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Monday, May 23, 2016

GUEST BLOG: Writing in a Different Question Palette, or Why Add the Fantastic to my Science Fiction? by Ada Palmer

 Visit Ada Palmer's Website Here

Fantasy Book Critic is extremely excited to welcome debut author Ada Palmer to our blog today. Ada Palmer is the author of the futuristic science fiction novel, Too Like the Lightning, which was released May 10, 2016 by Tor Books.

Ada Palmer stops by today to writing in a different question palette. She shares amazing insight into her novel and the writing process.

About Too Like the Lightning:

Tor Books is proud to launch the first novel in a new political science fiction series, Too Like The Lightning by debut novelist Ada Palmer. Palmer’s unique vision mixes Enlightenment-era philosophy with traditional science fiction speculation to bring to life the year 2454, not a perfect future, but a utopian one, described by a narrator writing in an antiquated form to catalog the birth of a revolution. The result is The Iliad meets I, Claudius mixed with the enthusiasm of The Stars My Destination and Gene Wolfe style world building.

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 labeling 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 competition 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 destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…

Perfect for fans of Jo Walton, Robert Charles Wilson and Kim Stanley Robinson, Too Like The Lightning is a refreshing change of pace from the current trend of gritty, dystopian novels. Much like Homer telling of heroic deeds and wine dark seas, Mycroft Canner’s narration will draw you into the world of Terra Ignota—a world simmering with gender politics and religious fervor just beneath the surface, on the brink of revolutionary change.

A huge thank you goes out to Ada for taking the time out of her day to stop by and share her story with us. 


Writing in a Different Question Palette, or Why Add the Fantastic to my Science Fiction?

My new novel Too Like the Lightning has tons of science fiction world building: set in the 25th century, with flying cars, helper robots, genetic engineering, terraforming, futuristic politics, cloned meat, and schoolchildren taking field trips to the Moon.  So people keep asking why, in the middle of all that, I chose to add a fantastic element, introduced right at the beginning of the first book, a boy who can—with a touch—bring toys to life.  The answer relates to an aspect of storytelling we rarely discuss directly, but that is as formative of story and reader experience as aspects like plot, genre, medium, voice, age group, and mode: a story’s question palette.

In 1752 Voltaire—the same firebrand whose pen-mightier-than-swords was galvanizing the Enlightenment—wrote a science fiction short story, Micromegas.  In it an alien from a world near Sirius travels to our solar system, where he encounters another alien from Saturn, and they go together to the Earth.  At first they think this world is uninhabited, since the Sirian is seven leagues (28 miles) tall, but eventually with effort he perceives what are—to him—tiny insects: first a whale, and then a ship, in which he eventually detects the frantic activity of tiny life forms.  With effort he works out human language and First Contact is achieved.  So far this could have been written in the 1950s instead of the 1750s, but what do these first interspecies ambassadors talk about at this all important moment?  The beneficence of the Supreme Being, whether Aristotle, Descartes, Thomas Aquinas or John Locke offers the best insights into the nature of the Soul, the universality of geometrical reasoning, the role of the Ancient Greek language in philosophical discourse, the strife between the Sultan and the Pope, the theories of Melanchthon and Leibnitz about why God chose to create Evil, whether knowledge derives from Universals or sense perception, and whether or not we can logically deduce the existence of immaterial and intelligent substances.

Voltaire’s story has a very familiar plot, but a very unfamiliar question palette, that is the set of hot questions which were on Voltaire’s mind in the 1750s and which he used First Contact to explore.  Every moment in the history of literature has had a particular question palette, the set of topics which was on the mind of the author and readers.  Since Voltaire’s is so alien to us it’s easy to spot, but we have seen it evolve over the course of twentieth and twenty-first-century science fiction as well.  Think of how many aliens we met between the 1950s and 1980s who were in situations very like the Cold War, with vying superpowers.  How many utopian and dystopian futures involved extreme forms of communism or capitalism.  How different stages of feminism made space colonists on distant planets suddenly more interested in talking about sex and gender.  Voltaire’s aliens who are ready to plunge into subtleties of Leibnitz vs. Locke aren’t any stranger than the alien in Contact, for example, who was intimately familiar with current American debates about whether religious faith is at odds with the scientific mindset, even though such debates didn’t take that form a few decades ago, and both Voltaire and his aliens would have been baffled by them.

In writing this new series Terra Ignota, one goal that excited me was to try to write something in a very familiar, classic science fiction future, with flying cars and futuristic cities, but with a different question palette, specifically with Voltaire’s question palette.  My idiosyncratic and undeniably insane narrator Mycroft Canner is writing a history of events of the year 2454, but chooses to write in an eighteenth century style, insisting that the reader will only understand what he’s describing if he uses that peculiar period voice.  In the midst of an unfolding mystery, and the grand politics of borderless globe-spanning non-geographic nations, the narrator is constantly plunging into philosophical sides about whether the world is governed by Chance or Providence, the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and ‘he’ and ‘she’ (all antiquated terms in his 25th century), and what the apparently supernatural abilities of the boy who can bring toys to life tell us about the aims of Fate and the personality of God.  These are not the questions most characters would ask first if they saw someone bring a plastic toy to life, and most books would have the stranger who stumbles on the child’s power in the opening chapter use the words “magic” or “paranormal” while I have the discoverer be a professional theologian who jumps right away to “miracle.”  

This different question palette results in different actions on the characters’ parts (Let’s run scientific tests and also reread Thomas Aquinas!) but it also lets me ask a whole different set of questions of what I designed to be a very familiar kind of science fiction future.  Golden age SF worlds with flying cars and futuristic cities have been interrogated hundreds of times about the big questions of the second half of the twentieth century: superpowers and empire, capitalism and abundance, heroism and the momentum of technological progress, nuclear apocalypse and what would follow it, and race and gender in what is, in older fiction, now a very dated and consequently often uncomfortable way. 
 A bit later as other voices and events added to this question palette, and such futures started to be interrogated about transhumanism, feminism, post-colonialism and civil rights, libertarian economic theory, the cyber revolution, the singularity, and other topics which are hot now but were unheard-of then, and which add an extra level of alien fascinating when we reread science fiction from fifty years ago and plunge, not only into alien worlds, but into the alien question palettes of their authors.

I wanted to recreate that feeling, to write a novel with an alien question palette, alien in time as 1950 and 1750 are alien to us.  I wanted to create a narrator like those Voltaire and Diderot created in whose stories it is often even more delightfully surprising to read how the narration reacts to a strange event as to read the event itself.  I wanted to ask anew Voltaire’s questions about Providence and theopsychology—that attempting to deduce the personality of God from observing God’s creations i.e. nature—because they’re such weird, amazing questions, ones we’ve never asked of our futures of flying cars and glittering towers.  My narrator Mycroft Canner tells you, when he first describes this “miracle” that he is mad, and he invites, even encourages, you, the reader, to dismiss his talk of miracles as part of his madness, inviting you to observe his ravings about Providence from a detached distance, as you would observe a specimen in a zoo.  Thus my science fiction world ticks on in its science fiction way, but through the narrator, and through the questions he asks, and which others who see the “miracle” ask as a consequence, you get to explore a bunch of very new ways of thinking about an exciting, abundance-filled, golden age type future, and feel as if you’re somehow reading historical fiction and science fiction at the same time.  We know what someone who thinks like Voltaire and his Enlightenment buddies would deduce about the nature of Providence from observing 1752, but what would such a philosopher/scientist deduce from observing 2454?  That is a new question altogether, one I can only ask by mixing one part science fiction, one part historical fiction, and a dash of the fantastic.

Ada Palmer is the author of the recently released sci-fi novel Too Like the Lightning and 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




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