Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Interview with Ada Palmer, author of Too Like the Lightning

Please welcome Ada Palmer to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews and the Too Like the Lightning Blog Tour. Too Like the Lightning was published on May 10th by Tor Books.

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

Ada:  I started writing when I was tiny. I still have a one paragraph short story about blue and silver alien raccoons on Planet Forest printed out on the new high-tech dot matrix printer at my Dad’s office and lovingly illustrated in scribble. I remember the thrill as the words came out in real print, it felt so important, so permanent. So I’ve been writing, and plotting and outlining stories constantly for as long as I can remember. At first I just enjoyed creating stories and wanted to share them, but over time I became more interested in the conversation people have about stories, wanting to add my ideas to the big worldwide discussion and see people chew on them and create new ideas in response.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Ada:  I outline everything in advance, usually more than a book ahead, so for this series I was outlining book three as I began book 1. I don’t think I could make something so intricate without a detailed outline. I stick to my outlines too, and regret it when I don’t. Sometimes as I’m working I look back over my outline and think, “Why did I make those two separate chapters? I can cut this bit and merge these two together and save space!” and then I try, and a week into banging my head against the attempt I admit, “Nope, Past Me was completely right, those have to be two separate chapters. Why do I even doubt Past Me anymore?”

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Ada:  Finding time. I’m a historian by trade, teaching at U Chicago, which is not a profession that’s kind to your leisure hours. If I’m not up late helping students I’m up late translating Latin, or drafting articles, or helping the Shakespeare screening club or something. I have to be incredibly disciplined about time to carve out any, though I do try to write in the morning every day, if an academic emergency or new discovery doesn’t interfere. When I do sit down to write I’m always so eager and over-ready for it that it flows right out, not quickly but certainly with no delay or difficulty; on the contrary, I get so into it that time flies, and sometimes I discover I’m running late to my own class (ouch!) or that I’ve forgotten to eat lunch. And breakfast.

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

AdaTerra Ignota is most directly based on 18th century philosophical novels by figures like Voltaire and Diderot. They wrote speculative fiction too, of a sort, exploring imagined political systems, metaphysics, even aliens in Voltaire’s Micromegas. We’re used to using classic science fiction futures to ask questions about things like technology, heroism, or transhumanism, but I wanted to write one that would ask the kinds of questions 18th century authors asked, about cultural relativism, hierarchy, equality, and whether we can reconcile Justice and Providence.

TQDescribe Too Like the Lightning in 140 characters or less.

Ada:  A future of globe-spanning borderless nations faces 2 threats: a break-in at the world transit hub, & a miracle-working boy in a world which bans religious language.

TQTell us something about Too Like the Lightning that is not found in the book description.

Ada:  Metaphysics! I love books that deal with big questions of metaphysics. Friends smirk when I say it but I think a book without metaphysics is like a day without gelato; it could be great, but would be even better with gelato! The book description says that the boy Mycroft and Carlyle find has the power to “make wishes come true” by bringing inanimate objects to life, but that isn’t how the characters discuss it, they discuss it as a “miracle,” and right away we get into the big question of what that might mean about metaphysics if it’s true. And the metaphysics keeps going, all the way.

TQWhat inspired you to write Too Like the Lightning? What appeals to you about writing Science Fiction?

Ada:  Since as kids we all grow up on fantasy and science fiction themes in storybooks and kids’ shows, for me the question is why I still prefer this genre now that I’ve grown up. Ursula Le Guin has described speculative fiction authors as “realists of a larger reality” because we imagine other ways of being, alternatives to how people live now, different worlds, and the questions about hope and change and possibilities and different worlds contain. I think she’s absolutely right that most “realist” or literary fiction is much more confined to this moment, the immediate questions of the fears and obsessions of our current instant, and how to live with them. Speculative fiction is much more similar to the historic literature I’m used to reading as a historian, which wasn’t written for the instant audience of one year or one decade, but for a community who would pass works on slowly over generations, one manuscript or hand-stamped print run at a time, and who were reading authors from earlier eras and writing for readers who would live in later eras. The figures I study as a historian—Voltaire, Petrarch, Dante—are speculative fiction authors too, and just like modern speculative fiction they used fantastic elements, imaginary kingdoms, inhuman characters, and allegories to ask questions, not about how to cope with the way the world is, but about ways the world could be, how it might change. I like the way such authors use speculation to write about hope, change, and alternatives, and the way they have empathy across time, responding to predecessors and speaking to posterity in the faith that we will pay it forward. Pre-modern authors did all that using speculative fiction, so it’s what I wanted to too.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for Too Like the Lightning?

Ada:  I spend all day doing research on history, so I’m constantly squirreling away historical trivia, practices, anecdotes and questions that would be fun to explore in fiction, if I can’t fit them into my nonfiction.

TQWho was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Ada:  The easiest at this point is my main narrator, Mycroft Canner, since I’ve developed his voice so thoroughly, though he wasn’t easy at first. Like many Enlightenment narrators he is much more openly emotional and conversational than most modern narrators, often breaking off into long philosophical or historical tangents, addressing the “gentle reader” directly, and apologizing when he feels he’s failed. It’s a voice that lets me do a lot of “showing by telling” i.e. when Mycroft chooses to have a tangent telling us about some aspect of his world it shows us what he thinks the average reader of his day will know—since Mycroft is imagining a reader living at least 400 years in our future, his assumptions about the reader’s questions and opinions are often wrong in ways that reveal a lot about his world, and him.

The hardest is a character with lots of different names, usually referred to as J.E.D.D. Mason. Some of the reasons J.E.D.D. Mason is hard to write are spoilers, but one that isn’t too spoilery is that J.E.D.D. Mason was raised speaking seven languages, so I always pause to think through the structure of every sentence to consider how elements Latin or French or Greek or Japanese syntax might color the English. Every time J.E.D.D. Mason speaks it takes me quite some time to think through the best phrasing, but it’s worth it, a very special character.

TQWhy have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Too Like the Lightning?

Ada:  Social issues like race, gender, sexuality, religion and cultural relativism were big focuses of the eighteenth-century literature I used as my model, so I made them a big part of this series too. Gender is the biggest focus: this future believes it is post-gender, with gender neutral pronouns, clothes, and policies, but the narrator says it’s all just hiding residual ideas of gender which are still a big part of how people think, baggage left over from Earth’s millennia of gendered culture. It falls to the reader to observe and decide whether the narrator is right about this, or whether the obsession with gender is all in the narrator’s head. Racial diversity had to be a big part of the book because the transportation system means that people from all over the world mix everywhere, so all races live as minorities outnumbered by the members of many other minorities, a cultural development people in the book refer to as the “Death of Majority.” I really like how I got to touch on ageism, since in this future medicine has expanded lifespans to an average of 150 years, so if you pay close attention you can see how people’s ideas of what ages count as young, adult, or old have changed (just as in the past sometimes 12 or 13 was seen as adult but isn’t today). Similarly for ableism/disability, I tried to think about the new issues which might be generated by technological advances in medicine, since if conditions/injuries which are lethal now are treatable in the future, that means there will be people who have survived them and are living with the physical and emotional consequences.

TQWhich question about Too Like the Lightning do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!: MY QUESTION: Did you do anything strange or special with language, layout, or typography of the book?

Tons. I study the history of printing so I’m a big typography geek, and when I wrote to Tor’s awesome layout team about my ideas they went all out. The book is laid out like an eighteenth-century book, in period fonts with woodblock-type ornaments and ornamental italics. It was also common for period books to have a censorship page in the front, giving royal, episcopal or Inquisitorial permission for the book to be printed, and this book has an equivalent page which mixes historic and imagined future censorship techniques. You can learn a lot about a world from seeing what’s censored in it, and by which authorities. I also did a lot with punctuation. The characters in the book are from all over the world and speak many different languages, so when they do the text appears in English but the punctuation appears like the punctuation in that language, with French, Greek or Japanese quotation marks, Spanish sentences using ¡ and ¿ etc. It’s amazingly quick to get used to and I love how it makes you constantly aware that this is a world where English is only one of several dominant languages, and where most of the action is taking space far outside the Anglosphere. There’s Latin in the book too, which doesn’t have its own punctuation (don’t worry, I didn’t leave out the spaces like classical Latin!) but the narrator includes the Latin text for Latin dialog as well as English translations, since an 18th century book would have included the Latin too. The narrator also speaks in a voice which mixes pre-modern and contemporary styles, since this is a narrator in the future trying to sound like the past but not always succeeding, resulting in a mix.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Too Like the Lightning.

Ada:  My favorite quotes are spots where the prose makes past and future clash, where I write ornate addresses to the reader, or almost Homeric similes, very un-modern feeling, but reference something jarringly modern in the course of them.

“You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.”

“To say they listened intently is too commonplace. This was a different focus, deep. As when Utopia has sent a brave and precious probe to skim the surface of all-swallowing Jupiter, and the silence breaks, and the technicians lean raptly over their screens to piece together meaning from this first fuzzed data stolen from the heavens, so these nine men locked upon the words of their unofficial Tenth Director.”

“My old self laughed seeing the others’ faces as they watched me, or tried to watch me. Imagine, reader, in primordial days some vicious dinosaur, heavy with nightmare jaws, which chases a shimmering lizard up a slope, and the predator rejoices, already tasting the kill in its blood-starved mind, when, all at once, its slim prey spreads its feathered fins and takes to the air in a world that had not yet realized life could fly.”

TQThe world in Too Like the Lightning is described as "a hard-won utopia..." Do you have any favorite utopian novels?

Ada:  Is it dorky to say Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis? (Published 1627.) It describes an idealized 17th century island nation with an academy of scientists and researchers dedicated to exploration, invention and improving the human condition. For me New Atlantis is the most powerful and most realistic utopia, for all its heavy-handed politics and divine intervention, because it’s a utopia about progress. Instead of a static unchanging ideal world, it describes an ideal way to streamline how the world will change, a society set up to constantly improve, with institutions engineered to make sure it always changes for the better, and that all people benefit. Especially since I spend so much time studying history, how constantly we’ve changed, it makes more sense to me to think about an ideal path than an ideal world, and to think of utopias as a glimpse of a moment along a good path. Modern dystopias fascinate me, especially the classics like 1984, Brave New World and Zamyatin’s We, and, if you think about it, both BNW and We are utopias in a lot of ways, with happy populations and long life-spans, except that change and progress have been stifled, which requires stifling human ingenuity, individuality and creativity as well. I think a real utopia, a good path for humanity, will never be static, since the human mind always conceives new things to make, and do, and try.

TQWhat's next?

Ada:  The second book of Terra Ignota comes out in early December, so I’m very happy that people don’t have long to wait. The third book in the series is also finished so should come out soon after that, and the fourth book is well underway. It’s four total, a complete series fully plotted out, so no one has to worry about endless waiting or perennial cliffhangers.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Too Like the Lightning
Terra Ignota 1
Tor Books, May 10, 2016
Hardcover and eBook, 432 pages

Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer--a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labelling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world's population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competion is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.

And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destablize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life...


Seven Surrenders
Terra Ignota 2
Tor Books, December 6, 2016
Hardcover and eBook, 400 pages

About Ada

Ada Palmer is a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. She is also a composer of folk and Renaissance-tinged a capella music, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass. Her personal site is at, and she writes about history for a popular audience at and about SF and fantasy-related matters at

Twitter @Ada_Palmer


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