Jo Walton's first story was published in Strange Horizons back in 2000, when Strange Horizons was young. She is the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of Among Others and twelve other novels, most recently the Thessaly series, The Just City (2015), The Philosopher Kings (2015) and Necessity (July 2016). A collection of her essays about SF from Tor.com, What Makes This Book So Great, won the Locus award in 2015. She also writes poetry and has a Patreon for it. She lives in Montreal where she writes, reads, cooks, and blogs on Tor.com. She has recently been travelling a lot, which has come as a pleasant surprise. She plans to live to be ninety-nine and write a book every year.
Ada Palmer is a historian of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, classical reception, the history of books, and the history of philosophy, heresy, science, and atheism. She teaches in the History Department at the University of Chicago, and often does research in Italy, especially Florence and Rome. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance (2014), explores the impact of the rediscovery of classical atomism on the birth of modern thought. Her first science fiction novel, Too Like the Lightning (May 2016), is a tale of global politics in the year 2454, set in a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance and borderless nations, and written in the a style of an eighteenth-century philosophical novel like Candide. She is also the composer for Sassafrass, an a cappella group performing fantasy, SF and mythology-themed music, whose Viking musical stage play "Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok" came out on CD and DVD in 2015. She researches and publishes on anime/manga, has worked as a consultant for various anime and manga publishers, blogs for Tor.com, and writes the philosophy and travel blog ExUrbe.com.
Jo Walton: You have a four-book series, Terra Ignota, (beginning with Too Like the Lightning, out May 10th, and Seven Surrenders, coming in February 2017) from Tor. I've read the first three volumes, and as you know I'm very excited about it. I want to talk to you about it, and about the ways it is and isn't utopian. and how it relates to the utopian tradition.
Let's start off talking about utopias and dystopias as a genre. Were you aware that this is the 500th anniversary of Thomas More's Utopia?
Ada Palmer: Yes. We're moving through a nest of 500th anniversaries of major Renaissance people and events.
Jo: Didn't you use More's Utopia directly in Terra Ignota?
Ada: Yes, in a few places. The biggest is the criminal justice system in my new world. It has the "Servicer program" in which people who are convicted of very substantial crimes, but aren't dangerous to the public, are sentenced to lifetime community service. They travel around, living in public dormitories, and can't have personal property. They earn their meals by working for any free citizen who asks them to do a task—whether raking a lawn or programming a computer. This is based on an imaginary system of criminals serving as public slaves, which Thomas More describes in the first half of Utopia. Mycroft, my narrator, is a convict in the Servicer program.
Jo: Thomas More would be so proud! And you have your own specific definitions of utopian and dystopian?
Ada: I think so. I draw a strong distinction between the way I use the adjectives and the nouns, that is "utopia/dystopia" vs "utopian/dystopian." I think lots of works are utopian or dystopian, meaning that they use the background of an idealized world or a terrible world as a setting for a story which is fundamentally about something else, about an adventure, a revolution, characters, heroism, conflict, change. A lot of utopian/dystopian stories are wonderful, and use utopian/dystopian elements to fascinating ends, but I think far fewer works are really "utopias" or "dystopias" the way More's Utopia or Orwell's 1984 are. For me, in a true utopia/dystopia the world is the centerpiece, the unchanging, overwhelmingly strange and fascinating place, and the characters are viewpoints, windows to let us see and explore this world, but not actually actors, heroes, or revolutionaries. A true utopia like Thomas More's doesn't change, that's part of its perfection, and true dystopias can't change, that's part of their horror.
Jo: Fascinating. I think part of the problem with utopias is that unchangingness. The typical story of utopia is that a character comes there from somewhere else and is taken around, marveling at how nifty it is, in contrast to home. The canonical example for me is the bit in Gulliver's Travels, because I read that first. But you get it in things from Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time to Callenbach's Ecotopia. And it's essentially a mainstream genre, because in SF the world is a character, and the world has to change.
Ada: Or at least if the world doesn't change, something strange is going on. The fact that the world in 1984 doesn't change and can't change is the source of its horror. I think that utopia in particular has changed and become more problematic in the modern era, i.e., Enlightenment and later. Before the 17th century or so, societies didn't tend to see change as constant; they didn't consider progress to be a natural thing that always happens, the way we do in the modern world. A medieval town, or a city in classical antiquity, expected that the way life worked would fundamentally stay fairly constant, and that changes might come as a result of disasters—like war—or great events—like the birth of a heroic king who would form a mighty kingdom—but not as an organic, natural process. There was change and progress throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, but people didn't think of it as that, didn't have it as part of their worldview in the same way.
Jo: Like Plato thinking souls from the underworld would find everything the same after a thousand years.
Ada: Exactly. When More writes Utopia, or when Plato writes his Republic, they are writing for audiences who think of kingdoms as stable, unchanging things, where it isn't strange for laws and culture to be unchanged after a millennium. In such an outlook, achieving an unchanging excellent society is the best outcome.
Jo: Because change is decline, never progress.
Ada: Sometimes, like in the Renaissance, change could be crawling back out from decline, but it was never an assumed, constant thing. Since the 17th century, and even more powerfully since the 18th, we have had the firm idea of progress: that each generation's experience will be different, and hopefully better, than that of the generations before. In a culture with a progress narrative, stagnation suddenly means the end of improvement, so a static utopia has a frightening, unnatural element, and a dystopia an extremely frightening element.
Jo: And that's right there powering a lot of SF.
Ada: Yes, SF is probably the genre most closely intertwined with progress narratives, whether voicing them or responding to and deconstructing them.
Jo: It's very interesting, both with the initial responses to Too Like The Lightning, and to my novel The Just City and the other books in the Thessaly series, where people are setting up versions of Plato's Republic, that people talking about them want to define them as utopian or dystopian.
Ada: Yes. I think in particular with the Thessaly books, because they're so explicitly philosophical, people come to them expecting a lecture—that they're going to be the kind of utopia/dystopia which rams some political view of the author's down the reader's throat. Then when that isn't the case, and it's instead a setting exploring in a realistic way how an attempted utopia might be a partial success, working in some ways but not in others, people don't expect that. They don't expect middle; they expect either utopia OR dystopia. Sometimes I chuckle and say "it's a topian book.”
Jo: What I was hoping for was to make the reader think. Is that also what you wanted?
Ada: Very much so.
Jo: I think a lot of the most successful "topias" written by SF writers in an SF tradition are what Delany calls "ambiguous heterotopias."
Ada: That's a great term.
Jo: When they're looking at ways things can be different. Fundamental things. Axioms.
Ada: Truisms, social building blocks.
Jo: Like Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and Delany's Triton. And books like that do cause the reader to ask questions. I read both of those when I was a teenager, and they definitely made me question things about the world and the way we live that I hadn't had cause to question before. Which is an experience SF does give one quite a bit as a teenager, but not so much as an adult. Which is one of the reasons I like the Terra Ignota books so much.
Ada: Do you think it happens less as an adult because you've experienced more, so not as many things seem new and mind-blowing? Or do you think less SF of that type is written now?
Jo: I've been assuming the former, but I also think there is less of it. There has been a turning away from the future. As space travel didn't come fast and easy. It's interesting how little positive SF there is.
Ada: Yes, and one sometimes sees works like Brian Fies's Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, which are explicitly about the frustration that our exciting space-faring future hasn't come as fast as golden age SF promised. But I think in some sense it's opened up an interesting new space for SF. Because we used to assume we would be far out in space within a century or two. There wasn't room for imagining a future where we were still on Earth in 400 years. It just seemed unrealistic unless some dystopia or apocalypse had interfered with human progress. But if we're starting to think that, several centuries from now, human culture will be a bit out into space but the majority of Earth culture will still be on Earth, that opens up a space for exploring what Earth society might be like if we had a few more centuries of cultural and political advancement before the big breakup into a multi-planetary society.
Jo: The middle future. Yes, a very interesting space.
Ada: With some progress, but not that particular kind of Star Trek far-off-in-space progress.
Jo: And culturally connected.
Ada: I think it's an interesting question, balancing utopia/utopianism with progress. My books are set in a future which is better than now. Not perfect, and not better in every way—it's better in some ways but worse in others, sort of three steps forward one step back. So it's better on poverty, for example, and the work week is shorter so people have more leisure time and are generally happier, but censorship has come back, and religion has developed in ways that some people today would think is great and others would think is horrible. It's interesting to me that people instantly try to categorize this future into "utopia" or "dystopia" because we don't really have a category for "pretty good future with some flaws."
Jo: An interesting question is "Would you want to live in it?" I would. It's such a great future. But for a lot of recent SF, even books I really enjoy, when I think about living there the answer is no, I would not.
Ada: Yes, that is a good test. And I do think it would be a great future to live in, in lots of ways, better than the present on a lot of metrics.
Jo: Like your point that 2015 was better than 1915, though still not perfect.
Ada: Yes, so much better.
Jo: And it's much easier to see the ways it's still not perfect than the improvement.
Ada: From living in it right now, yes. One of the fruits of progress is that we don't have to worry about things our predecessors worried about; they worked hard to make us not have to worry about them, but as a result we don't remember that they were ever a problem, and aren't aware of the greatness of the achievement. For that reason, I think another question for testing a utopia/utopian future is "Would you be happy if this world were the world that your efforts end up building? Would you be happy if this were Earth's future? If this were your legacy?"
Jo: That's a great question. Thinking about your Terra Ignota world, I would in some ways. Because it's a mixed world that feels real.
Ada: In many ways, that's a more real relationship we have with the future, the relationship of being the founders the future will look back on. That question is part of what Brave New World pushes on, because everyone living in Huxley's society is happy except for a few people whose brainwashing doesn't work, but no one would be happy to have that be the world we build, because so much of what we value is gone. For a more mixed future like mine, there is this question of, if the work we're doing is going to achieve A and B but at the cost of sacrificing Y and Z, is that still the better world I'm working toward?
In Terra Ignota, part of what I try to do by having the narrator focus so much on history is to get the reader to identify, not just with the characters in the book, but with the generations who created the world of the book, with the founders and forefathers and reformers that the narrator is looking back on and praising or criticizing. Since we are the past, really, so our place in this future is one of memory and legacy, and seeing future people try to live up to our efforts.
Jo: Even though we never hear about anyone from our own time or immediate past or future.
Ada: Right, but we hear about people who are one generation ahead of us, the children of today's children. We know we're the ones who raised these founders, taught them their values, and created the political situation they responded to. But that we're part of a longer chain, since we were raised by our predecessors.
Jo: It is a world with a deep connection to history. Not just to specific moments of history, but to history as a thing.
Ada: Yes. Because it's still on Earth, so the historical development has continuity with history as we know it, in a way that post-Earth futures just don't have.
Jo: There's a question that the characters raise at one point about whether they'd be prepared to risk a good world for a better one—the idea that utopia can be a local maximum.
Ada: Yes, a local maximum: the question of whether, if you hit a really good spot, you should try to make progress stop, since you risk disrupting it.
I was just looking at a fascinating utopia, Francis Bacon's New Atlantis. Bacon, working at the beginning of the 17th century, was the most vocal spearhead of progress as a concept, campaigning for the radical notion that, if we work together, and especially if scientists collaborate and systematically share their findings, then science could yield fruits good and useful for humankind, and every generation could be better off than the generation before. It's hard to imagine that being a new idea, but it was. But Bacon also wrote a utopia, based very much on More's in that it's set on a similar, newly-discovered island. It has the usual perfect laws and perfect government, but Bacon's description focuses on its academy of sciences, and how it's set up to constantly do research, explore, and find new ways to turn the fruits of science into things that will help people. It's fascinating because it's a utopia on the edge between progress and no progress. Thomas More thought utopia would be unchanging. Bacon thought it would have constant improvement through technology but that the laws and such could still be unchanging. He didn't realize yet what we know now, that technological change constantly causes social change and instability as it goes along. Thomas More, Plato, and even Bacon could write utopias that didn't have to wrestle with the fact that stability also means preventing progress.
Jo: But now that's the first thing we think.
Ada: Yes. So when we see a story set in an excellent future, we instantly assume there will be a conspiracy to keep it that way, stifling human progress. I also think that in some ways progress is slower than we imagine it. Because developments take a long time to have their full effects. In the 18th century, the Enlightenment started fighting for the idea of equal rights for all human beings, but here we are three centuries later still struggling to implement it fully. And our rocky attempts to do so along the way have had all sorts of unintended challenges and results. We can't create something as seemingly innocuous as Twitter, without it combining with other culture currents that were already there, to huge political consequences. That's why utopia and change have such a difficult relationship in any world that you also want to be realistic and historical. Earth has a lot of moving parts!
Jo: One of the things that makes Terra Ignota hard to talk about is that there's so much in the books. All the aspects of it are huge and thought-provoking.
Ada: Glad you think so. I think it comes from thinking like a historian, I always want to know every tiny detail. And I think a lot about how history takes steps forward along with steps back.
Jo: In the same way novels have a lot of orphaned characters, SF has a lot of orphaned futures—maybe because it's easier to start fresh. But it's so interesting in Terra Ignota to have the history and context there
Ada: You mean orphaned in the sense of having no clear continuity of how we got to them? As, indeed, Huxley doesn't tell us how we got from the 20th century to his Brave New World. SF is so forward-looking; I wanted to write something that looked forward and back. And also where the present wasn't the starting point, it was the midpoint, where the starting point is farther back in history. Not extrapolating from present social and political institutions but extrapolating the progress curve from past institutions through present ones toward future ones. And thinking about what historical perennials may be at low ebb now but are likely to come back.
Aristotle talked about three forms of government—democracy, aristocracy and monarchy—more than two thousand years ago, so even if democracy is dominant right now it makes sense to ask what futures aristocracy and monarchy might have, as well as democracy. Terra Ignota has democracies, and monarchies, and aristocracies, and hybrids of them, just like every century of human history we have on record has had as well. They have new forms, new hybrids, and new problems in new circumstances, but they're also still developments, with continuity from what was there before.
Jo: And how different those things are when you can opt out—can you talk about how that works a little bit?
Ada: In the world of Terra Ignota, transit is so fast and travel is so common that it's normal to live in Spain and work in Tokyo while your spouse works in Miami and you both have dinner in Bermuda. It doesn't work for citizenship to be based on where you live or where you're born. Instead, it's run like a world of ex-pats, where people choose the nation they identify with politically to have citizenship, but people from any nation can live everywhere, and every house on a block might be governed by a different law. In such a world, changing citizenship is easy because it doesn't require giving up your home, job, and community, so people choose governments based on their ideals or identities. If your government is going in a direction you really don't like, it's normal, rather than exceptional, to change. Normal and easy, rather than exceptional and difficult, to change.
Now imagine an absolute monarchy in such a world, where if the subjects don't like the Emperor they can easily change. Suddenly monarchy can be absolute and yet still have accountability, since a tyrant will quickly have no voluntary subjects, so even a political system as old-hat as monarchy means something different and science fictional in this new circumstance.
I think a lot of people, writing in a similar setting with mobile populations, would have based all the imagined governments on modern governments, variations on democracy and economic theories. But thinking in terms of long-term history, it makes sense to me for some of the governments to be new systems and others to be old systems tried again in new ways.
Jo: It certainly is a fascinating way to do it. In Necessity, all the people are used to variations on Plato's Republic, which they've been doing for three generations by that time. And I thought about what they'd think of us, of our political systems, from that expectation, and they'd just define it as oligarchy. It would be the box they have to put it into. All our kinds of government, to them, are variations of oligarchy.
Ada: It's always interesting to think about how people from the past would label institutions of the future. We aren’t used to thinking about voices of the past judging the future. We’re used to the opposite. The only context in which we tend to use past eyes to judge the future is really the present, when we look back on 20th century SF predictions about the 21st century and talk about how our present reality compares unfavorably to The Door Into Summer, or Astro Boy, or Back to the Future.
Jo: I have called that "present shock," the opposite of future shock, when the present seems so mundane and primitive compared to what SF expected. Sometimes I'll respond to “Where's my flying car?” with “Well, where's their beautiful internet?” But now when people complain about SF futures not being shiny like they used to be, I've been wanting to say to them, "Ada has your flying cars right here."
Ada: Flying cars, and also political and legal institutions which make them practical. Because we have developed flying cars already, but the infrastructure, how to land them, how to license them, how to govern a world where every individual might have the ability to hop borders, that will take a lot of ironing out. Technology's growing pains are often social.
But yes, my future has flying cars: simply working, ubiquitous, constant, and delightful, and making the world better now that the world has finished up its flying car growing pains. I wanted to make a statement about genre with that too, by taking a classically utopian golden age SF symbol, the flying car, and saying yes, that is exactly the kind of future I want to explore—an exciting, classic future, with flying cars, and helpful robots, and sparkling futuristic towers of glass and steel, and children taking field trips to the Moon. Books like that don't get written much anymore, but I think there are new things to be said about that kind of future, exploring it with new questions, especially about social and historical things.
Jo: I wonder if people are seeing all that positive energy making the world better and mistaking it for a utopia? I've been thinking the same kind of thing about some of the responses I've been getting to Thessaly.
Ada: Perhaps because positive futures aren't written about very much. We're so saturated with dystopia, post-apocalyptic, and grimdark works. Outside the genre, our everyday discourse, especially in politics, is so filled with negativity, fear, anxiety, pessimism, anger, and frightening predictions. I think we're in a moment where optimism stands out so starkly against the dark surroundings that it feels like utopia even if it's something that, written thirty years ago, would have felt very normal for SF.
Jo: On a related note, with Thessaly I've had some readers assume that I'm using the politics and the philosophy to proselytise rather than explore. Have you encountered that kind of assumption?
Ada: Not yet, since the book's not out, but I imagine that I will. It's difficult as the author, making it clear that when you have characters voice opinions, they're meant to be character opinions, not endorsements. I have the advantage that I have tons of characters, though, and tons of factions, so there are many voices disagreeing with each other, as a good discussion should be.
I think part of the thinking I'm trying to provoke is about utopia itself, and utopianism, and why our relationship with it is different now from the way it was a few decades ago. It's an interesting fact about this moment that when we see positivity we expect utopia, and that when we see utopia we expect either naivete or a lecture. I hope that, by looking at a positive future in a serious and thoroughly thought-through way, and by making it a positive future which nonetheless contains within it diverse, competing threads of politics and philosophy and opinion, I can get people to think about what kinds of good futures we might really still be building. We aren't building a future which is going to have flying cars and a Mars base by 2020, and we won't be at Star Trek advancement by 2265, but that doesn't mean the only futures we should be exploring are either distant ones or near futures filled with doom and failure. I'm excited by looking at better futures—dynamic, evolving, but still utopian futures—we might be creating with the work we're doing now, and I hope these books will make others excited to explore similar questions.
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