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#127 Ada Palmer

127 Ada Palmer Headshot.jpg

I could have easily talked to Ada Palmer for Six Hours.

You might wish I had after listening to our conversation. Ada is the author of the Terra Ignota series, a science fiction epic saga that stole my will to read anything else the entire time I was in the clutches of the first book. I cannot wait for my next long flight to continue the journey.

Ada is also a history professor, and we talk about the unique ability science fiction and fantasy have to explore other options and other pathways. We explore the ways fiction can communicate ideas very differently from non-fiction and how her teaching impacts her writing - and vice versa.

Finally, we discuss the intricacies of censorship and the project she is working on with former guest Cory Doctorow to draw parallels between attempts at censorship during the advent of the printing press and what we are seeing in the digital landscape today. Definitely a must-listen. Enjoy!

Topics Discussed:

  • Science Fiction and the consequences of technology

  • The Terra Ignota Series

  • The fine line between Utopia and Dystopia

  • Worldbuilding

  • Tracking the world as she writes and the tools she uses

  • The difference between writing about history and exploring other ways history could have gone with fiction

  • The relationship between teaching and writing

  • Censorship in the US vs other countries

  • Parallels between the advent of the printing press and the digital age

Discussed in Episode 127 with Ada Palmer

  • “What I‘m interested in is less the technology than the social consequences of the technology.”

  • What does it mean if your political identity is decoupled from your geographic location?

    • No one ever grows up as part of a majority

    • A buyer‘s market for citizenship.

  • “It‘s easy to vote for a different party, but it‘s not easy to vote for a different country.”

  • “The world sometimes feels like a utopia and at some times feels like a dystopia.”
    On walking fine lines in sci-fi

  • Organized religion has been banned, but personal religion is promoted. 

  • “It‘s intended to push & polarize people.”

  • There‘s a history of “past-future builders” in our civilization, specifically the Enlightenment & the Renaissance, when people looked to the supposed glories of the past and tried to bring them forward to today. 

  • If we brought Voltaire forward in time, what would he think about the present, his future?

  • “I wanted to build a future that would feel to us the way our present would feel to Voltaire.”

  • “The future we‘re building will not look look like what we imagine.”
    On science fiction can only be speculative, not predictive. 

  • “Even if the future isn‘t the future where I would be comfortable, I still want to work to build the future.”

  • Fiction, when looking at the past - at actual history - allows us to be comparative. It‘s speculative comparison, but it allows us to think about the way we ascribe agency. 

  • “What causes things?”

  • The question of how to imagine change, how to think about what does & doesn‘t cause change, what our action do & don‘t have the power to do, is a big meta-question of history. 

  • A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

  • Moving the Byzantine Empire into space. 

  • “Napoleon comes out of nowhere. There‘s no set-up for this!”
    On why actual history makes terrible fiction. 

  • Started with world building, which includes spreadsheets. 

  • Has a chapter-by-chapter outline of all four books written before starting book one. 

  • Uses a modified Google Map to track her geography. 

  • Six months of outlining, after 4 & 1/2 years of world building. 

  • “By outlining all four, it means I know I‘m setting up the themes from the beginning.”

  • Censorship & Information Control During Information Revolutions Project and Chicago University Censorship Project

  • Cory Doctorow

  • Adrian Johns

  • In the digital world we are in the middle of big Revolution in information control & censorship, largely driven by big corporations & governments. How to control & monetize & move information. But today is not the first information revolution - see the printing press, for example. What happened then? And what can we learn about today by looking at what happened then?

  • “Censorship is often bottom-up or grassroots, rather than top-down.”
    On the reality of censorship, versus what we imagine it is. 

  • The Prevention of Literature

  • Office of Film & Literature Classification

  • “The US does have censorship it‘s just that most of our censorship is para-legal censorship.”

    This episode sponsored by listeners like you via the Secret Library Podcast Patreon