How to Build a Future History: Ada Palmer Discusses the Terra Ignota Series

We can’t say enough good things about Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, which began with Too Like the Lightning, a best book of 2016 pick. We recently sat down with Palmer to discuss the recent release of the sequel, Seven Surrenders, and her plans for the rest of this ambitious four-volume saga. What follows is a glimpse into her writing process, her vision of the past and future, and what readers can look forward to in the next book.

Congratulations on another spectacular book, and a fantastic second installment in the Terra Ignota series.
Thanks!  It’s a relief having it out; I felt as if the first book was unfinished without it.

After the introduction to this future in Too Like The Lightning, what were your goals approaching Seven Surrenders?
Seven Surrenders is all payoff, the moment when the small crumbs unite into the avalanche.  Really, the whole first book is setup: introducing the structures, the stakes. Sometimes I feel like I rolled an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine out onto the stage, showed the audience all the parts and how they fit together, and then hit the button, and it froze at that moment for a commercial break. Seven Surrenders is when all the action clicks into place.

In many ways, this is a much more personal book. We learn what makes Mycroft tick, and who he’s become since the days of his crimes. How did you balance that inner life against the backdrop of conflict on such a global scale?
Mostly by having the narrator focus on trying to capture the personal experience of the crisis, more than summarizing the grand details.  The book is structured as a history, but there are lots of ways to frame a history: big summaries of grand events is one, but another kind is the personal history—biography, microhistory, histories that zoom in and use a few [people’s] experiences to make a past event comprehensible.

I like that style, because it makes it easier to feel emotional connection and empathy, to imagine yourself in the event.  My narrator, Mycroft Canner, writes this kind of history, so that even when giant earthshaking news is ricocheting around the globe, what he chooses to show the reader is one family’s living room as they watch the news break—the texture of the sofa, the smell of tea, the rim of water in their eyes not quite breaking into tears.  That keeps it human, and makes the reader think about what it would feel like to live through these changes, instead of thinking directly about the changes themselves.

For a novel heavily invested in the future, it seems Seven Surrenders cannot escape the past. How did the weight of history, in all forms, influence how this future would begin to break?
We can’t escape our past either. We constantly use and reuse history. As a historian, I look at this constantly: how we change our narratives of the past, re-label things, move where we draw the lines between different eras, reframe things as good or bad. If you look around in the news, so many political arguments center on appropriations of the past: including or excluding groups, venerating or blaming people, celebrating or condemning events, movements, or even whole periods. Whether it’s the Renaissance reappropriating ancient Greece and Rome, 19th century England and Germany reappropriating Celtic, Norse and Germanic antiquities, or contemporary American political factions advancing competing narratives about the founding of the USA, history is a huge tool humans reach for in times of political and social pressure, tension, and transformation.

It made sense to me that this future would also look to its past when trying to understand itself, and have different ways of interpreting and labeling earlier eras from our own.  Because a lot of this future’s tensions involve its taboos on discussing religion and gender, I thought it was plausible that it would look to the Enlightenment, as the period [encompassed] a lot of groundbreaking ideas about religion and gender that circulated in clandestine ways because of censorship and taboos.

If Too Like The Lightning was all about the potential conflicts that could arise from a utopian society, Seven Surrenders shows how they would play out across the globe. Is conflict something humanity can outrun in the pursuit of a better world, or are we destined to repeat our wars and past, no matter the golden days we live in?
Certainly that’s one of the issues that the characters in the book struggle with. Some think that conflicts will always be inevitable, but most of them have a different view, that humanity does have the capacity to improve enough that conflict will be a thing of the past, but that such an achievement is a long way off, longer than we would think.

This takes place in a future that has had 300 years of world peace, and a lot of people in it think that war is a thing of the past. People in Europe felt the same thing in 1913, and talked about how civilization had advanced so much that large-scale war was now impossible. People in 1913 were wrong, and the people in 2454 are also wrong, but they don’t conclude that this means humans are somehow locked into war forever, only that this future, as advanced as it is, still has a long way to go. Very much like our own.

There’s an emphasis on religion, religiosity, godhood, divine power, and nature throughout the series. How did you balance the intense focus on religion and faith in the middle of all these crises happening at once?
I wanted to examine religiosity in a world where it was normal but silent. The world of Terra Ignota has fierce censorship—one of the elements which makes it hard for us to call it a “utopia”—and I wanted to look at how characters would think and feel about religion in a world where it was silenced.

Right now there are lots of parts of our society that are very open and vocal about religion, but there are also groups and veins of society that are uncomfortable about public religious discourse. I don’t just mean people who want to get religion out of politics, but people who feel uncomfortable or violated when asked about religion in public, who respect religion but feel that it should be private, confidential, confined to personal spaces, much as we try to confine sexuality.  I wanted to explore that thread in our culture, and what would happen if it became dominant.

Some readers have said the world of Terra Ignota felt like a paradise because religion was safe and free but harmless and apolitical, and no one could force religion on anyone or be judged for religion—perfect religious freedom. But others felt like it is a horrifically oppressive society, stripping away all religious expression and, with it, banning things like group religious gatherings, shared religious culture, heritage, family. I wanted to write a book which would help people realize that what feels like religious freedom to one person feels like oppression for another, and to stimulate conversation about how we can find a way to balance these models of the ideal place of religion in society. Having crises explode through the world of Terra Ignota then puts its way of handling religion under pressure, and over multiple books we get to see how this world tries to adapt and manage when it needs to have religious discourse despite having such severe religious censorship.

Likewise, for a world so grounded in technology and reality, there are several characters with abilities for whom rational explanation cannot even come close. How did this deliberate choice affect the grounding and reality of this world?
Having those supernatural elements helps the story, and the reader, zoom out. In the midst of great political turmoil it’s easy to get caught up in factions or sides, rooting hard for a character or group, feeling anger, bitterness, triumph, gloating, as different powers rise or fall. But when there’s something supernatural like Bridger’s power—something which by itself could have an impact so huge that it dwarfs everything else—it makes you zoom out and reset your moral compass, since there’s a different issue on the table so huge that, no matter which of these many competing factions receives victory, defeat, vindication, or punishment, none of that matters in comparison to what that power can do for every single person who has ever lived, or will ever live.  It resets the ethics so that suddenly, globe-spanning powers are small, and that helps you have a different perspective on them, and especially on whether their claims that it’s worthwhile to sacrifice X to achieve Y are justifiable. Also I just love metaphysics, and I think it enhances any story by raising the consequences to another level.

Your characters are so rich and beautiful, intense and passionate in everything they do. Is there one you love to write, a mind you enjoy wading into? Are there characters whose minds make you wary?
They’re all delightful to write, even the very difficult ones.  I love writing Martin’s methodical thinking and Latin-influenced grammar, Sniper’s clean and determined energy, Bryar Kosala’s practical warmth, MASON’s iron strength, Madame’s insinuating cunning that gives me shivers when I get it right.  And Mycroft Canner, of course, who is so complex and so intense. I’ve enjoyed Mycroft’s lush voice so much that I often feel like I miss writing him when I spend a while working on one of the chapters that has a different narrator. The hardest character to write by far is J.E.D.D. Mason—such complex thinking, such a strange language palette; sometimes I’ll spend a whole day on just one line of dialog, getting it right. But when I get it right, it feels amazing.

What do you want people to feel after reading this novel, and how do you want them to apply it to their own world and future?
I want readers to come away full of questions, not about what happened, but about the broader world, and ethics. About big questions of the book, like whether or not this world feels like a utopia to each individual reader, and why or why not (answers vary a lot).  And whether we, in the 21st century, would say the efforts of our era have been successful or unsuccessful, if this is the future we end up building. And, of course, whether you would destroy this world to save a better one.

My favorite reader responses have been the ones where people have said they spent hours or days afterwards just chewing on the ideas, or sought around for other people who had read the book because they felt they had to talk about it.  Conversation!

Can you give us a taste of what’s to come in The Will to Battle, and how the tragedy that ends book two may affect everyone moving forward?
The whole structure of the four books comes from the title quotation:  “Too like the lightning which doth cease to be ere one can say it lightens.”

When I first heard that line, sitting through a friend’s rehearsal of Romeo & Juliet, I thought about how powerful it would be to write a story that had something in it which was incredibly precious, that lit up and changed the whole world, but was lost half-way through, so the entire second half of the story would be defined by that loss, and everyone’s efforts to find ways to move forward from it. There are a lot of things lost at the end of Seven Surrenders, and together those losses conjoin to make it a turning point for the whole world, as well as for all the characters.

If the first half of Terra Ignota is a tragedy, the reason the whole four-book series is not a tragedy is that the next two books are about coping and responding.  What comes next is action, reconstruction, moving forward from that tragedy, into dark things, but also a moment in which we can be proud of humanity comporting itself well in difficult days. The only other taste I’ll give of book three is that the two new major sources that I’m using for it are Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and Barbara Tuckman’s The Guns of August.  And we get to learn more details about the laws of Romanova, and about Hiveless, and especially Blacklaws.

Seven Surrenders is available now.

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