jueves, 13 de julio de 2017

Interview with Ada Palmer

Today I have the pleasure of teaming up with Leticia Lara, from Fantástica Ficción, to interview Ada Palmer, the author of two of the most fascinating novels I've read in a long while: Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders. Hope you enjoy the interview and remember that you can read the translation into Spanish at Leticia's blog!

Leticia Lara & Odo: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?

Ada Palmer: I wanted to write fantasy & science fiction novels ever since I was a tiny child.  All through school I worked on extra writing projects in my free time, and did writing courses over the summers whenever I could.  Writing is a skill which comes very slowly, only with practice—some skills like music and mathematics have prodigies, but others genuinely only come with years and years of practice, and I think writing is one of them.  Every word I wrote, whether essays for class, drafts of early stories that will never be published, poems for a poetry course, even e-mails if you work on crafting them well, everyone of them is a tiny step forward for a writer.

LL&O: Which authors have influenced you the most?

AP: My father has a big library of classic SF, so I grew up reading Alfred Bester, Heinlein, Asimov, William Tenn, and especially Gene Wolfe and Samuel R. Delany.  Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun became my model for how dense and real world building could feel, and how complex and intense a first person narrator could be. But I also read a lot of historical literature, so many influences on Terra Ignota come from outside F&SF: 18th century literature like Voltaire and especially Diderot’s Jacques le Fatalist et son Maitre, and also Robert Graves’ I Claudius was a strong source, both for the narrative perspective and the way of looking at politics through family and dynastic relationships.

LL&O: Is there any current writer that you admire?

AP: Many, yes!  The two who still make me speechless with awe when they walk into a room are Gene Wolfe and Samuel R. Delany.  There are also authors I really admire for how they’ve both produced brilliant work but also used it to address important issues in the world and make real change, people like Ken Liu, Cory Doctorow, and Daniel José Older.  One of the great pleasures of beginning to publish has been getting to know so many great writers as friends, people like Jo Walton, Pamela Dean, and Susan Palwick.  And there are fantastic newer writers that I’m honored to be writing alongside, people like Malka Older, Ruthanna Emrys, Yoon Ha Lee, Charlie Jane Anders, and Max Gladstone.  I especially admire masters of short-form fiction, since I’ve always struggled with shorter form and find it immensely powerful.  Some of the most exciting to me are Ted Chang, John Chu, E Lily Yu, and Alyssa Wong, but there’s so much great short F&SF being written and published now, it feels like living in a fiction treasure trove.

LL&OToo Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders have been published as two books but they feel like just one novel. Could you tell us a little bit about their writing and publication process?

AP: Guilty as charged.  I planned the series as two long books, and wrote what are now Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders as one book, but Tor decided to divide it up into four.  For the third and fourth books it works well, since I wrote them knowing they’d divide like that, but the first two were written as one thing, and had to be cut in half after the fact.  I did my best to make the first book give as much resolution as I could, showing the reader shape of what is going on, and bringing lots of threads together, but it was challenging rewriting it to end when so many themes and elements were mid-stream.  I think I did a pretty good job, but I do feel it’s imperfect, and that it’s best to read the first two books close together.  Books two and three both have fine endings to stop on, though.

LL&O: Both Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders are profoundly philosophical (and political) books. Do you think that science fiction is especially suitable for exploring this kind of topics?

AP: Yes, very much so.  Science fiction lets us explore other ways human societies could be set up, alternate kinds of politics and crisis, and it lets us preview kinds of moral dilemmas and moral decisions that advancing technology will cause before we actually get there.

LL&O: One of the questions you pose in Seven Surrenders is whether the end justifies the means. What do you think of mental experiments such as the “trolley problem” in which you have to decide if you “kill” one person to save five? Do you think that these philosophical issues will become more important in the future, for instance with the development of self-driving cars and all that?

AP: The trolly problem is delightful for debate, but happily the real world (and realistic fiction worlds) don’t correspond to it because we have the ability to change the situation over time, to gradually develop better trollies and safer walkways to prevent something like that from happening.  We have the ability to reject the terms of the process in the first place.  For example, one of the steps of the trolly problem is whether you would kill a person to harvest organs you could use to save the lives of five people—the real-world answer is that we are working together to develop artificial organs so everyone can live.  I’ve been following this with self-driving cars, and those who’ve been designing them expected to face the trolly problem, but have discovered that in actuality their simulations can’t design any realistic situations where endangering the driver is the only way to save others; in reality there are always multiple possible actions some of which are good for the driver too, and things which endanger the driver tend to be the same ones which endanger passers-by.  So in many ways the aspect of the trolly problem that the books look at—and which I think is more relevant to real life—is the question of whether or not you accept the status quo.  If trollies are killing a small number of people, does the society leave them that way considering these deaths and acceptable loss for the greater good, or does the society reject the terms of the trolly problem and dedicate itself to solving this so no one has to die?  The Utopians, for example, are dedicated to “disarming death” and whenever anything kills one of their members they put it on a list and keep working on improving the situation until it can’t recur—even if this requires large sacrifices, like using their own flying car network which is slower and thus is a bit of a drain on their economy compared to using the faster ones.  In many ways it’s a question about complacency, and about responsibility—whether society is content to continue sacrificing a few lives in order to enjoy peace and plenty, or whether the society refuses to accept that and continues to work to reduce the body count, even if it means the majority giving up a life of ease for a life of working harder.  To use a real world political example, a few years ago they did a poll in Canada asking if Canadian citizens would be willing to pay higher taxes to give people in the USA better healthcare, saving and improving lives (not Canadian lives, people in the USA).  The Canadians strongly answered “Yes.”  That is a society which rejects the terms of the trolly problem, preferring to work harder to help everyone instead of settling for “acceptable loss.”  The characters in Terra Ignota face a similar question, though with much higher stakes.

LL&O: Another philosophical issue at the root of your novels is what the natural state of people is. Do you think that we are born as “noble savages” or do you agree with Hobbes on this one?

AP: While I’m glad sciences is helping us learn more and more about what part nature plays in human character, studying history makes it very, very clear to me how completely different people are when raised in different ways and different societies.  Children’s brains are incredibly good at learning, absorbing, analyzing patterns, and repeating them, and children raised in different ways can have profoundly different values, world views, and fundamental human capacities.  A few of the characters involved in events in the book believe that humans are naturally bellicose and that violence will inevitably recur no matter what, but most of them don’t—most believe instead (much as I do) that humankind certainly has the capacity to achieve permanent peace, but that doing so will require a lot of cultural, political, and educational development.  That it’s not something we can achieve in a few decades—culture is too complicated, and we are too complicated.  But, just like with curing diseases, if we work at it, study ourselves, learn more, we can take steps toward it over time.  Humanity spent many centuries trying to develop medicines before we finally developed really effective ones like penicillin, but that doesn’t mean that we cured all diseases within a few decades of developing penicillin, nor does it mean that all the early doctors whose efforts didn’t bear fruit didn’t contribute anything.  Just so, some characters in Terra Ignota believe that, while humanity in their 25th century has gotten very good at peace, we aren’t yet so good at it new outbreaks of violence aren’t possible—rather, like doctors armed with penicillin, they’re better at peace than any earlier age, but still have a lot more to learn.

LL&O: The world we see in Terra Ignota is, to paraphrase Le Guin, an ambiguous utopia. Do you think an actual, stable utopia is really attainable?  Or are social and political constructs always flawed in some way?

AP: Stable definitely not—we keep inventing, discovering, and expanding too much too fast.  Even if we somehow completely mastered all of science (which will take many centuries if it’ seven possible) we’d keep innovating in the realms of art and literature, which in turn stimulate social change.  But I do think society sometimes achieves improvements which would feel impossibly amazingly utopian if we showed them to earlier generations, though often at the same time generating accidental bad side-effects which we then need to remedy, and making other changes people from the past would find dystopian and frightening.  Let’s imagine showing 2017 to someone from 1767.  Our medical advances, our globe-crossing airplanes, our flawless industrial fabrics, our automated washing machines, our 80 year average life span, our greenhouses supplying fresh fruit in the dead of winter—all these would feel absolutely utopian.  Other changes, such as the fall of so many eternal-seeming empires, the transformed roles of women, new weapons, new diseases—these would seem alarming, uncomfortable, frightening, like something has gone wrong.  And certain continuities, such as the continuation of religious violence, famine, controversies over the use of torture, these would seem depressingly familiar.  I set out to create a 2454 which would feel like that: utopian in many ways, disorienting and uncomfortable in others, depressingly similar in others.  Because I think that’s very plausibly the kind of future we are going to make.  I don’t think the flaws and merits of the real 25th century will be the same ones in my imagined 25th century, but I do think there will be flaws as well as merits, much as I set out to depict.  Because when we talk about making a better future, we also have to accept that it won’t be in our control precisely what develops in that future, and while it will contain many things we wish for, it will contain a few we don’t.  And it will also keep changing.  Because it’s not a stable utopia—its a dynamic, changing, growing world.  The question is not “Is a perfect society possible?” it’s “When a pretty good society is confronted with its deep and toxic flaws, will it succeed in changing for the better?”

LL&O: The society of Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders has, apparently, given up discrimination for reasons of gender, sexual orientation, religion or political affiliation. However, sex, faith, and power are still strong driving forces. Do you think this kind of “urges” are at the root of all human behavior?

AP: Not unchangingly or permanently so.  Societies, people, brains, are all very complex, and right now complicated cultural attitudes toward gender, sex, race and religion are woven all through our society and passed on to our children in a thousand unconscious ways from early childhood.  These aren’t unchangeable or inherent parts of human nature, but they are facts of our current culture, ones we are still learning to understand and affect.  Thus I think that, while we’re making huge changes in them even now, realistically they’re going to continue to be parts of our society in ever-changing ways for several centuries to come, because they are so complicated it will take us that long to fully understand and change them.  The future of Terra Ignota looks at the question of whether progress on these axes might take a long time, and what might make it more or less successful over the next centuries.  For example, you will notice that, in the Terra Ignota universe, social progress on some of these axes has progressed a lot more than others.  Race relations between people of European and African descent, for example, are in great shape, while race relations between people of Europe and East Asian descent are tenser.  We see no evidence of any discrimination related to sexual orientation, but we do see (especially from the narrator) a lot of tension about gender.  And as we learn more about the society, we also encounter a pattern: the elements which have progressed less are the ones where the conversation has been partly or completely silenced.  For example, there’s a severe taboo on even mentioning gender, so gender tensions are not progressing much because without discourse, study, without talking about things, exploring, innovating, progress has stagnated.  But there’s no taboo on talking about sex or who’s having sex with whom, so there things have advanced.  One of my hopes is that people will come away from these books thinking about how destructive silence can be, how invaluable discourse is to progress.  Because sometimes you hear people say things like “Feminism has done what it set out to do, women have equal rights, we don’t need all this gender stuff anymore.”  Trying to shut the conversation down.  Whereas in fact we’re still in the infant days of truly liberating humanity from old rigid forms of gender, gender binaries, and gender inequality, so shutting down the conversation could lock us into a bad outcome, like Terra Ignota where very little progress has been made on gender in four centuries—four centuries of silence.

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