This interview with Ada Palmer is long overdue, it was originally supposed to be out right after Seven Surrenders was published along with a review. I think it’s been too long since I read the book to write an effective review so I decided to just go ahead and publish the interview. I loved the book, though, it’s just as good as Too Like the Lightning (which is up for the Hugo this year).
I hope you enjoy the interview!
For instructions on how to enter the giveaway, please see the bottom of this post.
Hi Ada! Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
Too Like the Lightning was one of my favorite books of last year – I’d never read anything quite like it (until I read Seven Surrenders anyway). What inspired you to write a series that has elements of classic science fiction, metaphysics and the Enlightenment?
Voltaire’s Micromegas. Though we think of SF as a modern genre, Voltaire wrote science fiction too. In his story aliens come to Earth and make first contact with humans—very classic—and the first things they talk about are whether the existence of God can be proved from observation of Nature, whether God designed the universe for humanity, and whether Aquinas or Descartes or Plato is most correct about the nature of the immortal soul. I was tickled reading it because they aren’t the questions we would ask in an alien encounter, but every age has different questions that they are obsessed with and think everyone will always be obsessed with, so we write stories where humans talk to aliens about tensions between Faith and Reason, or about heroism and power, and in a way that’s no more nor less implausible than Voltaire’s. That made me think about how every age has different questions in the air, and we have so much more robust science fiction now, such a rich palette of terms, concepts, imagined futures, but no one had ever taken a classic golden age-esque SF future with flying cars and a Moon Base and asked of it the questions Voltaire would have asked, about Providence, and theodicy, and Enlightenment moral questions. I wanted to try that, to ask 18th century questions of a sophisticated SF future, and to use that to try to portray a future as alien to our present as our present is to 400 years ago.
Was writing Seven Surrenders any different from writing Too Like the Lightning? Did you do anything differently?
No, not at all. I outlined the entire series in great detail before I wrote a word of Too Like the Lightning, so Seven Surrenders was just the continuation of the plan. The only thing that gave me difficulty was getting the volume break to work well, to give enough closure at the end of Too Like the Lightning, since there were a lot of things, reveals especially, that I wished I could’ve fit into the first book, rather than making the reader wait for the second, but there was just no way to get them in at the length I was asked to aim for. The end of the second book was much easier, it has a very clear resolution, but I did some playing around with the end of the first book and the beginning of the second, rearranging the order of the six chapters that straddle that break, to work on how to give book 1 as much of a sense of closure as I could. It was hard when there wasn’t time to really get to the big reveals, but I at least got to sketching a solid shadow of what is coming.
I can’t wait for the next book in the series, The Will to Battle, and I’m really glad that Tor is releasing the books relatively quickly. Is there anything you can tell us about it without spoilers for Seven Surrenders?
The Will to Battle has a very different narration structure, even though it might not seem that different at first. The first half of the series—Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders—are a history, and Mycroft wrote them in retrospect, after the events he is describing, and after having done interviews and research, and planned out his narrative. That means, for example, that Mycroft has the same understanding of the other characters throughout, and knows the same things, so he can foreshadow them or set them up. The Will to Battle is a chronicle, written in sections as the events unfold, so the character narrating doesn’t know what the later outcome of the events will be, and is often surprised by twists of events, or suddenly has different opinions from those voiced in the previous chapter because events have progressed between the writing of individual chapters, in addition to events progressing in the narrative. The differences are sometimes subtle from the reader’s perspective, but it’s actually very different from my perspective planning it, and keeping a calendar of precisely what has happened when each section is written.
Will we meet any everyday 25th century people in the next two Terra Ignota books? So far, we’ve mostly been spending time with geniuses and/or world leaders, and I’m curious to see how most of the world lives.
Yes, we will, though not in everyday circumstances, only in the extraordinary situations that have resulted from the events of the first two books. I chose to tell this story by focusing on the characters with the most political agency, whose decisions most directly impact political events, particularly since it was the best way to give us intense encapsulations of the different philosophies associated with the different groups, and also so the reader could see the pressures caused by the situation focused to their maximum. It’s an approach parallel to that which Robert Graves used in I Claudius, which was one of my models. But as we see the aftereffects ripple out, more slices of events on the ground will become important ways to explore the real human consequences of changes.
Are there any further Terra Ignota books planned after the next two? Are you working on any other speculative fiction projects?
Terra Ignota will be finished with the fourth book. I had a very specific plan from the beginning, and am still happy with it as an end. But I always plan projects very far ahead—I have to if I want the world building to be so in-depth—so I’m already doing world building for several subsequent series, three of which are mature enough that I could sit down soon to outline them. The next one, unless plans change, will be a Viking mythology series, based on my work with the Eddas and other Icelandic and Northern European sources.
You’re a historian, a professor, a composer, and a writer! How do you get so much done?
I’m not good at balancing it yet, especially as academic work is getting more and more demanding. You may have noticed I only update my blog a couple of times a year now, and composing is on the back burner. But I do work very hard at time management, and at keeping myself at 100%. A lot of it comes down to learning about myself, figuring out when my best and freshest hours are and reserving those for the activities that most need me at 100% — writing and research – and making sure that minor tasks like e-mail or paperwork get saved for the more tired hours, since it’s fine to do those when I’m only running at 80%. I also work hard at listening to my body, sleeping enough, eating foods that keep me feeling good, relaxing and playing games with friends a few times a week, and exercising at least a little bit, again to keep me focused. A few hours of work at 100% are actually more productive than pushing it and exhausting myself, and I often write more in a day when I’ve taken part of the morning to exercise or read a refreshingly interesting chapter and then write for only a few hours than I do if I try to binge-write all day. But everyone works differently, so the real key is to learn about myself and how I produce best—there are no universals.
What parts of writing do you find the easiest/hardest and most fun/tedious?
The only tedious part is arguing with copy editors about minutiae like which/that. Happily that hasn’t happened with fiction, since my editors at Tor have really trusted me and left my style practically untouched, so it’s only with academic editors that I have the occasional tiff. Everything else is pretty easy – whenever I carve out time for writing and sit down it flows. Some parts are slower going than others (writing J.E.D.D. Mason’s dialog always takes forever) but it’s always intense and enjoyable.
If you could go back and edit or re-do a particular scene in something that you’ve already published, what would you change?
Nothing major yet, nothing beyond tiny things like the typo on page 16 of the Too Like the Lightning hardcover that really bothers me, or one point in Seven Surrenders where I accidentally said Masami Mitsubishi when I meant Toshi Mitsubishi (even I have trouble keeping them straight sometimes.) I think the only major wish I have would be to change it so books 1 and 2 could have come out together so people didn’t have to wait! But this is mostly because I finished book 3 before book 1 went into press, so I had lots of chances to go back and change things in the first two if I wanted to (though the only changes were tiny ones). By the time I finish Book 4 I bet I’ll have found something I wished I could tweak.
Which character that you have created ended up surprising you the most because of the decisions they made?
I don’t get surprised in that way, I plan too thoroughly for that, every decision carefully thought through in the outlining stage. I think I do a lot of working through things in outlining that other authors do in drafts. The closest thing to a surprise is occasionally when I had planned to reveal something about a character in a particular chapter but then unexpectedly it comes out naturally in an earlier chapter, or alternately it doesn’t flow naturally in the chapter where I expected to reveal it and has to fit in later. I had one of those recently in book 4 where we learned something very personal about a character a good five chapters before I had expected it to come, but it’s working well.
What are you most challenged by these days?
Time! I don’t have enough, and my e-mail is an exploding firehose of time-eating doom. In terms of writing, where I am in book 4 I’m enjoying the interesting challenge that a lot of the chapters have unusual or unique structures, which require extra planning and new approaches. If you think of the first book, for example, there are the chapters written by Martin Guildbreaker, which are different from the usual Mycroft chapters and require different planning and techniques. In Seven Surrenders similarly the second chapter is different and unusual in structure, as is the titular chapter “Seven Surrenders.” The part of book 4 I’m working on now is a string of unusually-structured chapters like that, each of which presents a unique challenge, especially for pacing.
What writer would you wish to hear has always wanted to meet you?
I’m new to the field so I think people “always” having wanted to meet me would require a time machine. I’m a great admirer of Gene Wolfe, whose Book of the New Sun inspired many aspects of my work, especially how I went about world building and narration, so I’d be stunned and honored if I heard he had read Terra Ignota and wanted to talk to me about it and how it built on his work. Similarly Samuel R. Delany. Or, of course, Diderot, since his Jacques the Fatalist was my biggest source. The other day a reader said that my description of Diderot’s project in the book made him tear up—I think Diderot would be proud.
And now for a couple of fun questions…
If you could be a member of any fantasy race, which would you choose and why? (Please feel free to describe your weapon of choice as well).
AN IMMORTAL ONE definitely! Or with the ability to move freely to and from the afterlife. Especially if I could still live here and now and work with scientists who could run tests on me and use it to develop medical immortality to share with everyone else! Beyond that the small differences between different immortal races almost don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Other than that, I think it could be fascinating and exciting to be a Yith from Lovecraft, and travel through time and space collecting knowledge for the ultimate library, but I wouldn’t want the grim and depressing Lovecraft universe to be real, or to have to take over other people’s bodies. Similarly being one of Osamu Tezuka’s Moopies would be fascinating—aliens with perfect adaptability, so they can live in any environment, cross with any species, and help other species adapt to any new planet, making space exploration easier for all they meet—but it would be terrible actually being a Moopie in Tezuka’s universe given the metaphysics which always leads them to doom. As for a weapon, persuasion is my technique—over and over in LARPs and RPGs the GM gives me a cool weapon or spell and I never use it, I just persuade people instead. So something to make my persuasion penetrate magically, or a bardic thing to entrance people to pay attention to my words would make the most sense. Or, it’s not quite a weapon but in the anime Yakkitate! Japan there’s a kid who can bake a bread so delicious that, when you eat it, you can project back in time and change the past to fix the things that give you sorrow—resolving conflicts by solving enemies’ problems and making the world better while also creating amazingly delicious food seems pretty perfect to me. But if I had to have a more traditional weapon I’d use archery, or I’d pilot a Gundam with a DRAGOON system (advanced remote-control multidirectional attack, like a cloud of drones you direct while piloting).
If you could have Mycroft team up with a fictional character from another author’s universe, who would it be and why?
It’s a funny question, since Mycroft actually has the ability to team up with any character from any author’s universe, thanks to Bridger’s power. So the books themselves have literally answered that question internally. If we were thinking of externally, though, of porting Mycroft into another work, I think he’d be really fun playing the role of a “clever slave” or “clever servant” character in a classical Roman comedy or Commedia dell’Arte play, or Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. And if it were just for a few hours, I’d love to see him in a room with Paarfi of Roundwood, from Steve Brust’s books—they could talk about narrative voice, and how to write a history, and just hearing the language unfold, each getting more and more polite and more and more ornamented and archaizing, would be exquisite.
Tor Books is letting me give away one set of Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders! To enter, please email me at email@example.com with subject “Terra Ignota” and your name and mailing address (US/Canada only). This giveaway is open until Aug 31, 2017.
Please make sure to include your full mailing address, I cannot consider you for the giveaway without it.
Note on privacy: I will not be using your email address or mailing address for any purpose other than this specific giveaway. If you win, your mailing address will be forwarded to the book’s publisher (Tor Books, in this case) so that they can mail you the book, but they won’t ever see your email address.