Rockets and Voltaire: A Dialogue on Ada Palmer’s “Terra Ignota”
In Palmer’s setting, the 25th century is a time as foreign to our own as ours would be to Thomas Hobbes or anyone in the 16th or 17th centuries. The world has been at peace for centuries, and only 10 percent of the population lives in old-fashioned geographic nations. The majority of people join “Hives,” geographically distributed, ideologically driven political bodies whose members live anywhere they please. This is made possible by the “car system,” a network of millions of autonomous vehicles that can reach any point on the globe in less than two hours. Each household, or “bash’,” grows its own food on a “kitchen tree” or in a “meatmaker,” and technological and social progress have created abundance for all. No one needs to work more than 20 hours a week. The conflicts produced by scarcity, poverty, and expropriation have all but vanished, making room for new experiments in social and political organization. Many of these experiments (perhaps surprisingly) revive old political ideas like monarchy and empire. The masculine-feminine spectrum of gender is seen as an anachronism; everyone is a “they.” Due to the devastating “Church Wars,” religious conflicts that helped usher in the Hive era, it is a crime to speak of God in public. But the serpents of organized religion and the old human habit of identifying with a gender are hard to banish, and so is war.
In 2018, Rebecca Ariel Porte, a writer and literary scholar, sent the first book of the Terra Ignota series to Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, a writer and intellectual historian, and the book fascinated him because of its dramatic treatment of enduring themes in the history of ideas. A long correspondence followed, especially as the series came to a conclusion with Perhaps the Stars in 2021. Porte and Wurgaft have distilled their correspondence to a briefer exchange, with special reference to the problems of providence and progress that Palmer explores through science fiction. Because Palmer often uses the dialogue form in her novels, particularly when her narrator is wrapped up in conversation with imagined interlocutors, Porte and Wurgaft have adapted the dialogue form themselves.
REBECCA ARIEL PORTE: The conclusion of Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, Perhaps the Stars, came out late this past year. We’ve been mulling these Byzantine books for years, strange to say. They’re ambitious enough to stand up to it, though I find them maddening as well as fascinating. Palmer’s brand of science fiction is what you’ve sometimes called speculative social theory. Why do you describe Terra Ignota this way? What do you make of the series’s recurrence to the (frequently disastrous) traditions of early modern and Enlightenment thought about what the good life should look like?
BENJAMIN ALDES WURGAFT: Byzantine is entirely right. Palmer is a maximalist, the kind of author who likes many characters, many story lines (most but not all resolved by the end of the four books), and many layers of significance to it all. Just as you say, Palmer’s world-building and complex plots can sustain a long critical engagement. The books are speculative fiction, to be sure, and she gives us spaceships and giant robots and miracles, not to mention barbarian swordsmen and 18th-century aristocrats — but Palmer seems much less interested in the details of technology and magic than in gender, the family, religious belief, and the limits of humanity itself. To make that more concrete: in the first book, a character descends from a “car,” which is part of a system of millions of self-piloting, flying contraptions that whisk people from one part of the world to another in less than two hours, and all in an environmentally sustainable way. But Palmer doesn’t give us details about car propulsion or cockpit widgets; what grabs Palmer is the world that the cars made possible, a world in which geographic nations are passé, and people can choose other ways of organizing themselves politically. I was probably joking when I first used the term, but “Speculative social theory” can mean using the tools of speculative fiction to ask what other shapes our political and social lives could take, and to engage with social theory by using the narrative techniques of speculative fiction, rather than using essayistic means.
One of the big surprises in Terra Ignota involves those cars, and it is what I call the “reverse Foucault.” Michel Foucault suggested that we’ve seen, in modernity, a shift in governmental strategies from monarchy to power being distributed throughout the social system itself. But even though the cars decenter everything in Terra Ignota, some of the Hives are governed by monarchs or autocrats — like the Masons, who style themselves an empire, and are governed by MASON, an emperor with dictatorial powers, but who choose this over other, more explicitly democratic Hives, like the Cousins or the Humanists. It’s as though in a world of great geographic freedom, indeed, a world without material scarcity, a lot of people don’t just love a strong leader, they love the promise that a unifying power will make them part of something bigger than themselves.
Palmer’s characters choose Hives, usually in their late teens or early 20s, on the basis of personal ideology. The Cousins care about helping people; the Humanists care about competition and excellence; the Mitsubishi value nature, and try to own as much land as possible; the Utopians care about the future; the Brillists (whose hive is called Gordian) care about human psychology and, ultimately, uploading their minds to computers. And Hive members effectively wear their ideologies on their sleeves, because each Hive has distinctive garments — Humanists wear individually styled boots, the Masons and Mitsubishi wear special suits, the Mitsubishi ones shifting their colors and patterns with the seasons. The Hive system is a device Palmer can use to stage ideological conflicts, partly because Palmer’s characters are quite conformist relative to their Hives’ way of thinking and feeling. Indeed, Palmer’s characters often seem more like representatives of types than as individuals with complex personal psychologies, although some of them, like our narrator Mycroft Canner, are incredibly complex.
RAP: I agree that psychological complexity is not really Palmer’s strongest suit. Terra Ignota is simply after different game than, say, late Henry James. The premise of a world of ideologues, as you say, allows Palmer to do certain things: set vast conflicts in motion, explore the degree to which the human character changes under different historical conditions, and plumb the idea that progress in the “human condition” is possible. Terra Ignota argues that progress really is possible, from the transhumanist quest to defeat death, so central to the pseudo-Freudian Brillists to the Utopian hunger for the stars to the cyborg-like augmentation of the set-sets to the claim, in Perhaps the Stars, that the war they have waged is a kinder one, and that its resolution will make a differently better world. I admit I struggle to follow Palmer there.
Ideological coherence on the scale each Hive requires is a necessary premise of the books (the artful thinning of reality Fredric Jameson calls “world reduction”) but they’re not very realist in the psychological sense. Can the Humanists, who are aristocrats (or maybe meritocrats), really believe so uniformly that their Hive functions democratically to encourage striving for excellence, independent of other concerns? But back to speculative social theory!
BAW: Momentarily! First, I absolutely agree, one of Terra Ignota’s many themes is that progress in the human condition is possible. In particular, Palmer consistently presents human diversity as a facet of progress. That includes diversity of sexuality and gender, but also of neuro-type, and it may even extend to sapient nonhuman entities like gods and AIs. But this is progress the Ignotans have to fight over; there’s a whole movement, the “Nurturists,” dedicated to eliminating the “set-sets” because they think the process for creating set-sets is child abuse, while other characters fight for what they call “the right to raise strange children” by modifying their brains like bonsai trees. It seemed to me that Palmer was using science fiction’s versions of diversity to argue for the continued expansion of our sense of “the human,” in our mundane world. Perhaps this too is a form of a speculative social theory.
In any case, Palmer introduces, into her imagined 24th-century world, a set of 18th-century ideas, and early modern European ideas more broadly. These are ideas that Palmer, who is an intellectual historian of the Renaissance, knows quite well, and they run rampant through the books. A few examples: one of Palmer’s main characters is a private Deist, imagining the universe as a well-constructed clockwork created by a basically absent God; the series’s villain, Madame D’Arouet, builds and runs a brothel in which everyone dresses and acts by 18th-century rules; and Mycroft Canner frequently hallucinates the specter of Thomas Hobbes and debates with him questions of natural law. Are the invocations of natural law in this new 25th-century world consistent with Hobbes’s sense of natural law? We’ve talked about how it’s a mistake to think of Terra Ignota as an exercise in intellectual argument — it’s not a scholarly monograph but a work of fiction, and Palmer plays with ideas rather than working each thought through to its conclusion. In its remixing of science fiction tropes and Enlightenment ideas, Terra Ignota is like a brave new form of fan fiction. I’m an intellectual historian myself, and Terra Ignota led me to ask whether there’s a deep and intimate connection between fandom and some forms of scholarship. But were you thinking of something specific, regarding Palmer’s interest in the 18th century?
RAP: Well, Terra Ignota imagines a society with 25th-century technology, organized with ascendingly ingenious accommodations, on assumptions that recall Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and the debates about reason, sovereignty, progress, and providence that informed so much 17th- and 18th-century European thought. This tradition, whether expressed or repressed, is so prominent in the series it’s as if the founders of the Hive System thought they could raze the intervening centuries and discover some unrealized early modern potential for their own moment. (Madame D’Arouet’s gender brothel is 24-7 18th-century cosplay for many reasons.) The obliteration of the Church War, which precedes the foundation of the Hive System, undergirds the Ignotan reworking of early modern theories of power. The Ignotans have a sense of religion and technology as dangerous and formidable that summons up much older arguments about whether the world could be better arranged and how, from the relationship between religion and politics to classical liberalism’s obsessions with things like individual liberty and the social contract. There’s a genuine question in Palmer’s work about where people think power comes from and how they relate to it. What can power can do (kill, pardon, preserve, destroy, determine, teach, alter)? Who wields it in whose service?
Foucault understood power as a set of dynamic force relations. The major force relations that shape existence in Terra Ignota involve the 17th- and 18th-century ideals of progress, providence, and (maybe literally) the gods. Palmer’s thought experiment asks what futures might emerge from the frame of progress and providence. Terra Ignota’s social order, we are told, is demonstrably better than any that has preceded it. What would happen if the Ignotans were forced to contemplate its radical reconstruction? “Would you trade this world for a better one?” The visionary Apollo Mojave (dead by the time Terra Ignota starts) asks this question, which is one of perfectibility. Can social organization be progressively improved? If so, would it be providential? By the conclusion of the books, there seems to be widespread consensus that the answer to the first question is “yes.” And, for many characters and factions, presented with a choice about whether to submit to an absolute power, so is the answer to the second. In Terra Ignota, progress rests on human effort, while providence entails trust in a larger design that exceeds human intent.
Ideological conflicts among Hives center on the mysterious J.E.D.D. Mason: Madame D’Arouet’s son, the heir presumptive of multiple Hives, and, depending on whom you ask, a God, and/or a self-sustaining, omnibenevolent alien. His rise to political power leads to the war of the final volume, a great restructuring of the world (it’s not quite a revolution), which turns on a providential choice: Do you surrender your will or your sovereignty to an absolute authority? Are you willing to trust that there’s a Plan and that it’s a good plan? Some are willing. Many, including the Olympian and all-around celebrity Ojiro Cardigan Sniper, are decidedly not. And the war shakes out around these two positions.
This worldwide conflict is utopian in the sense that almost everybody turns out to share a commitment to bettering the human condition — to progress — even if they have profound disagreements about how to do that. These are not characters who will generally admit to much in the way of self-interest. So perhaps the Hive system has (truly utopian!) convinced enough people that collective progress trumps everything. Even murderers, like our main narrator, Mycroft, usually have a noble cause hidden in a spare pocket. Even traitors are motivated by a larger impetus. In many ways, Palmer models her characters on the larger-than-life kind you get in Homeric epic.
I’m a bit wistful and a lot disturbed when I contemplate this general faith in progress. But where could you have the courage of this conviction, besides fiction? Gods know things as they are don’t come up to scratch. But perhaps I’m a little too Benjaminian in this respect. Progress, if we want to call it that, also means new layers of catastrophe piling up on one another. And one of the tasks of the historian — or the critical theorist — is to sort through the wreckage and keep the score of the new possibilities, the missed opportunities, and the unforgivable transgressions — while simultaneously bracing for the next insult and holding the door open for the idea that things might could go better, even if the probability is vanishing small. It’s not that Palmer’s books don’t contain plenty in the way of physical and psychic violence (murders, sexual assault, guns that wreck the body for years rather than killing, gaslighting). It’s not that they suggest that progress doesn’t come at massive cost. But, for Palmer, progress does seem to come. And maybe this time, with a God on your side, betterment won’t be vulnerable to the typical regressions, sideways lurches, and freshly invented hells that are its usual companions. It would take gods or aliens, wouldn’t it? — a delicious irony, though Palmer has to be one of the least ironical writers currently extant — arch sometimes, ironical never. But providence or progress, a deus ex machina is a cheap trick and long odds.
BAW: I think you’re entirely right to see providence and progress as two key terms for Terra Ignota. Part of the challenge of the books, is that they can make us think through what’s comfortable and uncomfortable about the ideal of progress, let alone providence. I don’t think Palmer is asking us to love these ideals uncritically, although some of her characters certainly do. Palmer herself has used the label “Hopepunk” for her work, and her investment in progress as a feature of human history, and as a potential shared reality now, sharply distinguishes her from many science fiction writers, past and present, whose work is about the failures of 20th-century techno-progressive visions. From Ursula K. Le Guin to William Gibson and beyond, criticizing dreams of progress has long been a popular game.
RAP: And for good reasons! Though it’s important to have reasons to believe that ameliorating change is possible. But I’m curious about some of the places Palmer seems to find possibilities for renewal, for example in the forms of empire. Mutatis mutandis in a post-scarcity world, are so many people hot for absolute monarchy, capital punishment, imperial pomp, fancy uniforms, and a Latin revival that, in a society where you choose your allegiances, the Masons threaten to become the largest of the seven Hives? In the final volume, Palmer acknowledges that the Masons really should find something to worship other than empire. But can you have the trappings of empire without its brutalities or its authoritarian hierarchies? No one loves a boot on the throat like our primary narrator, Mycroft, whose views, of course, should not be equated with the author’s. But Mycroft isn’t the only one who offers tender descriptions of the majesty of power throughout the novels. So lots of people love a boot on the throat (Blacklaws — who live their lives out-Hive — sometimes excepted). What’s the allure?
There are democratic options in Terra Ignota, but their internal workings are much less interesting to Palmer and the imagination of more radical political arrangements is correspondingly more limited. For instance, there’s a sop to Marxist history in the Censor’s data-tracking, which presumably includes a panoply of economic variables. But it’s interesting that there’s nothing like a pseudo-Marxist Hive to match the pseudo-Freudian Hive.
BAW: I think that there’s no Marxist Hive because the problem of class conflict doesn’t exist in Palmer’s world! At least, it doesn’t exist in the way that Marx and Engels understood it in the 19th century, and the way we continue to understand it today. I realize this is debatable, because one conflict in the story is that one Hive, the Mitsubishi, has most of the land (they’re sort of like physiocrats), and the Masons have most of the people, but while Palmer sees this as a source of instability, she never suggests it leads to class conflict per se. No one has to work more than 20 hours a week. There is social inequality, in the sense that some people have more wealth, land, or influence than others, but this is — in a turn as fantastical as the car system — social inequality without social conflict.
RAP: Hmmm … no class conflict? Very little in the way of class consciousness certainly (trumped by Hive consciousness, perhaps), but I think class, like gender and religion, are part of the Hive-system’s incompletely repressed problems. As we’ve said, scarcity is notionally solved in this world. But the entire Mitsubishi system is dependent on land ownership with an accompanying rentier/tenant system (I like “physiocrats” as a description!) — the more land you own, the more representation you get in the Hive government. I find it hard to believe that a Hive whose governance runs, fundamentally, on the unequal distribution of property — which, intrinsically, creates antagonistic interests — has fully conquered the class thing, even if there are plenty of panem et circenses to go around. Another of these incomplete repressions would be the Servicer system, in which those who are found guilty of profound crimes are stripped of former allegiances and sentenced, for the term of their lives, to “serve” the rest of the population in tasks ranging from the menial and repulsive to carework to hard labor. Mycroft, a sort of prince among Servicers, spends his days, primarily, at the beck and call of various powerful figures, to whom he is a translator, a counselor, an historian, and sometimes a kind of pet. It’s definitely preferable to incarceration, torture, mutilation, capital punishment, and all the other unlovely ways we punish those who transgress. And yet, as the war changes what it means to be a Servicer, they become increasingly aware of themselves as a group whose interests lie together.
I think this unfinished business of class is why the absence of a Hive that chooses to arrange its way of life with socialist or communist precedents in mind is striking, even accounting for the eruption of early modern/18th-century traditions of thought (rather than 19th or 20th century) in Terra Ignota. There are, after all, 17th- and 18th-century arguments about different forms of collective life. This is not an argument that class (or race or gender or ethnicity or power or identity or whatever) is a static or transcendent phenomenon — like everything, it’s of history and will look different or be of more or less use to your analysis depending on when you are. Still, if one can find enough people to organize their lives by (respectively) meritocracy, a vocation for care, and a nostalgia for empire, surely one can find enough people who are deeply attached to “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” Constructivist art and bureaucracy!
The language of class (or capital) as Marx developed it doesn’t seem available here, which is fine — Palmer doesn’t really care about Marx and has pretty much tesseracted the 18th century and the 25th together. But this language wasn’t available in the early modern period or the 18th century, either. That doesn’t mean that the phenomena we now associate those categories with were entirely absent or toothless during those periods.
BAW: Even if there’s no conscious class conflict in Terra Ignota, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a Hive organized around socialist ideals — if there can be a Masonic Hive and a Utopian Hive, why not a bread and roses Hive? It seems to me that a Marxist or socialist Hive would probably be a little like Gordian and the Utopians, in the sense that their visions for the human race are substantially different, and more future-oriented, than those of most of the other Hives, who value the status quo. This Hive might have internal struggles over doctrine and policy (revolution versus gradualism, classically, and the question of whether or not socialism in one Hive alone is feasible) but also engage in social experimentation within itself, trying to figure out how collective life might best be organized. They’d probably want the members of other Hives to acknowledge the persistence of things like class, and keep a close eye on sources of inequality, like Mitsubishi landlordism or the extraordinary, tech-created wealth of the Utopians. They’d definitely use data much as the Censor’s Office does, to track deep social trends. (I think the Censor’s Office may be a nod to the Annales School, actually.) They could have Constructivist art; given Palmer’s penchant for “communicative clothing,” they’d probably wear Constructivist-motif smocks. And they’d sing Yiddish Workmen’s Circle songs.
It’s worth mentioning climate change as another problem that Palmer doesn’t really address in a full-throated way; there are hints that it was a real problem, but through some unnamed, perhaps green-tech method, it got fixed. I think we have to look at these curious absences — class, climate — not as failures of the work, but as selective choices that Palmer made so that she could focus on religion and gendered sexuality and violence and other forces. I also think we should assess these choices by looking at Terra Ignota as a work of science fiction in conversation with that genre itself. If we embrace the common premise that science fiction is a mirror on contemporary reality, showing us where the fault lines are by exaggerating them fantastically, then it makes sense that writers are selective about what aspects of contemporary reality they try to mirror. Palmer has made choices; they’re different from, say, China Miéville’s choices, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s. In fact, Palmer seems to be trying to work her way out of some of the impasses in contemporary science fiction, like the question of how to write about futuristic technology after abandoning the premise that technology equals progress. If Palmer’s omission of Marxist themes grates on us both a little, maybe it’s because of her general faith in progress, even as we, her readers, live through a new Gilded Age of inequality. It seems like there’s a lot more to say about providence and progress in the books.
RAP: Thank you for conceding me a socialist Hive. I approve of the amenities. I hear you about taking care not to equate absence or selectivity with failure; I think I’m really asking about what a particular variety of selectivity means. (Cf. Jamesonian “world reduction” again.) Happy to take as read the assumption that all the Ignotans have enough in many senses — but it’s also interesting to find so many of the structures productive of deleterious forms of social inequity in a novel that’s so deeply interested in systems and how they might fail or be corrected. If the implied claim is that these structures are not inherently unjust, but forms of hierarchy with which lots of people would pretty much be happy assuming there was an underlying guarantee of mass prosperity (which, for many people, would render protest a pointless exercise), well, that’s a fascinating claim about authority, if not a unique one. Only in such a world — maybe, maybe, maybe (?) — could people indulge without at least a twinge of ambivalence or guilt — in the romance of empire or feudalism or of submitting to absolute authority without the moral or political consequences. I don’t get this one from the inside but I accept that it exists.
As you say, Palmer knows that the utopianism of Terra Ignota is a lie. (An unimpeachably practiced utopia would not need … a whole Hive of Utopians!) I think these ambiguities redound to Palmer’s credit. No system we invent will be without its barbarities — though there are better and worse forms of barbarism. Utopias always decline from perfection the minute you give them determinative content, which Palmer understands. It’s quite a feat of world-building in itself, to construct fiction rich enough to contain such contradictions.
Utopia, like this world, can’t evade contradictions. Terra Ignota takes up one of the most enduring of these, the problem of evil, filtered through two powerful tendencies in 17th- and 18th-century thought, theodicy and optimism. Theodicy is the justification of the world as providentially constructed, despite the presence of evil. Optimism, here, means Leibniz’s idea that this is the best of possible worlds, which Voltaire satirizes so beautifully, viciously in a line of poetry: “What is, is right.” Optimism can be a therapeutic way of dealing with the fact that life is, on the whole, pretty terrible for most of us. On the other hand, it also tends to prop up power: this is natural, this is right, which is why “what is, is” (though Leibnizian optimism isn’t the only kind of optimism). Criticism, Voltaire’s response, is generally negativity about the world as-is, which can also be a therapeutic response to calamity and widespread suffering. For Voltaire, the world-shaking Lisbon earthquake of 1755 provided this goad. If the Ignotans have inherited Voltaire’s againstness, they have also inherited Leibniz’s optimism.
A world full of seemingly unjustifiable misery moved Leibniz and Voltaire, respectively, to optimism and criticism. Meanwhile, at the point we find ourselves in Ignotan history, the question of the shape of the better world arises in response to social arrangements that seem — to many people — to be about as good as they get. The problem, so far as progress and providence are concerned, is not misery but complacency.
BAW: Yes, complacency and comfort are everywhere in the 25th century, along with lifespans that medical science has increased well beyond a century. The Utopians are the Hive most interested in keeping the human race moving, against complacency, and the title of the last volume, Perhaps the Stars, refers to their possible migration to Mars and beyond. Just as you say, providence and progress were very different for Leibniz and Voltaire than they are for the Ignotans. For many of Palmer’s characters, such as Sniper, the current world is worth defending. These characters — the “Hiveguard” — become one of the major sides in the eventual war. But some of Palmer’s characters think in wilder ways. Mycroft is one of the few invested in both progress and providence. One of my favorite images in Terra Ignota is the idea, temporarily entertained by Mycroft, that we have no special role in providence, but are just part of a communication from one God (the God of this universe) to another God (the God of another universe); we are the letters in which one God composes words to another. In other words, there might be providence, and a certain kind of justification for evils and suffering, but we aren’t the beneficiaries of providence at all. A powerful and frightening idea: a theodicy that can justify earthquakes but not in the interests of their human victims.
We haven’t yet talked about the book’s weird theology around J.E.D.D. Mason, but basically, he believes himself to be a God from another universe, and a handful of other characters believe him, and worship him as such. In other words, they think that this God is preferable to the God of their own universe, the God who created them. They’re gnostics of a kind, and they effectively opt out of a Leibnizian picture of this world being the best of all possible worlds. By contrast other characters, like Sniper, are more Leibnizian in their defense of the world as it stands. Other characters possess a combination of Voltaireian “againstness,” and a different kind of optimism entirely — there’s even a Utopian named Voltaire, and the Utopians are generally optimists committed to the constant improvement of this world, its transformation into a better world — against the present, for the future. They refuse to justify the pain and suffering of this world, and this may be why many non-Utopian characters, like Mycroft, or like Emperor Cornel MASON, seem to have a crush on the whole Hive. Like the Brillists, they’re philosophical, in an age that seems so comfortable it could stifle people’s philosophical impulses. Those who like to ask philosophical questions tend to find themselves at the fringes of society — the Blacklaws, for example, are philosophical, and Mycroft’s violence has made him a permanent outsider even as he enjoys insiderly access to the political powers that be.
But I think there’s more to say about progress, providence, and hope. Palmer’s fourth book, Perhaps the Stars, concludes the series, and it’s strikingly different from the first three books. The first three, Too Like the Lightning, Seven Surrenders, and The Will to Battle, tell the story of the world’s descent into war, and their major narratives are about how the things the world thought were banished — including gender and religion and majority rule — come back. The last book is about the war itself, which engulfs the whole world and isn’t simply between two factions but is, rather, a “fractal war” among many contesting groups. In the end it isn’t resolved on the battlefield, but through Mycroft Canner’s Odyssean cunning. Perhaps the Stars includes deaths and betrayals and surprises, but also many characters working together, muddling through, improvising, and generally persevering under massively un-ideal conditions, to improve the world by resolving the war. And Palmer doesn’t leave us there. After the war, Palmer’s characters debate what went wrong, and what aspects of the world need fixing so that the social conflicts that started the war don’t reappear. The books end on a hopeful note, but with, as you’d expect from any war story, great sadness at what’s been lost. It’s nothing like a theodicy for the war itself.
I was a little surprised by Palmer’s use of the term “Hopepunk” (first coined by Alexandra Rowland in 2017) to describe Terra Ignota, in an essay she published late last year, because while the books resolve on a hopeful note, I couldn’t quite see the “punk” part. What’s so punk about a war that ends with one person effectively governing the world?
RAP: My question exactly!
BAW: In fact, Palmer’s characters include relatively few anti-establishment types, and far more people who love being part of organizations, operating as something larger than themselves. Perhaps they’re “punk” in the sense that they see the need for reform — and in any case the term “Hopepunk” probably isn’t really about “punk” so much as an effort to coin a new term for a kind of science fiction that takes the ideal of progress, and the possibility of the world getting better, seriously. The ideal of progress is an idea so faded that Palmer herself can’t simply wave it around like a banner in Terra Ignota, but she wants to give it new life — these books are a salvage operation for an idea. And Palmer’s effort to salvage progress is where I was, as a reader, most mixed.
Maybe the accident of Terra Ignota’s publication dates (2016–2021) is that they coincide first with the Trump presidency and then with the COVID-19 pandemic, but those are only the most obvious things; climate collapse, inequality, racism, and much more, were already running problems, creating a readerly context in which optimistic science fiction could be hard to take. Palmer’s “Hopepunk” essay gives us one of those cases in which an author gives an indication of how she wants her work read, and as readers we get to decide if we agree. And while I really love these books, I find it hard to love, and feel optimistic for, the world in which I read them. Not only are social inequality and climate change major impediments to hopefulness, that feeling itself can seem like a betrayal of other people’s suffering.
At the core of Palmer’s hopefulness seems to be the idea that people will collectively work to make a positive difference in each other’s lives — “Hopepunk” was always supposed to be the opposite of “Grimdark” — and she writes, “[H]opepunk presents an image of human beings where, in a prisoner’s dilemma situation, not everyone but enough people actually do choose the thing that helps everyone to make it possible to make the world a better place.” This takes weird forms in the books. Mycroft Canner — murderer, cannibal — is oddly not a dark antihero, disillusioned but doing the right thing anyway. Instead, he’s an idealist whose acts of violence were intended to wake the world up to the recurring problem of violence, because he loves the world so much. And Mycroft also loves the Utopians, because they’re not so in love with this world that they wouldn’t leave it to build a better one.
I like Palmer’s idea that Mycroft can be permanently stained by his murders, and yet learn to work to improve the world; it’s a powerful statement that we can be impure but still do right. I think what’s difficult about all of this is that heroic collective action requires some emotional buy-in, and for me, there’s an attendant worry that joining a movement will entail surrendering my right to criticize that movement in public, in other words, will make me toe a party line. This isn’t Palmer’s fault, of course, it’s the fault of the polarizing political culture of our moment, which shuns complexity and embraces flags and sides. I was reading Palmer when I started to see pickup trucks on the roads, flying “thin blue line” flags in support of the police and, implicitly, against public protests against police brutality, and I thought of the clothes and flags in Palmer’s books. “With this you can make war,” one of her characters says, in reference to these kinds of symbols.
I think certain aspects of Terra Ignota are challenging for both of us because of an issue that intellectual history helps to clarify. Palmer lets ideas (including progress) tesseract from the 17th and 18th centuries into the 25th without passing through the 20th-century critique of those ideas, and you and I have been schooled in that critique. In particular, we’re both readers of the Frankfurt School, and we’ve both been influenced in our thinking by Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Enlightenment and its rationality, as they articulated it in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Their argument’s implications for the critique of techno-progressivism run deep. For me, part of what’s fun about Terra Ignota is the work’s seeming innocence of that line of thought, the way Palmer simply heads off in a new direction, but she does so in a way that seems to deny a whole phase of intellectual history, in which wrestling with modernity’s Faustian bargains is central (notably Palmer does have a character named Faust, the headmaster of the Brillist Institute, but she doesn’t follow that reference to Goethe, or to Mann).
All that said, Rebecca, I know that providence and progress don’t satisfy you much, so, with some attention to those terms, can I ask what you made of the final volume of the series?
RAP: I am constitutionally unsatisfied by progress and providence, though a partisan of the desire for better things that underwrites them. The end of Terra Ignota says that progress and providence can be reconciled, so long as you believe that the purpose you are being used for involves the betterment of humankind and you can submit your will to that task. It’s a wistful vision of what things would be like if the gods loved us — and if you could love that great abstraction humanity as these omnibenevolent gods loved you. Palmer’s new covenant between progress and providence — an attempt to salvage both — trades on a symmetry in these concepts: they are both theological.
Many of the fantasies in Terra Ignota cast techno-progressive or -utopian wishes in the light of progress and providence. When I think about that generously, I see two things: Palmer’s writing shows us how much transhumanist and techno-utopian impulses owe to progress and providence. We’re not done with these essentially theological categories because they still inform our present. And her fiction diagnoses something vital to our moment, in which political and social imagination often seem terribly blinkered: the longing for a form of progress we imagine we could live with, the longing to make optimistic sense even of the things life’s chariot crushes.
Palmer, who asks how providence and progress might converge, is aware of how destructive progress can be, which means that providence, as she represents it, is also destructive. When you understand progress and providence as part of the same phenomenon, you attribute to God and reason the same kind of cunning. They share an aim. And if all the generations of the earth end up being, to a great extent, providence’s collateral damage, then even a God who hates death — as J.E.D.D. Mason does — who loves humanity — the “small authors” — as he does the little sparrow, still has a Big Dipper full of blood on his hands. There’s an exhilarating optimism to the end of Terra Ignota — and, for me, a chilling despair.
I’d like to have done with progress and providence alike. In the lovely metaphor you cite, earlier, Palmer envisions gods sending letters between universes by means of their creations. I will settle for letters from one present to another. Call them history, criticism, fiction. There are terms of correspondence beyond progress and providence. But if these are the only terms Terra Ignota allows me, between the dei ex machina and the mortal hours, I know which one I’d choose.
I’m not much of an optimist about the idea that providence can be saved from itself. Progress always entails regress. (Providence — sorry to say — never had a chance with me.) Change is a different question. Things can change — and change for the better — that part of Hopepunk is crucial. Human agency drives human change and its consequences for all forms of life. But human agency goes in many different directions — sublime inventions like jazz or public transportation and libraries but also toward colonization and anthropogenic climate change. When it comes to thinking of those changes as progress in the positive, cumulative sense, sometimes the price is just too high and the yield too low. And we have proven remarkably bad, as a species, at getting that calculation right.
And yet, we can’t know, in advance, which things will go well or ill or how. As Horkheimer says, “I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” That sentiment leaves the door open — because it wagers against optimism’s justification of the world as-is — which is the same reason it’s not exactly hopeful, or not in any simple way. Maybe, then, we should feed hope on some other food than futures past. After progress and providence, what dreams of the good life become newly possible?
Rebecca Ariel Porte is a member of the Core Faculty at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is at work on a book about Paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is the author of Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food.
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