Ada Palmer is true Renaissance woman: she’s a professor by trade, specializing in history and the history of ideas at the University of Chicago, a Manga Scholar, composer, and has published the nonfiction work Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance. Palmer’s fiction debut, Too Like the Lightning, is a complex and broad-reaching work of sci fi, that smartly wraps several interconnected mysteries within a serious suite of philosphical and cultural themes. I was able to grab some time with Ada Palmer as she was in the midst of promoting the book. One commenter with a U.S. or Canadian mailing address will win a copy of Too Like the Lightning. See below for details.
Jason Golomb: My one-word description of Too Like the Lightning is: Ambitious. The world you built is very recognizable as our own … but evolved. As an author, how did you approach creating our world of the future?
Ada Palmer: Since I’m a historian by trade and training, world building a future was, for me, a process of looking back over the last 400 years and asking myself what fundamental elements of life are different now from before, and then speculate how they might change yet again. Since I spend most of my time with my head in the Renaissance, I think of a lot of things which people assume are ‘universal’ as instead being anomalies of this particular moment in history. I looked at lots of things we take for granted but that are actually recent—the nuclear family, the five day work week, the dominance of democracy, road-based transportation being our main transportation—and tried to think of them as midpoints of a change that’s still continuing instead of endpoints.
Working as a cultural and intellectual historian in particular, which is my specialty, also helps me ask questions about how people think, since when you look at a different time period differences in technology or lifestyle are usually easy to understand, it’s differences in logic, what people think is true and how they decide what to believe or not believe, that can make people in the past feel so alien. To use a tiny example, when you introduce people at a party right now you say “This is [name] [s]he’s a [occupation]” (teacher/chemist/gymnast etc.) but at other moments in history instead of occupation you might have mentioned the person’s city, political party, clan, patron deity, quarter of the city, guild (paradoxically often unrelated to occupation). Each of those differences reflects a different culture, so I tried to make my future have a culture with a fabric of background practices and assumptions as thorough and as alien as past historical moments.
You’ve said that you enjoy extensive world-building. What are your top four or five world-building influences?
Both the structure/style of the book and the bigger questions that it opens up out into are very intentionally based on eighteenth-century philosophical novels, works like Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and Voltaire’s Candide and Micromegas (which it’s science fiction! It even has aliens!). Those eighteenth-century works are speculative fiction in their way, creating stories that are set inside a particular metaphysics that the author wants to explore (or believes in). I wanted to write something that similarly explored, not just a future world, but the metaphysics that the narrator believes in, exposed through the kind of intimate, opinionated narration that is so rare now but used to be so common, when the author would put strong moral interpretations on things, or directly address the “gentle reader.” Writing like that about a future setting, I get to explore both a new world and the fabric of a new mindset inside the narrator’s head, and ask the kinds of deeply personal, tender, metaphysically soul-searching questions that eighteenth-century authors so often asked.
Gene Wolfe is my biggest modern world building influence, the Book of the New Sun and also Soldier of the Mist. Those were the first fiction I had read which felt fully alien and immersive in a cultural sense, which made me as the reader work hard to penetrate the mindsets of the characters. Gene Wolfe’s future in the Book of the New Sun feels like it has its own customs in every direction—theater, mythology, sexuality, violence—and I aimed to make mine feel as thick and real. As for the actual world, Alfred Bester is a big influence, I love the excitement and manic energy of his futures, with their high-speed development, glittering luxury and passionate, obsessive characters, and also his focus in The Stars My Destination on the way a transportation revolution can transform the world.
Your publisher described Too Like the Lightning as The Illiad meets I, Claudius. The book has high drama, a believable historic foundation, and complicated politics. The politics, alliances, and historical development of hives could be described as ‘web-like’. What tools or methods did you use to track the internecine political machinations, and interconnected plot lines and character relationships?
Spreadsheets! I have a lot of spreadsheets tracking, not only what happens in every chapter, but where each character is and what everyone is doing at the same time, color-coded to help me see at a glance if a particular character has been absent a long time, or present an excessive amount. I have calendars too, not only tracking events but tracking on what date the narrator is sitting down to write each chapter, since the text I present is a “history” actually written in-world, so the amount of time that has passed between the events and the writing of each chapter changes what the narrator knows about later events, and what he foreshadows; the narrator of chapter fifteen knows more than the narrator of chapter one, even though both are looking back on all the events being described. But in fact I find I rarely have to check the spreadsheets, since I remember everything so tightly.
I think I don’t have trouble with it because I concentrate so much on tracking what the narrator knows and feels at each moment, which is also how the reader experiences it and keeps it straight. The strongly-opinionated narrator sorts people into groups and factions, heroes and villains, friends and enemies, projecting an extra layer of more familiar narratives on top of the new story I’m telling. One of the things you naturally do as you read is question the narrator’s paradigms, ask why the narrator presents X character as a tragic sacrificial lamb and Y character as a paragon of kingly virtue, but having those familiar characterizations makes it easy to remember who people are, and as things unfold you aren’t just watching events flow in a vacuum, you’re comparing what actually happens to the stock narrative formula that the narrator made you expect, to see how they overlap and how they differ.
Philosophical themes pervade Too Like the Lightning and it’s not hard to see genesis of those items based on your background. You’re an author, historian, and composer. You’re a professor of history and classics and an expert on anime and manga. Let’s play ‘chicken and egg’ – did you develop your characters first and allow them to grow into their political/philosophical leanings; or did your own foundation in philosophy and history drive the characters perspectives.
Usually my characters are born from an idea for a powerful moral or emotional moment. Something else I’m experiencing—a historical source, something in another work of fiction, a misunderstanding, even a piece of music—will give me a vivid idea for a particular moment in time at which a character could be facing a fascinating moral choice between A and B, or being pressured in a particular way. That gets me thinking about what kind of personality a person would have to have to face that choice, or what kind of situation would have to exist for the choice to be possible. When I get that kind of seed idea for a person, then I drop the person in the world I’m building and see how he/she/it/they would fit, and usually I discover that if the person were in X place, or part of X group, it would have exciting implications. Everything connects together from there.
So if there’s a seed in being a historian, it’s in gathering from my broad reading in historical sources that brings me face-to-face with a lot of odd moral moments that we don’t tend to encounter in modern texts, or reading philosophy and seeing a thinker talk about an abstract thought experiment and wanting to create the situation in which someone would face that in real life, and have to choose. My music is narrative too, most of it is Viking mythology stories set to music, because Norse mythology has a lot of unique moral situations and metaphysics, and I wanted to explore those moral climaxes and make them even more vivid for people using the emotional power of music.
Finally, we ask all of our interviewees if they have a favorite drink — either relating to your creative process (as a relaxation aid while writing, for example) or something involved with your work. Are there any beverages which remind you of working on Terra Ignota, or which you drank to celebrate its publication?
Goat milk is my usual favorite luxury beverage, that or really good cow’s milk fresh from our farm CSA. I love all kinds of milk, the subtle differences between 1% and 2% and whole, different farms, homogenized or un-homogenized, different pasteurization methods, to me they’re as exciting as different kinds of wine, or coffee. But if this novel was fueled by one beverage it was definitely my weird breakfast drink: I heat up a glass of apple cider and then stir in a scoop of unflavored whey protein powder. It may sound nasty, but the heat makes it dissolve and become creamy and delicious, more like a fancy Starbucks drink than a gritty health food shake, except much less sweet. I can guzzle one down in 20 seconds, which buys a lot of morning time for writing, and then I can save my leisurely meal minutes for dinners with friends.
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of Too Like the Lightning. U.S. and Canada-based addresses only, please.
I liked the reference to Gene Wolf’s Book of the New Sun about world building. That is one of my favorite series.
Me, too. One of my absolute favorites!
Thanks for the interview.
I’ve heard good things about Too Like The Lightning, and I’m even more intrigued now that I know about the author’s historical influences.
Also, mentioning Voltaire’s “Candide” and Diderot’s “Jacques le Fataliste” brings back somewhat painful French Literature memories from high school years. :)
The philosophical aspect of this novel really caught my attention, as well as the author’s background with history.
I love it when authors take world building seriously and considers a wide range of factors, not just X did/did not happen. I’ve seen several places tout Too Like The Lightning and I’m looking forward to reading it.
Great interview. I love immersive world building. I can’t wait to read this book!
Color me curious. I wonder what conflict drives the setting.
Terrific interview, looking forward to reading Too Like The Lightening.
This is a really good interview. I like how Palmer makes use of her background as a historian to ask essential questions and flesh out her world building. I haven’t read Too Like the Lightning, but I’m definitely adding this one to my goodreads TBR.
I’m even more psyched to read To Like the Lightning after this interview–Palmer’s views on history and worldbuilding are very much in line with my own sentiments as a historian and fantasy fan.
I actually ordered this book yesterday. I can’t wait. Great interview!
I keep hearing marvelous things about this book. Interesting interview.
Francene Lewis, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING!
Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!
Great interview, Jason! I definitely think this books sounds intriguing based on Ada Palmer’s cultural historian training (and happens to teach at my alma mater too). Seems like the ideal background for SF world-building, and the philosophical approach of 18th century writers also sounds unusual.