By Tom Jackson
Many important new fantasy and science fiction authors have emerged as the 21st century advances. I like many of them, but my personal favorite among all of the new writers is Ada Palmer, 42, who published her first novel, Too Like the Lightning, in 2016. It was nominated for the Hugo Award but lost, but Palmer did win the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Three more novels in her Terra Ignota series followed, concluding with Perhaps the Stars in 2021.
Palmer also is an associate professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago, where she teaches classes on the Renaissance and other subjects. To give you an idea of her range of interests, she is listed as a faculty member at the university's Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies, and at the Department of Classics, and in Medieval Studies, and Renaissance Studies and the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. Previously, she taught history at Texas A&M as an assistant professor. She has a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, knows eight languages, and authored two books aimed primarily at scholars, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance and (with James Hankins) The Recovery of Classical Philosophy in the Renaissance, a Brief Guide.
Although I did my best in this interview to find out about all of Palmer's upcoming books that might be expected in the next few years, I did not ask about one upcoming novel because I did not know it existed until I came home from Pittsburgh and read the Palmer bibliography printed in the Confluence program book; The Wrath of Abaia (or something with a similar title) is co-written with Palmer's close friend Jo Walton, and will come out in 2025 or so. Here is a description from Palmer's Patreon: "It's a very hopepunk project, dealing with future politics, Climate Crisis aftermath, biological and planetary custodianship, and the connection between the dream of space colonization and Earth's destructive colonial past, and ways we can address and rehabilitate the dream of space in anticolonial ways. The world build was a ton of fun to work on, especially the future politics plus stuff with disability & future medicine and A.I. civil rights, and it's really fun working with Jo on it, who is so much faster that me at getting words down on the page, and great at such vivid characters."
And in addition to Abaia and the upcoming books discussed below, Palmer somehow also, according to her curriculum vitae, is working on a book called Why We Censor: the Unexpected Motives of Censorship from Antiquity to the Internet, and also on a "Critical edition of 17th-Century English Banned Droll Plays."
She also has an official website and blog and is working on the next recording project for the Renaissance music group she founded, Sassafrass.
I interviewed Dr. Palmer for 51 minutes on July 23, 2023, at the Confluence science fiction convention in Pittsburgh. (See my convention report). I have never seen a guest of honor at a science fiction convention work as hard as Ada Palmer to give her all for the fans. She did appearances morning, afternoon and night, including lectures on topics such as Viking mythology and the history of censorship, a reading, panel discussions, a Kaffeeklatsch with fans, and a full concert on Saturday night with her Renaissance music group, Sassafrass. When I mentioned this, she said it wasn't the convention working her to death, she kept asking if she could add another event. This attitude carries over into the interview; Dr. Palmer was very intense, but there was also plenty of laughter and joking.
I had a small audience at my interview that included Gregory and Adie Arnott, and I want to thank them for helping me decipher a couple of moments as I worked on my transcript. Dr. Palmer is a high bandwidth speaker who talks quite rapidly and often tosses out references to Renaissance figures, not a period of history I know much about, and it took me hours to compile a written version of the interview, even with help of a speech to written word software program. If you like, you may download the recording and hear what the interview was like, complete with interruptions from jet planes passing overhead.
July 23 of course was Maybe Day, and I brought that up as I began my interview. I was wearing my black Boing Boing Robert Anton Wilson t-shirt, and at Palmer's suggestion, we sat outside the convention hotel, on a bench near the lobby.
RAWILLUMINATION: Thanks a lot for talking to me. I have a kind of a housekeeping question I need to ask. Today is Maybe Day July 23rd, when fans of Robert Anton Wilson all over the world, celebrate him. So since I do a blog devoted to his writing, I wanted to ask you if by chance you have ever read the Illuminatus! trilogy or anything by Wilson or Robert Shea.
ADA PALMER: I've read a few bits of it but I haven't read it all the way through. And it's extremely influential on conspiracy theory, narratives and lots of other forms. So, I've looked at a lot of its derivatives ranging from -- I mean, there's the Illuminati this subsection in the Gargoyles TV series, there's Illuminati stuff in The X-Files, and it's interesting to watch the way his transformation of the Illuminati then morphed into broader ideas of conspiracy theory that have in turn morphed more broadly into shaping the way we think about conspiracy theory.
I have a colleague historian called Kathleen Belew who is an historian of the history of, it's not a happy subject, white supremacy, and the U.S. And her new project is actually on the influence of conspiracy theory and post-apocalyptic fiction on alt right and extremist recruitment. And the ways that post-apocalyptic narratives and disillusionment with sort of the power fantasies of the ends of the world turn into tools for alt right recruitment. So it's a very interesting sort of, you know, three steps removed descendant of that to look at. I think one of the interesting things when we write about power and we write about shapes of powers and we give people models for thinking about what shapes power really takes. And the Illuminatus! trilogy is at the core of the fact that it's much more satisfying to believe somebody is in charge than to believe that it's actually as chaotic and out of control as it is.
RAW ILLUMINATION: There's a few things in Terra Ignota which could be read as a reference to the llluminatus! trilogy or which is simply a coincidence. Such as the fact, there's important events that take place on the 23rd. There's a scene set in Ingolstadt where the Bavarian Illuminati were created. There's a few other things but I guess that is just coincidence. It's not a nod.
ADA PALMER: The dates in Terra Ignota are all based on the Ides of March and how many days after the Ides of March it takes to accomplish the things that Mycroft needed to accomplish within his days, so that the dates could line up for us to hear about his history at the correct points. That and the timing of the latest possible [date] the Olympics can be are the two things that set the dates for when things occur in it. Ingolstadt I know is important in Illuminatus! As I also play the INWO card game. [I believe she is referring to the Illuminati: New World Order (INWO) game of Steve Jackson games -- Tom.] But Ingolstadt also makes a lot of sense as a historic capital and I wanted something that has an old city and the new city. So there are a lot of very interesting connections with Ingolstadt, and I was aware of that one, but it was only one of several that I was thinking about what I made the choice.
RAWILLUMINATION: I want to focus on what Ada Palmer fans will be interested in. So is the collection of essays with you and Jo Walton the next title that is likely to come out?
ADA PALMER: Yeah that's going to be out I think in May of 2024. So quite soon. We're still deciding on a final title. I think right now, we were leaning toward Time's Promethean Shore, which I think is a great title. Sorry, Time's Protean Shore. But we are still working with our editor to get the title just right. It's actually a funny feeling to have three books on the way, none of which I know what the title is going to be. [Laughs].
RAWILLUMINATION: Is Patrick Nielsen Hayden the editor?
ADA PALMER: Yeah, Patrick is the editor.
RAWILLUMINATION: And can you give me an idea of what the topics are going to be? Is there a particular focus or is it pretty wide ranging?
ADA PALMER: It's somewhat wide ranging but it focuses on reading and writing and the subtitle is definitely Conversations on the Project of Science Fiction. So it contains histories of science fiction publishing, histories of fandom, histories of the cross-pollination between Anglophone and Japanese science fiction fandoms, and by history of science fiction publishing, it goes from Lucian of Samosata to Amazon. It's a very comprehensive one, but focusing on the transformation and codification of the genre in the 1920s with pulp publishing. It has a lot of details about the differences between U.S. and UK publishing history. Trying to focus on how that shapes art, and how things like the lengths of works or whether we get series or whether we get more SF or fantasy or more fantasy or SF at different points were shaped by specific things such as changes in warehouse pricing and other factors that no one would ever think of as factors, factors that no one would ever think of as related to these questions but that nonetheless are big shapers of it. And then has a number of essays about reading. Some of them are about, you know, the process and act of reading. It has a great essay on what is genre that focuses on pacing and how one of the defining characteristics within a publishing genre is often not the furniture of the genre -- does it have a vampire? But the pacing, pacing is what makes something be a vampire romance versus vampire fantasy versus vampire magical realism, for example.
We also have essays on individual authors. There's a long essay on Delany, there's an essay on LeGuin. There's several of my essays about Shakespeare. Looking at Shakespeare as a historical fiction writer and how we can take things from the way Shakespeare combines and cuts and the pacing that he applies to the condensing and transformation of time when he's turning a multi-decade war into a two-hour event. So there are sections on that. There's also a couple of essays about disability and pain, both Jo and I are chronic pain sufferers and we've written some essays about that and how it intertwines with our careers as historians and so on. So, that's in there. Several of the essays I recently published in Uncanny Magazine about important, projects of the genre, such as my essay on Hopepunk, that was actually not in Uncanny. My essay on Hopepunk and my essay on the protagonist problem and which Jo worked with me on. And the essay on censorship and science fiction and their histories together.
So it's a lot about what has science fiction been doing, what is science fiction achieving, what is it like to read science fiction? How does the reading process for science fiction work? And then how does this affect thought? How does this affect thought patterns, how does this genre have the power to shape our future building as well as our ways of thinking about the future. It's going to be a fat collection. There's a lot in it. And some of the essays are versions of essays that Jo started as Tor.com posts, but that we've expanded together. So, they're now three times as long and have examples from Japan that I've been able to pull in. Oh, and there's a really neat one on the ethics that shapes Japanese versus Western horror and how Western horror is providentialist, and Japanese horror is ecosystemic and these affect who gets killed in a horror story. And whether you're interested in horror or not, the point of it is to think about how the logics of purity and guilt and innocence affect our leader expectations of who will prosper and who will be punished in a narrative. But that there are other ways to think about who should through some ethical logic get punished or prosper in a narrative that we can learn from borrowing, in order to be able to notice how much purity logic and providentialist thinking affect our instincts when we're designing a story and our first impulse as to who should get killed in this scene or who should prosper or not.
We've also written two essays which are calling a Vorfreude. Sorry, Mitfreude. Mitfreude is a German word. We're all familiar with Schadenfreude. So, Mitfreude is the joy of enjoying a friend's joy by being with them. And if you've ever had a delightful conversation where a friend is telling you about their hobby and you just enjoy learning about this. So you have a friend who's an enthusiast of something and they're just going on about, you know, this particular subcategory of weird opera that they love and you enjoy it. You enjoy it because you're with them, that's Mitfreude, "with joy," the joy of enjoying somebody else's joy. And so, as an essay, it's sort of an essay that's trying to be that. It's trying to be the equivalent of a geeky conversation where you say, to your friend, "So tell me about romance novels." Part of the idea being that it's not trying to persuade you to take up this hobby. You know, when your friend who keeps lizards tells you about lizards, they're not proselytizing for you to start keeping lizards, they're just enjoying geeking out on lizards. And similarly, it's neat to learn about what romance as a genre is, how it works. And the many things that people who don't read romance, don't quite understand about them. So, Jo has written an essay about romance. It's nifty. Here's what it's like so that you can understand it. And I've written one that's about Japanese SF and manga and anime, not with the "You should read manga and watch anime," but with "here is what this is." And it's nifty to learn about because it's connected with World War Two and it's connected with intercontinental cultural exchange and it's connected with histories of feminism and gender, gender play and musical theater and all these other fun subjects so one can hear about. So lots of essays. Sorry, that was too long an answer.
Jo Walton (Creative Commons photo, source)
RAWILLUMINATION: That's fine. We're all drinking it in. Now, so I'm guessing the second book that's on the way is a history book because I understand you turned in the manuscript.
ADA PALMER: I have turned in the manuscript. So this is a nonfiction pop history, fun book written in the fun, casual style of my blogging about the Renaissance and specifically why we think of it as a golden age. The title is probably going to be Inventing the Renaissance: The Myth of a Golden Age. And it's about why this particular period in history comes to be one that is celebrated as opposed to Middle Ages, which get a bad rap, or the 17th century, which doesn't even have an era name despite being very important. So, it looks not only at the Renaissance, what happened in it, how complicated and messy and bloody it was but it also looks looks at post-Renaissance ideas of the Renaissance when 18th century and 19th century historians decide to celebrate this era, why they decide to celebrate this era. So it has a lot of fun storytelling. A big chunk in the middle of it is a bunch of micro-biographies of different Renaissance people whose lives cross and, you know, there's Josquin des Prez who's a composer, there's Montesecco, who's a professional assassin, there's Lucrezia Borgia. There's people you've never heard of, like, Camilla Rucellai, those people you definitely heard of like Michelangelo and it goes through the same events from different points of view. Most history books go chronologically. This doesn't, it goes in the loop as if you're a time traveler and you're living it from the point of view of one faction. And then you're living it from the point of view of their enemy. And then you're living it from the point of view of the scared composer who was just trying to compose music in the middle of all these terrible things. And so it gives you the intersection, one of the goals of the book being to make clear that the Renaissance is very plural. And when you go into a bookstore or a library or a museum gift shop, and it has five different books on the Renaissance, they're going to give you five different Renaissances and they're all correct because so much is going on. So it's a very fun book.
So it's an odd book because the formality varies enormously and sometimes it will be very elegant for a while or it will be very meticulously researched for a while. Quotations and then it'll switch into jokes and you know internet OMG in the way that my blogging does. All the beta readers for it and also the editor have been like, "Wow this is so fun and so not like anything, and I don't know how to market it." So we have no idea whether this book is going to succeed in finding very many readers, but I hope that it will.
RAWILLUMINATION: Who is the publisher?
ADA PALMER: So it's being done by Head of Zeus. Head of Zeus does the UK editions of my novels and they're a mostly UK press, but they do do world stuff. And for this one, they're doing here in the U.S. as well.
RAWILLUMINATION: So it's a commercial publisher. We're not talking about Princeton University Press like Lucretius was. [I am referring to Palmer's 2014 academic book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, although I misspoke -- it actually as put out by Harvard University Press.]
ADA PALMER: Exactly. This is not in any way the stiff and formal academic book. This is a popular reading book, although it has some patches of not yet published new research in it, especially on which Renaissance women we choose to celebrate and which Renaissance women we are uncomfortable with, particularly when Renaissance woman exercise power. We're very comfortable with Renaissance. women who exercise power in a modern feeling way or by stepping into male spaces. But there were a lot of Renaissance women who exercise power in ways that we don't find comfortable, like as visionary mystics and exercised more actual power than the famous women like Caterina Sforza who, you know, move into traditionally masculine spaces. But we're uncomfortable with celebrating those women because they aren't exercising the correct kind of power. And it's important and interesting to look at, you know, why are these ones famous? And these ones only ever negative when they appear in stories even if their influence was greater. So it has some fun new stuff on there.
RAWILLUMINATION: All right. And then the next book that everybody's excited about is, and I want to make sure I have the title right, is it Hearthfire or Heartfire?
ADA PALMER: It's Hearthfire.
RAWILLUMINATION: Okay. And give me the elevator pitch to excite us all about the Viking fiction work that you're --
ADA PALMER: Viking mythology. See, so much easier to describe than Terra Ignota, which didn't ever have an elevator pitch. You needed to take a really tall long elevator at the Sears Tower for that.
Viking mythology, historical fiction. It's looking at the question of if the Aesir are real and only the Aesir are real and the world is really the Viking metaphysics. But history is real history. Why did they let belief in them die out? Why did the world and its history take the shape that it did if it's being governed by the metaphysics and the entities that are described in Norse myth. So it sticks very close to the primary sources. Every chapter begins with quotations showing, which bits of Eddas or sagas I'm drawing on in that particular chapter and it brings a lot of the new hard-to-get-at research on this stuff. Because so much of Viking studies has changed so quickly in the past couple of decades that most of the stories we are familiar with are now 50 years out of date. And there are newer versions where we understand context better or we realize we weren't interpreting a word correctly, or the two bits of story should have been connected that weren't or shouldn't have been connected that were. And so it's trying to bring in some of the most recent readings of a lot of these myths but also looking very seriously at the question, if we want to make this compatible with the real course of history, what makes sense? So it's a lot of fun. It's coming slow, it's past the one-third mark on it, after working on it for a little over a year and a half. So my hope is that I'll be able to finish it, it would be awesome if I finished it within a calendar year but probably it'll be two, which would mean it comes out in three because it's a year between when I turn it in and when Tor puts it out.
RAWILLUMINATION: Is it projected as a two novel series?
ADA PALMER: Yeah, two books.
RAWILLUMINATION: And you're pretty sure it's not going to grow into four?
ADA PALMER: I've outlined it completely. And now that I've gotten through the one-third mark of the first book and it is indeed, as I hoped, going to end up to be the right length to be one volume, I'm pretty confident in it as one volume, especially because I looked carefully at it and if you divided it up into three, the stopping point would be horrible. You can't split it anywhere but there, it would just be torture for the reader. So I'm working very hard to keep it to the length that will fit in the volume.
Flags from the world of Terra Ignota which Ada Palmer gave away to some of her most devoted fans at Confluence. Left, the flag of Utopia; right, the flag of the Universal Free Alliance.
RAWILLUMINATION: I have one Terra Ignota question. I really love Too Like the Lightning as as an introductory novel by a writer I had not heard of before, it's kind of my favorite novel, the last 10 or 15 years, and one of the things I liked about it is it's obviously the first book in a series so you obviously, there's a lot of stuff you still, you know, you're going to find out about, but I thought that for a first book in a series it also succeeded in having a pretty dramatic ending when Martin and Papadelius are uncovering the murder plot for the reader. And I wondered if you put a lot of effort into not just doing a first book of a series, but in rewarding the reader for reading that first book, and thereby incentivizing them to keep going.
ADA PALMER: So I still feel tense about where that cutoff had to be. And, I wrote books one and two as one book. Book three, I wrote by itself, book four I wrote by itself, but book one and two I wrote as one longer book. And if I hadn't been in new debut writer they might have been able to do it as one fat book. But for a new writer where it's more of an experiment, they were less willing to do that because the longer a page count is in a book, the less money they make because it's more expensive to produce the book, which makes perfect sense. So I had to cut it in half and we knew that I would have to cut it in half and I was promised suggestions on how to cut it in half and I proposed an idea of cutting it a half in a very different way by unweaving the two plot threads, which began at the beginning, one of which follows Carlisle Foster and one of which follows Martin, to effectively make the Carlisle Foster narrative be the first book and the Martin narrative be the second book so that they would have each had more sense of volume completion. Because those narratives would come to an end in each. And I never received any kind of reply to any of these suggestions and then I got an email that said, "Hey just cut it in half in this point randomly selected and also we need it in two weeks," and also it's the first day of finals period. And I was like, no, this is not happening. I have to grade finals and also I cannot edit all of this book in two weeks. And so I had to very suddenly on very short notice, figure out a way to give it a degree of volume completion that would be satisfying. And I juggled a couple of chapters. Originally the chapter Sniper's Chapter, which would have been one chapter earlier, and that would have been one chapter later. But Sniper's Chapter is a better tone shift for the beginning of a new volume. And I did what I could. And I rewrote very intensely those last two chapters to give a greater sense of volume completion. I still wonder what I would have done if I had had more than no time to make that ending.
RAWILLUMINATION: Well, obviously you do well under pressure so we'll just have to pressure you into finishing Hearthfire quickly.
ADA PALMER. No! It's not going to happen. If you're willing to translate the Old Norse, go for it. There's a reason this is slow.
RAWILLUMINATION: Speaking of translating Old Norse. This will probably give you a chance to show off a little bit. But Dr. Palmer, how many languages do you read?
ADA PALMER: So, there are some languages that I work in but that I wouldn't say I have proficiency with. But I've worked in eight languages. But I mainly work with Latin, French, Italian and ancient Greek. But I've worked with Gothic and I've worked with Old Norse and I've worked with Japanese.
RAWILLUMINATION: When you say worked with Old Norse, are you doing your own translations as part of this fiction project?
ADA PALMER: Yes. Mainly because the process of clearing the copyright to use somebody else's translation in your novel takes longer than translating the Old Norse yourself [laughing]
RAWILLUMINATION: What a great excuse for taking your time, it takes time to translate from the Old Norse!
ADA PALMER: It does, but it takes so long to clear copyright on things. So I'd much rather translate it myself. It means that I really burrow down to understanding these words. And then every so often I translated a few, and I have a wonderful Old Norse expert, whose name is Maya Blackwell, who lives north of Stockholm. And we get on video chat every couple of weeks and say, okay, you know, I've got this word, she's like, "Oh my God, that word," and then we'll spend you know an hour. We did this a few days ago going through every instance, all five instances of this word, and we're like. This is useful as all five instances of this word describe Loki. That doesn't tell us anything. It just means Loki like. What does the word actually mean, it doesn't mean anything. It's like in Homer. There's this adverb, that is the manner in which Athena leaves a room and it only ever appears as the manner in which Athena leaves a room and we don't know what it means. It's just means, Athena leaves the room with this adverb. And you're like, that doesn't help. We have no context of what this adverb could possibly mean.
But yeah, so I'm not translated the Old Norse myself. I think that would not be responsible in a scholarly way. I am translating it and then sitting down with an expert who really knows this language to double-check that my interpretation in everything has worked well.
RAWILLUMINATION: All right now I have a music question. When I was listening to Sassafrass last night, and I'm not an expert on a Renaissance music, but it sure sounded like a Renaissance vocal music ...
ADA PALMER: Yeah, it draws on Renaissance and late Medieval vocal methods. Renaissance in terms of having multiple polyphonic voices that are moving separately, but in ways that intertwine. And medieval in that it uses modal music. So it's not major or minor. It will be in something in between, like a Dorian mode.
RAWILLUMINATION: So you really are drawing on those old forms and using them as a composer.
ADA PALMER: And they make it feel old because one of the interesting challenges when trying to present Viking material or similar other material like that is, it needs to feel archaic, it needs to feel different from modern needs to feel premodern. But it also needs to be satisfying and people sometimes ask me, how do we have real surviving Viking music? Do you use the real surviving Viking melodies? And like, yes, we do have real surviving Viking music. It's for a flute that can only produce four notes. And it sounds like somebody playing "Chopsticks" as a beginning piano player. And you're not going to want to listen to that. It just doesn't have the musical layering because music has advanced. Music and its production is a technology and nobody is going to sit through long, accurate early Medieval music. It doesn't have the power. Or even if you sit through it, it doesn't have the emotional cathartic draw. So what I want to do is something that's going to feel period by drawing on tools that the Middle Ages use such as having music in modes, other than what we now call major and minor, but to give it the thickness and complexity of modern music so that it is has the emotional power to draw out of us grief and joy and catharsis and all of the other powerful emotions that strong music can do. [You can buy Sassafrass on Bandcamp, including the Sundown album, the Viking mythology cycle Palmer performed at Confluence.]
RAWILLUMINATION: So you don't think of Sassafrass as an early music group. You draw from early music but there's also modern elements, you're not trying to reproduce ...
ADA PALMER: I mean, we are in early music group in that we also sing Renaissance music and we're working on a CD right now of Renaissance pastorals of shepherds and nymphs dating each other and getting dumped.
RAWILLUMINATION: So who are your favorite Renaissance composers?
ADA PALMER: I really like Josquin des Prez. I really love Thomas Weelkes, who does very playful and whimsical pieces, where he really rolls with what the lyrics are about. He has a piece called "Thule, the Period of Cosmography," which is about geography and reaching the geographic limits of the world and it lists exotic objects in order to try to communicate, so there's a verse in it that goes, "The Andalusian merchant who returns laden with cochineal and China dishes reports in Spain, how strangely Mount Fugu burns, amid an ocean full of flying fishes." And for each half line in there, he's describing some other different wild exotic thing. Yeah, no one would ever actually return somewhere with both cochineal, which comes from the Americas, and China dishes, which come from the Far East, right? He's being jokey. And so, he's joking with the music and each half line of that sounds really weird in a totally different way from the way that the next half line of it sounds really weird. And you get to the [singing] "In an ocean full of flying, full of life, full of flying fish is full of magic and flying fishes are flying all over," and he's doing what we call your musical music painting, you know, word painting of exoticism. So he's really delightful.
There's another piece that I love called "A Sparrow Hawk Proud," which has a sparrow hawk [which] has caught a nightingale. Let's see what is it. "A sparrow hawk proud did hold in wicked jail, music's sweet chorister, the nightingale. To whom she said, Oh, set me free and in my song I'll praise no bird but thee. The hawk replied, I will not lose my diet to let a thousand such enjoy their quiet." So it has the the tyrant refusing to release the musician and it's an ironic piece where the patron had been being kind of a jerk to the musician, so it's partly about that, but it's also largely about the beauty, contrasting the beauty of the music's chorister against a haughty tyrant, and it's just a really lovely playful kind of melody. But we've got a bunch of different composers that we're doing, some Orlando di Lasso and other stuff.
RAWILLUMINATION: My next question is from one Gene Wolfe fan to another.
ADA PALMER: Yes!
RAWILLUMINATION: I'm a big Book of the New Sun fan. I've read it over and over again. And when I met you at Penguicon years ago, we had a conversation about Gene Wolfe -- you were playing with the the Rube Goldberg machine and you were sitting on the floor, and I was pestering you with questions. I really like The Book of the New Sun, but I've been reading Gene Wolfe for decades and I've really never found any other novels that I like as well as The Book of the New Sun. Is there anything he's done at novel length that you particularly like and that you think rivals The Book of the New Sun?
ADA PALMER: I don't think anything rivals Book of the New Sun. I really enjoy Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, which I don't think are aiming as big and grand an epic as Book of The New Sun is. But they hit the target they aim at, which this wonderfully fascinating and challenging immersion into a world of Greco-Roman myth, in which we're having to learn how to recognize things that should be familiar to us. But he's translated the word roots in ways that are tricky so that it's a puzzle and that puzzle gives us an interesting immersive taste of what it would be like to live in that world view as your native world view, instead of as a distant one, right? The way he translates the names of cities. So it's not a war between Athens and Sparta, it's a war between Thought and Rope. And that's how it feels when you're there. I think an important thing we often forget is that place names that are nouns in our native language usually, in our mind, make a thing feel either like fantasy or maybe like Native American. And I have a great map which you can, if you go online and search for the Atlas of True Names, or the Map of True Names. It's a world map where they've translated all of the place names into English from what their word roots are. And so everything is labeled, you know, The Great Alpine Sea and it suddenly feels like the whole world is a fantasy map because that's the way we name fantasy places, and it's not the way we name the places we're used to. We're used to our place names being in languages that are not the onesand lake is the we're speaking most of the time. The Rocky Mountains are still the Rocky Mountains but everything else suddenly matches the Rocky Mountains. And oh yes, the Rocky Mountains and the River of Silver and the River of Gold and, you know, all these all these names that we forget. And so it's it's really lovely to dive into the Greco-Roman world, understanding it from the inside, as we would if we were native to it. Which I think is really delightful project. I've been thinking a lot recently about Soldier of the Mist actually because if Terra Ignota is my Book of the New Sun, than Hearthfire is my Soldier of the Mist. In (A), it's a shorter series, it's not aiming to be as grand, but also (B), it's diving deep into being within the world view of a mythology, and trying to bring that out in a new way. And in an interior point of view way.
RAWILLUMINATION: We were talking last night and, you know, lots and lots of people love Vikings, maybe this will be the fiction work that gives Ada Palmer a wider audience.
ADA PALMER: I would like that and I, you know, probably could have done that if I had made it less incredibly difficult to read.
[I laugh at this description of the upcoming novel.]
By, for example, having the events be in chronological order or having a bit less complicated technical detail. It is not an easy read. People talk about Terra Ignota not being a beach read and Hearthfire is not a beach read. And I could have set the same events as a beach read, but that's not what it's about. It's about diving into the feel of this and trying to be authentic to primary sources that are themselves partial, fragmentary, inconsistent and difficult to understand, even for a native speaker, right? So that Snorri feels he has to write a whole book expounding on how to understand the hidden meanings within the text that one is looking at. So you know, I do hope that it's going to have a nice broad audience among people who like Vikings, and they'll pick it up and they go "Hard, hmm, worth it" and read it. But you know, I used to imagine this would be the one that would get a TV adaptation or something. And then I actually finished the outline and looked at it and was like, "Nope, not it." [Laughs].
RAWILLUMINATION: I don't want to push the Gene Wolfe analogy too hard, but everything he wrote was written for an audience who reads carefully.
ADA PALMER: Yeah. And I mean, that audience is big, right? There are lots of people who want a hard read. Not all the time. Like, we want a hard read, and then we want our Agatha Christie in between which is an easy read. You want to take turns. There are lots of people especially within F and SF who love and want a challenging, interesting read. That's one of the things that Tor was delighted to reconfirm when Terra Ignota did so much better than they thought it would.
RAWILLUMINATION: Well, you know, another writer who's from Illinois, is Richard Powers, who is not an easy read either but he's been able to find a big audience and he's won, you know, Pulitzers and MacArthur grants and National Book Awards. So it seems to me that part of the equation is to get non genre readers to read Hearthfire.
ADA PALMER: And one thing that might help with that is actually having the nonfiction book come out in between.
ADA PALMER: Because that's going to find non genre readers in addition to hopefully finding many of my genre readers who will enjoy the nonfiction book too, because it has really just as much storytelling in it as the novels do. It is very much a story teller's introduction to the Renaissance. But it also means that I hope that that will mean that there are a bunch of history readers who are then interested in giving the Viking book a try. So we will see, knock knock, carbon fiber [referring to what the bench we were sitting on was made of.}
RAWILLUMINATION: Has Tyler Cowen interviewed you yet?
ADA PALMER: Here's where I confess that I'm bad at names, that I don't remember.
RAWILLUMINATION: Okay, well, we'll just find out. Because he announced on his blog, he was going to interview you. The George Mason University professor.
ADA PALMER: Oh yes, yes, we did do that. That was fun. I wish we'd had more time.
RAWILLUMINATION: He usually does deep research on his guests.
ADA PALMER: Yeah, he did. And he had a very intense series of questions.
I expected a question about the LARPing that I do in class. I know a lot of people had replied to his post of "What questions should I ask Ada Palmer?" with things like, Should you ask her why she's watering down the educational system, by having her students do gaming instead of real class? And I was like, "I so want that question!"
[As Wikipedia explains about the courses Dr. Palmer teaches about the Renaissance, "She teaches a class on the Italian Renaissance wherein students enact the 1492 papal election, complete with secret meetings, betrayals, and a final vote conducted in full costume."]
I have molecular engineering majors who are five or ten years out of graduating, and I can still be like "What ruling family controlled Ferrara in 1492?" [The former student answers correctly and says] "Those jerks! I'll never forgive them!"
Boy, do they memorize it and know it inside out. And, you know, they travel. I have a folder on my desktop of self tomb selfies where people have visited the tomb of their character from the papal election simulation and checked out to the weird village where the person is buried or the odd part of France or Italy and then send me a picture of themselves happily with their tomb or in some cases with the ditch their corpse was thrown in.
RAWILLUMINATION: Well I like the anecdote about how you worked 20-hour days when you're doing these. Although I have to confess I'm not as conscientious as you and my phone is turned off at 3:00 a.m. I wouldn't take text messages about the pope. [At her Kaffeeklatsch the day before, Dr. Palmer had described how she was available day and night to her students during the tense papal election.]
ADA PALMER: Yeah, it helps having some of our team is usually working remote from Europe and so they handle the early morning shifts but on the nights right before there's going to be either a major papal audience or right before the war, you know, everyone's up all night. I mean this year there was a last-minute -- a cardinal who shall remain nameless ratted out the betrayal that one faction in the war was going to do to their former allies who had gotten them on the papal throne. And so then, there was a staying up until 5:00 in the morning rewriting their war plans in order to preempt the betrayal by the other people. So that then when the war happened, there was a lovely, "Wait a minute, why are the people we're going to betray betraying us first?" And it was, it was fantastic and it was worth it. But it's also very intense and it means they really do need to have 24-hour access to somebody who understands the details enough to be like, "No, you cannot move your army through Switzerland. The mountains are impossible. You must go around Milan or bust".
RAWILLUMINATION: Did I hear you say this weekend that you live in a bash'? [In the world of Terra Ignota, most people live in a globe-spanning organization called a hive, and live in a group home owned by one of the hives, called a bash'.]
ADA PALMER: Yes, I live in a bash', or as I call it sometimes, academic commune, and some of the bash' mates have been very long term. Lauren, who's one of my singing partners in Sassafrass and I, it's been more than 20 years now, but we have other people. We have a person who's just been with us for a year. We have another person who recently finished a PhD and therefore are moved out to where the job was. So I would say it's half a stable bash', and half of people coming in and out. But boy, is it great! Especially during Covid. Everyone was like, "I'm so lonely," and I'm like, "Well, I live with a bunch of my friends and we're fine. We're gonna go play Spirit Island now. Sorry, wish you were here." But it sure is amazingly psychologically useful. And one thing we did which is based on actually an experiment they did at the Globe Theater in London, the one that produced Shakespeare, they did a experiment a few seasons ago where they said, "So what happens if for this season we put away all of our modern electric sewing machines and we reconstruct a period tailor shop? Only make all of the costumes with period machines and do everything with hand sewing." And they looked at diagrams of how a Tudor era costume shop was set up, which in that meant, that they got rid of all of their individual desks facing the walls, where the plugs are, or the machines would be, and instead have one large table in the center of the room, where everyone sat facing and working on their stuff together. And what they found was that the work went as fast if not faster than it had with sewing machines, because of the morale boost of seeing somebody's face and being able to chat with each other while working. And being able to say, "Oh, can you hold that for a second while I lean across and do this?" And that the savings of time made by those things were actually greater than the time savings of having a sewing machine. So based on that model, when Covid started I set up a big group desk in the middle of our main library room, which has a bunch of computer kiosks on it that you can bring your laptop and plug it in, so that everybody in the household and indeed guests, when we have guests, can sit there and be doing our work at a table together. And there will be, you know, 20 minutes of silence and then someone will giggle and then someone else will say, "What is it that's funny?"And we'll have those moments of conversation. Or someone will get up and say, "Hey are you getting a glass of water? Could you bring me one too?" And I would say that the productivity is just gone up from that inverse of a cubicle.
RAWILLUMINATION: This sounds like an Ada Palmer essay on how to be a workaholic.
Gene Wolfe once did a self interview where he posed questions to himself that he wished people would ask him and we have only nine minutes left so we're not going to be able to do an Ada Palmer self interview. But do you have a question that you wish people would ask you? And now you're going to ask yourself and you're going to answer.
ADA PALMER: You should have asked me that at the beginning so I would have had time to think about it for awhile.
RAWILLUMINATION: We've already established you work well under pressure.
ADA PALMER: I think an interesting one is the question of, do I feel like I am accomplishing a lot? The workaholic question. Yeah, because I think that's an interesting one. Because everyone I know who is regarded by others as very productive feel themselves as they are not very productive. Including me. And I often sit here feeling like I haven't accomplished very much in the past couple of years and then I'm like, "But I have several books coming out." How did these two things square with each other? And I think there's two halves to that. One was very well put by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, a good friend, and my editor's wife, when I think it was her who pointed out that most people greatly overestimate what you can accomplish in a year but greatly underestimate what you can accomplish in five years. And when we think about things as what did I get done in the past year, it won't be as much as we'd hoped. But when we think about what did I do in the past five years, you'll actually look at it and realize, oh, wait, that was a lot. And I think that we do so much self evaluation on the one-year front, in a way that can be harmful to our ability to perceive what we've actually finished, since so many major things take more than a year but do get done. I think another is that we always observe the visible produce of what people are doing, which means we don't see how much of their own time has been sucked up by things that didn't have produce, but we know that about ourselves, right? I know how much time has been wasted with me being sick on the couch. I know how much time has been wasted with me filling out forms for the university. I'm of know how much time has been wasted by having to recover from trips to places and that kind of thing. Or just days that for some reason I can't concentrate and there's no good reason for me to be unable to concentrate. But boy did those days leave you feeling at the end like a piece of you just rotted. And we're all aware of that. And then we see our friend published a blog post and our other friend did a video and I think we're always aware of the things we chose not to do. Yeah, I'm constantly feeling oh, I should do more podcasting, I should do some recordings of some of my lectures and release them in some manner. I see Cory doing -- Cory Doctorow -- doing a lot of interviews in places and I'm thinking, oh, I really need to be doing that. Why am I not doing that? And the real answers, I'm doing other stuff and it's becoming the essay collection or it's becoming other things. But we often judge ourselves by the things we thought we might do and then didn't. When we see other people doing things and they feel more productive than us. I've often noticed colleagues and I will feel like, well of course my colleague is doing really hard research because I'm just looking at marginalia in Renaissance manuscript. I'm not interviewing live subjects. That sounds very hard whereas the people who interview live subjects are like, "Well I'm not translating Renaissance manuscripts, that sounds like ..." We each think of our branch in history as the sort of easy version and what our colleagues are doing as the hard version, because we see the things we thought we might do, and then didn't that our friends are doing. And that often I think eclipses our ability to perceive what we are [doing].
So like I don't feel like I'm very productive. I spend a lot of time fretting about things I haven't done and could I be getting my voice and messages out better in other formats? I have all of this important work on censorship. It's probably not going to be able to be published for at least another four years. That isn't good. It feels it should be out now. What should I be doing? Should I be trying to figure out how you go about doing a TED talk? Like what should I be doing? And I spend a lot of time worrying about that and then trying to do exercises for myself, well, think about the things that you did do. And the fact that this was a choice, not a negligence. You chose to write this essay collection instead of doing that talk. You chose to teach this course at this intensive and effective level instead of recording a podcast and teaching an easier course. This is the set of choices that you made and if you had done that thing, I wouldn't have done the other thing.