to believe is an essential driver of progress. They have to destroy Utopia in order to save it – the question of destroying one world for the sake of a better one is posed by and to several different characters.


Neville Morley 03.22.17 at 11:10 am

Maybe that would be better phrased “they have to destroy utopia [the reality of a world free from war for centuries] in order to save Utopia”. Either way, I found myself thinking throughout your piece – as happened when I first read the Stephenson article – of Gibson’s ‘Gernsback Continuum’ story; I rather doubt that we’re going to find many Utopians adopting his name as one of their patron saints…


Lee Konstantinou 03.22.17 at 7:40 pm

Yeah, I’ve finished the second book now, and Apollo Mojave is a much more sinister figure than I expected (based on Mycroft’s description of him in the first book). At the same time, it wasn’t entirely clear to me to what degree the plot to resurrect war to save the Utopian project was solely Apollo’s venture (as opposed to a pan-Utopian project). Other Utopians, whose views of Apollo were unclear to me, surrender to Madame. I presume future books will clarify this backstory to some degree.


Alison 03.23.17 at 3:49 pm

Why have comments already been closed on the other contributions to this book event? Some of us are still working our way through Seven Surrenders and had been looking forward to participating in the discussion.


Neville Morley 03.24.17 at 8:10 am

There’s always been a cut-off point on comments after a certain period – but, yes, it does seem to have come a lot earlier than expected.


Henry 03.24.17 at 12:14 pm

I’ve manually re-opened the comments on the seminar posts – I’ll leave them open for a couple of weeks.

Comments on this entry are closed.