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Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota Series: An Alternate History of the Future


coverwilltoThis ten-minute paper introduces a speculative fiction series about a 25th century world in which humanity has succeeded in colonizing the Moon, holding the Olympics in Antarctica, and maintained global peace for three centuries but in which women have still not achieved equality.
This paper argues that Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, set in a future 25th century, is deeply invested in exploring what it means to write history and learn from its lessons. In showing how 18th century habits of thought, and even earlier texts such as Vergil’s Aeneid, continue to shape thinking in her imagined future, she takes a long view of historical change, a decision that seems consonant with contemporary global trends. In this respect, her approach contrasts with that of the historian-narrator of her series, Mycroft Canner, who writes an official history as it happens. This decision enables Palmer to zoom in and zoom out from close and longer views throughout the narrative, moving away from the middle distance perspective of a sixty-year range advocated by Sir Walter Scott. These texts are not alternative histories in the most usual sense. They do not imagine past events turning out otherwise. Instead, they imagine our future as if seen from an even more distant future, looking back—to address interlocutors from the past, both real, such as Thomas Hobbes, and fictional, and to address imagined readers from its own near and far future. This series is alternate history in the most basic sense of positing “‘an account of Earth […] as it might have become in consequence of some hypothetical alteration in history’ (Stableford, Wolfe, Langford)” (cited in Frost, p.28).
Like all speculative fiction, Palmer’s series asks “what if?” What if the late twenty-first century experiences a devastating recurrence of earlier centuries’ Church Wars, wars over transhumanist developments called the “Set-Set Wars,” and a rearrangement of governance systems that effectively abolishes the nation-state, achieving peace for three centuries, but still failing, in the 25th century, to achieve gender equity? What if certain problems that seem intractable, such as the unforeseen effects of the human impact on the environment are easily solved, while the social problems of humans living together in an even more thoroughly globalized world, continue? For someone like myself, who has worked in team projects addressing “Globalization and Autonomy” and “Building Global Democracy,’ this is an intriguing thought experiment.
In writing of the narrator using the plural pronouns “them” and “themself,” I will be following the prescribed custom of Palmer’s imagined 25th century in which gendered pronouns have been abolished as part of an unsuccessful attempt to achieve gender equity. Mycroft highlights the issue by employing the neutral “they” when reporting the conversations of others but insisting on gendered pronouns for describing actors in this history. But Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns fluctuates according to their estimate of the behavior of the person at the time. It is not determined by the sex of individual bodies. I will use it only when referring to characters in the fiction and not to people outside the text. It is a useful exercise in learning how difficult it is to escape using gendered pronouns for thinking and writing in our times.
The series aims to raise such questions at a time when American society seems increasingly polarized around gendered and racialized identifications, and when a misogynist agenda is being institutionalized, in part at the instigation and with the support of a resurgent fundamentalist form of Christianity and its allies within white supremacist movements. Global warming threatens yet remains officially denied. In Palmer’s imagined future, two of these looming problems have been miraculously solved. Technology has dealt with the environmental crisis and race as we understand it no longer functions as a divisive force. In a world where there is much more intermarriage across racialized lines, nation-states have been abolished, and religious discussions banned, racial tensions once dependent on colonial imaginaries, visible bodily difference, and notions of bodily purity now seem to have morphed in this series into controversies around the limits of cyborgian identities, in which human and machine are merged at an early age to create a new type of human, fully integrated with computers, called set sets. This society is still hurting from earlier Set Set Riots, which threaten to break out again on the instigation of Nurturists, as the series begins.
I argue that some of the energies of this series derive from the “political unconscious” of Palmer’s nation, the United States, at this contemporary moment in history, while other themes occupy the forefront of her attention. It seems unlikely we can turn so easily from the challenges of environment and race, yet Palmer’s focus elsewhere may address these indirectly. I am fascinated by her interest in alternate forms of citizenship and governance structures, and in the continuing disparity between apparent progress in technological development and the lack of progress in women’s rights and in attaining a stable peace.
The idea of the pre-emptive strike starts the events of her series in motion. Mycroft has committed horrific crimes in a failed effort to stop the beginning of a new global war. The plot turns on the revelation that the long peace has itself depended on a secret series of targeted assassinations designed to pre-emptively prevent war clouds from gathering. By the end of the third book, The Will to Battle, those efforts have failed. In this way, the series addresses the Global “War on Terror” and its justification of a doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, while also considering the disintegration of democracy into oligarchy and the dangerous cult of the strong leader. The series questions our present and how we got here while imagining alternate futures that try to deviate from the trajectory we seem to be on. Palmer’s future has both utopian and dystopian features that raise questions as much as they offer potential solutions. To further complicate matters, one of the new forms of citizenship available in this world is within the collectivity named the Utopians. They stand out from the other self-governance structures, called Hives, for their integrity, perfectionism, and dedication to Progress as well as their Borg-like integration. The first strike of the warmongers is against them.
Significant imagination has gone into the world building of a future that is at least on the surface quite different from our own. At the same time, the series is engaged in a philosophical discussion that is as old as humankind. In the “Author’s Note and Acknowledgements” at the end of Too Like the Lightning, Palmer writes of her desire “to add my voice “to the Great Conversation, to reply to Diderot, Voltaire, Osamu Tezuka, and Alfred Bester, so people would read my books and think new things, and make new things from those thoughts, my little contribution to the path which flows from Gilgamesh and Homer to the stars” (431). Palmer’s work as a historian of the Renaissance further shapes her fiction.. In her academic article, “On Progress and Historical Change” (2017), Palmer asks several questions that resonate with the themes of the Terra Ignota series. She asks: “Is progress inevitable? Is it natural? Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place?” She adds “Many people are reexamining these kinds of questions in the wake of the political events of 2016” (319). By asking similar questions of her 25th c world, she provides her readers with a longer temporal scale in which to situate them, and by bringing in many references to the past, particularly the Enlightenment but also Roman times, she lengthens that scale even further.
Palmer’s article continues: “There is a strange doubleness to experiencing a historic moment while being a historian oneself” (319). This is the position in which she places Mycroft Canner. They are living through events as they attempt to record them for posterity, and see them through a triple lens: that of their knowledge of the past; their present experience as a participant and a watcher; and their anticipation of how the future will judge them and their times. As a historian interested in “the how of history’s dynamism rather than the what next” (italics in original: 320) as she puts it, Palmer seems to have written her fiction to demonstrate her belief that “history is a lesson in complexity and predictability” (320). These are books you need to read more than once. The first reading immerses one in the complexity. Only with hindsight can one begin to piece together some of what might have been predicted or at least what might seem predictable now. In that way, perhaps, the series makes all its interested readers into a type of historian, trying to make sense of history’s dynamism and learning to ask some of the questions that historians ask.
Palmer’s article is organized around the challenge of balancing “Great Forces” history against “Human Agency” history to produce what she advances as a “hybrid model of history” (334), a model that well describes the complex balance between what she calls “zooming in” and “zooming out” that Mycroft’s narration also achieves, as they move between a perspective shaped by centuries of human history to the intimate struggles of the moment. Palmer’s article may also explain why she has Mycroft choose to write in an eighteenth-century style. Palmer argues “We’ve only been systematically pursuing progress since the seventeenth century, and we didn’t really come to understand that it could have negative consequences until the end of the eighteenth….One hundred and fifty years is not a very long time to study something, not when the system we’re trying to understand is so complex” (336). She concludes the article in an effort to achieve balance between the “slowness of social progress” (336), which is painful, and the hope that arises from the fact that some things do seem to have improved.
Specifically, she asks why, when technology has advanced so quickly, and “Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Citizen in 1791, do we still not have equal pay?” 337). At the same time, she consoles herself that “History gives us infinite examples of human actions that genuinely did divert the flood, protect things, achieve things, even improve things, if not everything they aimed at” (337). This wide lens panoptic scale enables her to balance critique with hope, while remaining unreconciled to the slow progress of women’s rights.
Palmer positions her series on the cusp of these two observations. Gendered stereotypes have survived even in this future society that believes it has achieved gender equality. Mycroft attributes this failure to the continuing power of eighteenth century imaginaries. Mycroft argues in the opening “Prayer to the Reader,” that “since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolutions, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described” (13). The mix of anachronism and futurism (eighteenth-century style and futurist setting) gives these books their distinctive character. Through Mycroft’s narration, they grapple with questions of philosophy, Providence, faith and politics, choice and democracy, in ways that remain haunted by history even as they resonate with the debates of our global terror times.
Nation-states are no longer the dominant forms of international governance in this new 300 year-old system and while a few survive in residual form, the United States is not one of them. Yet it is arguably the strongest presence. Seen as the inspiration for the founding of this new global federation, the 1776 US Declaration of Independence is echoed in the 2131 speech that launched the new order, and which is now repeated on every “Renunciation Day” since. There is one key difference between the opening words of the two speeches. Whereas the original speech refers to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” the Renunciation speech omits reference to “Nature’s God.” Both the nation-state and its origin in a divinely ordained sovereignty are thereby renounced. Mycroft explains: “What you see here is the beginning of the silence”. Referring to 2131, Mycroft notes: “As the first bombs of the Church War rain down, those who consider themselves neutral are now afraid to mention the divinity” (Chapter 8). The speech, futurist to us, historical to Mycroft, is delivered by a new Founder with an old name, Thomas Carlyle. Founder Carlyle claims: “Americans, America is no longer your nation. Your nation is the friends who live and work with you, in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, all of the Americas, and all the other corners of this Earth.” This cosmopolitan vision invokes a world in which citizenship is self-chosen according to vocation and earned by the passing of a Maturity Exam, the terms of which are set by each Hive individually.
As the series unfolds, this remarkable civilization seems consumed by “the will to battle,” in part because it has never dealt with the religious, violent, and sexual desires it has repressed nor with the unquestioned belief in progress and free choice that it has internalized. I have argued that this series asks with an historian’s eye how the contemporary US got to its current state. It asks important moral and political questions that have emerged more urgently since the US declaration of a “War on Terror.” Can pre-emptive strikes work or do they cause further violence while merely delaying, perhaps, the inevitable? Can the death of a few can ever justify the survival of the many? How can a democratic system designed to employ checks and balances to maintain the peace be thrown out of balance, and how may democratic forms of participation restore it? Or will a strong man figure be needed?

Works Cited
Barad, Karen. “Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings.” GLQ 21. 2-3 (2015): 387-422.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1081
Modood, Tariq. “Is There a Crisis of ‘Postsecularism’ in Western Europe? In Braidotti, Rosi, Bolette Blaagaard, Tobijn de Graauw & Eva Midden, eds. Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 14-34.
Palmer, Ada. “On Progress and Historical Change.” Know: A Journal of the Formation of Knowledge. Vol.1. no. 2 (2017). 319-337.
Palmer, Ada. Too Like the Lightning. Terra Ignota, Book 1. New York: TOR. 2016.
—. Seven Surrenders. Terra Ignota. Book 2. New York: TOR, 2017.
—. The Will to Battle. Terra Ignota. Book 3. New York: TOR, 2017.
—. Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014.

The research for this paper was supported, in part, by funding from the Canada Research Chairs programme.

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