In 450 years countries are defined by shared ideas rather than shared geography and citizens can use superfast flying cars to have breakfast in Tokyo, lunch in Paris and be home in South America by evening. Destabilizing forces such as religion and gender distinctions are banned but have a tenacious tendency to show up anyway. This imagined future has achieved precious peace—at the cost of some significant sacrifices. First-time novelist Ada Palmer, a professor of Renaissance history at the University of Chicago, describes this world in her new book Too Like the Lightning (Tor Books, 2016), featured in Scientific American’s top picks for new science fiction releases.
We spoke to Palmer about the hard choices her future Earth-dwellers have made, why utopian fiction may stage a comeback over dystopias and whether she would live in world that has eliminated both wars and free speech.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
You’re a Renaissance scholar, so how did you come to write a sci–fi novel?
In effect, I think that science fiction and fantasy are much closer as genres to what I spend my time reading as a historian than to what we think of as mainstream fiction. Modern mainstream fiction has this tendency to be very concentrated on this particular exact moment and audience. But when I’m reading premodern fiction, I’m reading people for whom it’s going to take months and years to make one copy of a book, and decades for it to circulate to people who aren’t in the same social and political circumstances as the author. And the author is usually responding to something that’s been written centuries earlier, and imagining an audience who is going to exist centuries later. So authors who are writing in that kind of context—for a community of readers that is diasporic across time—often try to address questions speculatively, outside of the immediate experience. So we see premodern authors using imaginary kingdoms, fictitious islands, magical interlocutors or prophets, or aliens. But they’re using these in the sense that speculative fiction does, to put us in a different world rather than the immediate one.
That’s what I read all day, every day for work, and that’s the kind of work that I wanted to produce in response—something that is not set in the immediate context of our readership but something that is further away in a speculative, alternate space in which humans could exist and uses that space to ask big questions of the sort that I see Petrarch and Voltaire and Cicero ask.
These days dystopian fiction is all the rage, but you chose to write a utopian novel. Why?
Partly I think that a conversation about positive futures is an important one for us to examine at this moment. I think that in golden age and later-20th-century science fiction we had lots of stories set in very exciting utopian futures, especially futures that weren’t very far away. And as the year 2000 has come and we don’t all have flying cars and floating cities and field trips to the moon, I think that has been part of what has fed a discontentment with positive utopian fiction, because people feel like it betrayed us. There have been some very interesting works mourning that future that people were so sure would come. One way is exploring dark and dystopian futures.
But I think this has actually opened up a new space in which to write science fiction, because I’ve written a series that is set on Earth in 450 years and has an Earth culture that has had another 450 years to develop culturally and politically without going off into space and becoming a multiplanetary civilization yet. And we’ve never been able to explore that before in science fiction because it hasn’t been plausible. It’s been implausible to think that we will be 450 years in the future and not yet on Mars but not a dystopia. I think it’s an interesting new space to explore—what might human culture be like in 450 years with the continuity of still living on one planet?
In your imagined future, society has achieved peaceful coexistence by banning religion, which they deem too prone to incite conflict. What inspired that element of the story?
There’s been so much loud and negative rhetoric on the part of certain extreme groups in American Christianity that in the last decade a large number of Americans have expressed a discomfort with publicly identifying as Christian. It’s become much more common even for people who are participants in very standard religions to want to be private about it and to feel uncomfortable being questioned about their religious beliefs.
So I’m imagining a world in which that worsens, in which the current extremist religious rhetoric becomes even more heated, and as a result the majority of the society comes to be very uncomfortable with public discussion of religion. I liked trying to develop a future that feels like three steps forward but one step back—you gain certain things but you’ve lost others.
I was trying to create a future where they’ve really got peace down, but in order to do that they’ve had to ban religion and institute censorship. It’s a difficult utopia. It’s not just hard-won through hard work and past wars, it’s hard-won through giving up things that we today would find really terrible to give up, like freedom of speech. I picked that one because freedom of speech is something that’s really important to me, which is why it was such a good choice of something to have to sacrifice, to ask this question: Is it worth giving this up to gain that? How do you feel about a future that has gotten eight of the 10 things you would have on your list at the cost of losing the last two?
What kind of similar trade-offs are involved in the situation with “set-sets,” the people you have invented who are raised from a young age to turn their bodies and minds essentially into computer processors, gaining massive computing abilities but giving up the means to see and feel the natural world?
In this society this is one of its most recent points of extreme conflict—the controversy over whether to pass legislation to ban raising children in a way that makes them unable to interface normally with the rest of society. The majority of society is deeply uncomfortable [with set-sets], but how do you legislate against it without legislating against anyone who’s raising a child in a way that’s a little bit odd? The whole society is in an uncomfortable situation. If there were a law intended to ban set-sets, it would be pretty easy to exploit that law to ban raising transgender children, for example.
Your imagined future has tried to do away with gender to promote equality, but we learn that it is not so simple, and many people secretly flout the rules. Do you think it is not in human nature to be able to live in a genderless society?
I don’t think that. But I do think that changing the way we interface with gender is going to be a very long, complicated, slow and difficult process. We’re already seeing that when we try to deal with how we respond to sexism now—we’re dealing with situations like how do we close the pay gap? One of the reasons for a pay gap is that women are socialized a bit differently and are less likely to ask for a pay raise. That’s a much subtler and harder thing to deal with [than overt sexism]. We’re in the process right now of recognizing how many different, subtle and difficult-to-perceive social consequences of gender there are, and how deeply they’re ingrained into the psyche when we’re young, and how it’s going to take many more levels of change to weed that out than we had thought.
So I’m looking at a society in which they stopped the conversation about feminism too soon. They reached a point where people were ready to say, “we have gender-neutral language and clothing, the world is gender neutral now,” and they declared victory without going down and rooting out the levels of sexism buried deeper down. I don’t think it’s impossible to get rid of gender, but it’s incredibly socially difficult, and a society that wants to believe it has done it is very likely to be wrong.
Given all of its gains as well as its trade-offs, would you want to live in this future?
Yes, but that’s different from saying I wouldn’t want to change that society. I would want to live in that society and take part in that society’s change. This is a dynamic world that has policies that are changing, just like the world we live in now. For example, living in a world where I have a 150-year life span looks pretty great for the amount of time I’d have to be advocating for free speech, for example. You have a long life span and, since advanced technology is making nonintellectually stimulating labor unnecessary, you’re going to spend more of your hours doing things that are rich and valuable.
What do you hope readers take away from this story?
Mostly questions. This is a book designed to push in a lot of directions that are new, surprising and in some ways uncomfortable—and my ideal is for people to go talk about that, to go ask these questions in their living room. Would world peace be worth censorship? How do you think a society would operate if it erased gender in public spaces? I want people to come away from it with new questions. I’ve been siting here poised like a racehorse waiting for people to actually have the book. It’s a book you want to talk about.