Archive for Promoted Comment

From Ada’s AMA: Terra Ignota, Bash’es & Hives

On 11th January 2018, Ada did a marathon “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit. This post collects the questions and answers that are about Hives and bash’es in the Terra Ignota world. There may be minor spoilers, but I’m not reproducing the specific spoilers that were marked as such (partly because they’re impossible to cut and paste…) I’ve done some rearranging to put the questions into related topics just to make it more coherent to read.


Infovorematt: I get that Hives are non-geographic but how does that work in practise? If my Hive lets me smoke cannabis what if I’m in a Mason-majority city (no way they are ok with weed!) can I still light up? What if I’m visiting my humanist friends ‘bash? Is all private property (houses, malls, shops, etc) aligned to a Hive and subject to their rules and laws? There must be a bit of tension and culture clashes in public places. Strict Masons being weirded out by hippy-dippy Cousins. Cousins being uncomfortable when a Mason spanks their kids etc

Ada: Cities and some areas have individual geographic regulations passed in that area, as the cars cheerfully tell us every time we land. If you were a Humanist and smoked cannabis in a town in an area that banned it, like Lagos, Cambodia, or Myanmar (regions with a Cousin majority), then you’d be guilty of breaking local laws and could be charged by the city. Your Hive would pay a fine to the city and then impose on you whatever punishment the Hive considered appropriate, which is often an equally sized fine, but sometimes something different. It’s similar if you commit murder—your Hive pays a fine to the other Hive and then your Hive punishes you, unless your Hive has made a special deal as all the Hives have with the Utopians who reduce the fine the other Hive pays if the other Hive enforces Modo Mundo (other political favors were also promised by Utopia in return for this concession.) Private property like houses is restricted by city regulations and by Hive regulations IF it’s a one-Hive bash’, but only city regulations if it’s mixed. There can be culture clashes in public places, which is why most cities have major districts dominated by particular Hives, like the Utopian districts we see.

Infovorematt: How easy is it to create a hive? Is the small number a likely outcome or just easier from a narrative point of view

Early in the process, in the 2200s when the Hive system was new, it was comparatively easy to found a Hive and people expected there to be lots and lots, so there were dozens. Now it’s very hard, since with the megahives that have formed from mergers no one takes a new tiny one seriously. So we’re seeing a last man standing stage of a slow development.

Delduthling: Did you have ideas for Hives that got scrapped during the world-building process?Are there any historic Hives we haven’t heard of yet?

Ada: Yes I have some clear ideas of Hives that existed at the beginning but didn’t last. One of the main ones is OBP, “One Big Party” which merged with the Olympians to form the Humanists. The Olympians started as a transit network to take sports fans to games, and OBP was the same for concerts and theater and art and museums, so people could zip around the world to see singers, or Shakespeare, or visit a gallery. They shared their excitement about excellence, and figures like Ganymede more embody OBP than the Humanists. Others may or may not get mentions in book 4, we’ll see.

Factitious: How does having exclusive Hive languages work with mobility between Hives being so important? Do ex-Mason Humanists just politely pretend not to understand Latin?

Ada: Yes, when you switch Hive you are expected to stop speaking that language, and to politely refrain from eavesdropping on conversations in that language. The hope is that it will wither in time. Similarly for kids who haven’t yet joined a Hive, they inevitably hear the Hive language being spoken at home by their parents, i.e. young Martin Guildbreaker hears people speaking Latin all the time and learns to understand it easily as kids do, but kids are discouraged from speaking the Hive language until adulthood. Unless it’s a strat language too, i.e. a young French kid would speak French at home in addition to English despite not yet being a member of the European Hive, and a young Spaniard Spanish etc. becuase it’s a strat language, as with Mycroft speaking Greek.

Subbak: So is it frowned upon for someone (outside of professional translators and interpreters) to learn a language that is not the language of their Hive or nation-strat?

Ada: Yes, it’s considered uncomfortable, breaking a taboo. We see this in Mycroft’s guilt about using his Japanese in chapter 3.

Factitious: Did the Hive demographic chart in TLTL, which was described as being of world population, count Minors? If so, how? Did it count people on reservations?

The Hive demography doesn’t count anyone who has not yet taken the Adulthood Competency Exam, nor does it count people on reservations. So we don’t know how large the population of Reservations is.

Adult Competency Exam

MayColvin: What kinds of things are tested on the Adulthood Competency Exam? Has this changed over time since the exam was instituted as the marker of legal majority?

Ada: The Adulthood Competency Exam has a lot of moral reasoning questions, the point being to make sure you can do complex adult decision-making. So things like more elaborate versions of the Trolly Problem, with no correct answer, just asking you to articulate an answer to make sure it’s a sophisticated one that demonstrates you can make intelligent political decisions, and are mature enough not to be taken advantage of. There are also lots of versions. While Romanova’s office administers a basic one, as the Charter specifies any organization can offer one if the Alliance office confirms its equivalency, so every Hive has a version, and some strats have versions in their own languages, and there are also lots of options for format to make it easier for people with different disabiltiies. All versions involve an oral exam, and many have only an oral exam while others have an oral and written component; only the EU offers a written-only option. The Brillest one is really strange and you’re not really fully aware it’s going on most of the time.

Factitious: What options do Deaf people have for the Adulthood Competency Exam? Is there a Deaf strat that offers a version in sign language?

Ada: Deafness is less common do to medical advances, and sign is uncommon since voice-to-text is so good that you can program your tracker put simultaneous subtitles in your lenses as people are talking. The system struggles with homonyms so is imperfect, and sign is still used in some places, but the voice-to-text system is more ubiquitous. If you wanted a sign language ACE it would be offered by Romanova, the Cousins, and the Europeans.


Subbak: How enforced is the “Clothing as Communication” thing? Would it be illegal for a Humanist to wear a Utopian coat in public because they thought it was cool? Or an armband of a nation-strat you don’t belong in?

Ada: It’s enforced by cultural pressure rather than law, so people don’t do it much just as today people don’t go into the office dressed in a bathrobe much. It makes everyone uncomfortable. In a few circumstances you can get in legal trouble if you’ve masqueraded as a Member of another Hive for purposes of taking advantage of people, such as a journalist masquerading as one Hive to interview someone in bad faith by tricking them into thinking it’s a fellow Hive Member, or someone dressing as a Hive to go to a Hive Member only event. But when it’s for innocent purposes it’s done, certainly for dress-up parties, for acting on stage, and Sniper dresses as all the Hives sometimes for play.

Subbak: Can you describe how Mason and European suits differ?

Ada: European suits have more elements we associate with the pre-modern world, so more elaborate tailoring, long rows of buttons, waistcoats sometimes, tails or flared parts in the back, etc. They’re also a bit more wide-ranging, objects of fashion, while Mason suits are more standardized.

Factitious: Do Brillists who just plain don’t like wearing sweaters have a good alternative?

Yes! Sometimes they’ll have a suit or jacket made to have subtle textural stuff in the weave that communicates the same info the sweater would — we see Felix Faust in one of these at one point. Alternately, for when it’s too hot out for a sweater etc., you can communicate the same using a coded knot bracelet. A lot of the communication things, including strat and Hive, have bracelet options for when you’re dressed differently, or at the swimming pool.


Factitious: How many Masons are there? From TLTL p.153: “Cornel MASON is the unquestioned master of more than three billion voluntary subjects…” But from TWTB p.251: “…my Empire, two billion people of the ten…”

Ada: Ah, good spotting on that contradiction! There are 3.1 billion Masons, but in 2454 it just recently crossed the 3 billion mark, so people are used to it being in the high 2 billions. On p. 251, Cornel MASON is being modest, reflexively using the old number rather than acknowledging the change.

Aretti: The Masons’ Roman theme seems to be very Western Roman Empire in everything they do. With that in mind, why is it that the title for children of the current Emperor, Porphyrogenne, is not Latin but rather Greek, and refers to a naming custom that existed in the Eastern Roman Empire and not the Western? Is this just a solitary exception, or do the Masons also draw from the imagery and symbolism of the Eastern Empire in other places? (And if the latter, are there other polities that have identified themselves with Rome that they draw on, or would Muscovy/the Ottomans/the Holy Roman Empire be bridges too far?)

Ada: Good spotting! There are some tiny byzantine things here and there with the Masons, and Egyptian too (Alexandria, the ziggurats and lighthouse in the Masonic capital), but Western Rome has indeed won out in the rhetoric. This is partly since Western Rome is more dominant in our cultural imagination now. It’s also because Byzantium is so deeply intertwined with Christianity, and the world of Terra Ignota is so hyper-afraid of Christianity, more so than of things like ancient Greek religion which isn’t considered dangerous the way the faiths that caused the Church War are. So there are small Byzantine and Ottoman edges to the Masonic empire, but they’re very subtle and usually unspoken. One of the biggest nods in that direction, though, is that most of the major Masons we see are ancestrally Middle Eastern. Mycroft doesn’t mention it much (because the vein of Greek nationalism in Mycroft’s upbringing makes him uncomfortable with Turkey and the Middle East) but if you look carefully at the descriptions when they’re introduced, Martin is described as “Persian” and Cornel MASON is also signaled as Middle Eastern in descent. So while the Masons are very international and very mixed in race, there is a concentration of the Eastern Mediterranean in there among the rest.

Aretti: This is extremely surprising, given that Saladin is the name of a famous Middle-Eastern sultan! I had been working from the assumption that the “Greek” ethno-strat had kind of Megali Idea-d and picked up portions of Anatolia to explain Saladin, but if that’s not the case, then his origin is substantially more confusing.

Ada: Yes, Mycroft has a very complicated love-and-awe-and-fear weirdness about Turkey and the Middle East. I don’t bring it to the fore very often because even Mycroft is uncomfortable with it. Remember that part of what Mycroft loves about Saladin is his strangeness and fearsomeness.


makoConstruct: Set-sets and the brillists: Imagine that there were a society built by and for cartesian set-sets, and it developed its own ten number profiling system, each variable having high predictive power over interpersonal dynamics cartesian set-sets care about. Now say we inserted a neurotypical person raised naturally in one of the major hives into this cartesian society. The cartesians’ profiling system would assign them an extreme, abnormal profile. The cartesian set-sets would find it very difficult to ‘restore’ this person’s profile to their society’s normal. They’d find it hard to change it much at all without extensive, painful therapy. Their profiling system would inevitably be attuned to the dynamics of their society- none of which could the visitor participate in, however brilliant they may have been in their birth society- and it would mostly ignore others. The cartesians, seeing this, might say to the Brillists, “No, YOU are set-sets!” (It would be facetious, because no cartesian set-set would take a profiling system that confined itself to a mere 10 variables seriously, but they would have a right ot say that and the Brillists would get harshly burned.) Has this test transpired, or has the thought experiment been posed? How did the Brillists respond to it? It seems to me that the Brillists’ theory is sort of inevitably thoroughly laced with status-quoist prejudice, designed only to do good in our cognitive domain, it finds it can’t function in another. Instead of humility, the Brillists stomp their feet and try to argue that those other worlds are degenerate cases, that they’re barren of human value, and who would want to understand them properly anyway. Am I being arrogant, judging them so? What would the Headmaster say to me?

Ada: I’m not going to tip my hand about this sort of thing since much is still to come in book 4, but this is a great direction to be thinking in terms of the Brillists.


MakoConstruct: If a culture like the Utopians reached critical mass, I don’t think it would ever stop eating. It would infect us all with its akrasia-guilt, its power and its glamour, and its hope. Once we put on their visors, even just for a day, we would be snared. Whatever system they use to coordinate, it would never let us go. We would come to crave approval that only the Utopian process could provide, we would aspire only to Utopian virtues, we would buy deeply into the ideology of consequentialism, growth, perfectionism, and we would inevitably come to blame outsiders for the duration of Mortality’s reign, we might call anyone not a voker a “deathist” for being so abominably lazy while people are still dying, while humanity is still at risk. Having seen how many of your readers would have been pulled beyond their event horizon, do you still believe that the Utopians would be so much smaller than the other hives? Have you surveyed the general population, outside of your readership, and found that they really are that bad?

Ada: This question reminds me of the section in Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents” where he talks about the different paths to happiness that people have tried throughout history, listing the ambition to advance human progress coequally with love, art, religion, and vegging out on cocaine as paths people have tried to lead to happiness. I think Freud is right that there are real paths to happiness down all these paths, and that the progress path is not one of the most satisfying because of the sacrifices it requires, (1) hours of toil, and (2) recognizing that the golden age you work for will be enjoyed by your descendants, not yourself. So I think many people would be excited by it, but also that many others would be intimidated by it, and drawn by other paths, such as the Humanist excitement about developing personal excellence, or the Cousins’ drive to help the present rather than driving toward a distant future. Thus I think the Utopians are numerous but not a majority. I think among my readers the majority do prefer Utopia but science fiction readers are a very specific sample, and even among us there are those who have read the Oath and felt it asked too much, and others who have found other Hives — Cousins, Brillists — more appealing. Because really all these Hives have powerful philosophies worthy of respect. The Utopian is the most powerful in some senses, with its mission to disarm death and touch the stars, but the most frightening in others, a potent mix.

MakoConstruct: Are the Utopians controlling their U-Beasts telepathically? The U-beasts’ sensitivity and synchronicity could suggest nothing else. How spectacular the U-beasts are, and the fact that the puppeteers clothe themselves in nowheres as if to say, “ignore the human. Keep your eyes on the puppet”, it makes me wonder if many utopians have come to project their identity into their U-beasts. I think if I could see and interact with the world through the body of a flying dragon I might well like to forget my human body, leave it behind, fit it with an exoskeleton that would walk it for me, let it trail along after me.

Ada: U-beast interface is indeed deeply mysterious, intentionally on the Utopians’ part.

MakoConstruct: Are the Utopians angry like I am angry? Do they quietly curse us every time we waste a day on entertainment or recreational drugs? Are they bitter, jealous of the power granted to those who sacrifice pieces of the future for temporary dominance in the present?

Ada: Angry about some things, yes. Not wasting days on entertainment or even on recreational drugs: the human animal needs rest and play to regenerate and stimulate the brain, so board games and mind-stimulating TV and all that is not only good but mandatory. But it does anger them (and many of us) when a big social policy stifles progress, when schools are throttled from spreading knowledge to the next generation, and when resources are wasted. An evening playing board games is an evening spent honing a mind that will reach for the stars — an evening filling out paperwork is a tragic victory for Entropy.

The Hiveless

Fthagnar: We see about the Blacklaws and their merry lives in the latest book — how they love and thrive in the inconvenience of it, but how inconvenient is Hivelessness for the Greylaws and Whitelaws?

Ada: Graylaw isn’t really inconvenient at all, it’s very simple and ubiquitous and no one dislikes you, whereas some of the Hives sort of dislikes certain other Hives. Whitelaws I’m looking forward to showing another glimpse of in book 2, but Whitelaws tend to get lumped in with Cousins somewhat, though they’re actually very different. Cousin law focuses on mandating things that are good for the collective, things like requiring vaccinations or requiring educational stages that tend toward the broad social good. Whitelaw is much more about personal strictness, forbidding yourself from doing things in order to encourage the formation of strict moral character. So, for example, paid sex is illegal for both, but Carlyle could effortlessly get an exemption to go into a brothel to help someone else, but a Whitelaw absolutely couldn’t.


Praecipitantur: I’m curious about bash’ romances. I think Martin refers to the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ as “Open”, presumably meaning people date outside of it. What other implications does that carry? Are there other kinds of classifications for how bash’ handle romance? And, related–Is it considered taboo for ba’sibs to sleep together?

Ada: Yes, an “open” bash’ means at least one person dates outside, as opposed to a “closed” bash’ where no one is interested in further external relationships. Within a bash’, some bash’es have only two-person couples, while others involve polyamory, but people don’t tend to discuss that much because it’s considered to be prying into other people’s lives intrusively. Romance between ba’sibs (i.e. people with the same birth bash’) is common and acceptable, so long as it isn’t actual blood-incest. There is some Hive variance here, and the more permissive Hives (Humanists, Mitsubishi) have more comfort with ba’sib relationships and romances among cousins etc. than more cautious Hives like the Cousins. The Brillists have complicated and confusing guidelines about bash’-romance structures which make sense only to them.

Injygo: So blood relations are still important, even though the bash’ has replaced the traditional family. Is that also why the dynasty of Spain is only passed down through male heirs?

Ada: Yes. Remember that the isolated nuclear family we think of as “traditional” is itself, historically speaking, very young, predated by greater focus on extended families, and multi-family cohabitation in which a higher status family and lower status families in a patron/client or master/servant relationship formed the basis of the household. The world of Terra Ignota is yet another transformation in which the household is different, but some of the ideas about lineage and blood are the same.

RERoberson: I’m also super curious about the whole Bash structure, including how they are formed.

Ada: Bash-formation is expected to happen in the transition from youth to adulthood, when young people are at a Campus. A Campus isn’t quite a university, it’s an area with common spaces, dorms, and several different schools, some of which might be universities or colleges, others technical training spaces that teach you carpentry, programming, medicine, plumbing, etc. Different campuses have different focuses while having broad opportunities, so Romanova’s campus has lots of political opportunities, Lisbon’s has lots of marine opportunities from research to surfing, etc. People choose a Campus for its strengths and attend but might be studying things even more disparate than the disparate things at current colleges and universities, and you usually stay at a campus more than 4 years, since you’re doing technical training as well as undergrad-type things. There young people mix and mingle and meet each other and live together in dorms and form friend groups, and eventually come together into bash’es.

Some bash’es are hereditary, some new. In a hereditary bash’ like the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash, some of the children will go together to the same Campus and seek out just a few friends or romantic partners who would like to join their bash’, figures like Sidney Koons, or Martin Guildbreaker’s spouse Xiaolu. But the majority of bash’es form newly from the friend groups that develp at a Campus.

Dragonbeartdtiger: One of my favorite parts of your utopian/dystopian future vision is the bash’ system. In TLTL, it’s mentioned that bash’es were developed by Regan Makoto Cullen, but sometime after the flying cars and Hive systems were put in place. Were there proto-bash’es already existing, and Cullen just codified/formalized/promoted them, or did the bash’ system have to be rolled out officially over the course of a generation after the initial success? Are there still alternative household structures in the world?

Ada: There are alternative structures, mainly in Reservations where lots of other ways of living still thrive. The bash’ system was developed from observing groups of adults who cohabitated in productive communes, which has been a phenomenon for centuries and is today, but it was Cullen (Brill’s apprentice) who described them formally, argued that they were better for society, and whose huge influence popularized them and made them become ubiquitous within a generation.







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From Ada’a AMA: Terra Ignota, Language, Gender & Music

On 11th January 2018, Ada did a marathon “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit. This post collects the questions and answers that are about language, gender, and music in the Terra Ignota world. There may be minor spoilers, but I’m not reproducing the specific spoilers that were marked as such (partly because they’re impossible to cut and paste…) I’ve done some rearranging to put the questions into related topics just to make it more coherent to read.


Partoffuturehivemind: I’d like to know about translations of Terra Ignota into other languages. What translations are planned? It seems particularly challenging to translate, doesn’t it?

Ada: Yes, very hard. French, Spanish, Polish and Hungarian versions are underway. All of them make me very excited. For the French and Spanish I’ve offered to write special in-world afterwords from Mycroft addressing the “European” and “Humanist” editions but I don’t know if they’ll take me up on the offer.

There are lots of reasons to make it difficult to translate. It’ll be hard to figure out how to work out the gender in French and Spanish where even tables and chairs have gender. But there are also subtleties of the political end.

I had a great conversation recently with my Polish editor about a gender challenge I hadn’t anticipated. In the English-speaking world at the moment, using gender neutral language is associated with the progressive end of the political spectrum, so whether it’s the singular they, or saying “flight attendant” instead of “steward/stewardess” and “server” instead of “waitor/waitress”, when you encounter that kind of language it invokes the liberal/progressive side in gender politics. But in Poland at the moment the political associations of gendered language are the reverse. In Poland it’s the progressive and feminist side that’s pushing for always using gendered language for everything, always having a male and female form (i.e. professor/professoress, driver/driveress or the equivalent) to make the presence of women hyper visible. So translating the gender word for word would make the future of Terra Ignota seem, in Polish, to be a future in which where the reactionary side of gender debates was victorious, rather than what I intend in the English which is to make it seem that the progressive side of gender debates was victorious. So fascinating to see the meaning of the language and the politics of the language produce such an amazing challenge with localization.

Subbak: I wanted to ask a question about language. Mycroft, Sniper, Martin and 9A all write in something very close to modern English (which is good, otherwise we probably wouldn’t understand it). However you state that Masonic Latin has little resemblance to classical or medieval Latin, and from the few snippets of French we get (either from EU officials or from Madame’s) it looks like its grammar has evolved quite a bit (which would be necessary anyway to accommodate for a genderless society, as French is horribly gendered). I don’t speak Spanish so I can’t tell if the same is true with the Spanish peppered through the book.

Did you try to imagine as well how Mycroft and others “really” speak English? What are the most prominent changes to the grammar (besides obviously the generalization of the singular they)? Are there dialects among Hive languages? Is the Cousin English significantly different from the one used for inter-Hive communication, or inter-strat among the Mitsubishi?

Ada: I made the conscious choice to keep the English standard because the books are already so challenging that adding one more layer of difficulty (which I did experiment with) was just too much. Realistically Mycroft should either be writing in 18th century English or in 25th century English but I just didn’t want to do that to the reader. I didn’t let myself think heavily about it because I knew if I did I would be tempted to use it!

U-speak is the only major dialect. Everyone else, including the Cousins who are the other Hive that has no unique language, speaks a fairly homogeneous English. But every bash’ on Earth develops its own customs, and often a few words from other languages will enter a bash’es English if the bash’ has lots of members who speak another lanugage, just as polyglot households sometimes borrow a word that doesn’t have an equivalent, like prego from Italian.

Injygo: The Utopian Hive is your love letter to the sff fandom of today. Is the Utopian jargon related to or inspired by in-jokes you have with your friends today? Could you tell us more details of Utopian speech and customs?

Ada: It’s a bit related to in-jokes, or at least to how terms from fiction or other languages enter conversation within friend groups. Most of my close friends don’t speak Japanese but a few Japanese words are heavily in our vocabulary that fill niches English just doesn’t. So U-speak is a development of that forward. And a big function of it in the narrative is to distance them from the other Hives, showing how, unlike all the others who speak a standardized version of English, the Utopians are more culturally isolated, setting up Mycroft’s observation that one majority in this majority-less world is that the majority are not Utopians.

Injygo: That sounds interesting — can you give examples of specific Japanese words?

Ada: The one we most use is “Saa” which is a fabulous generic answer word that sort of means “I politely decline to answer this question.” It’s often translated as “I don’t know” or “who knows” but it’s really a question closer.

“Do you think he meant to do that terrible thing?” “Saa.” i.e. I decline to answer

“That’s so stupid! What were the writers thinking?!” “Saa.”

“Are you going to give Terra Ignota a happy ending?” “Saa.”

(Proviso: that is not how it’s usually spelled but that’s the easiest way to get the sound across.)

We also use “dozo” a fair bit, equivalent of the Italian “prego”

Injygo: Do you speak all the languages that Mycroft does?

Ada: I speak French, read Latin, read a little German and ancient Greek (though not modern Greek), and understand spoken Japanese a bit and have studied Japanese linguistics a lot but can’t read it. I don’t speak Spanish, so for that one I have to ask for help from friends, and I often do for German or Japanese too, to make sure I have the nuances right. When I’m writing Mycroft’s narration I sometimes intentionally flip back and forth between iambic meter (comfortable in English) and more dactyllic meter which is comfortable in Greek, to suggest when he’s thinking in which language. But the most language work I do is writing J.E.D.D. Mason’s dialog, since there I try to think through how He’d structure the sentence in all his languages before rendering the English but making it awkward in just the right way. It means it sometimes takes me a whole day to do a couple sentences of his dialog, but it’s worth-it!

Kmar81: Do you speak any other language to any degree of proficiency or fluency?

Ada: I speak French and Italian, read Latin well, and read German and ancient Greek and Gothic, plus I’ve studied some Japanese linguistics and picked up a lot of spoken Japanese from exposure, and I am a linguistics geek and read up on the tricks of lots of languages.


Madscientistninja: I’m a huge fan of Terra Ignota and I’m so happy I found this series. I have a couple of questions. Do you have specific genders (born or chosen by themselves) in mind for characters? Or do you play around with it even in your mind, so as to be in a Mycroft-adjacent mindframe?

Ada: I do have sexes and genders (not the same) in mind (also Mycroft’s pronoun choice is separate from both) but I also make sure to play around with it. Usually when a new character develops in my mind the character develops with a sex and a gender in my head, but then part way through development I always try imaging the other sexes and genders (the opposites and nonbinary) to see how it makes the character feel different, and how it affects the way the story flows in my mind. I also think hard about how Mycroft’s pronoun choice will affect the reader. Then I often decide to change the sex and/or gender and/or pronoun because I like what I find when I try it a different way, or I keep it the same but feel more confident that I like what it does to the story. So I do have a bodily sex in mind for them, and a gender identity in mind for those who would have strong gender identities. For some I have planned in advance whether the sex will be revealed to the reader at some point or whether it won’t, and for others I leave it and let it be revealed if I feel it comes up naturally in prose and remain ambiguous if it doesn’t. I’ve had some readers start keeping careful track and make charts of which characters we do and don’t know for certain what the character’s bodily/biological sex is. I find it fascinating that people care that much, and one of my goals in the book was to give readers the opportunity to notice when a revelation about sex or gender makes them reevaluate a character and when it doesn’t, giving readers the opportunity to learn more about their own responses to gender.

Injygo: It seems like gender haunts the world of Terra Ignota. Is this just Mycroft’s bias? Do you think it’s possible or desirable to abolish gender?

Ada: In Terra Ignota I’m depicting a future that tried to abolish gender but did it badly. I don’t think it can’t be done, I just think it’s really hard since it’s ingrained very deeply in our culture, so there are lots of ways that an effort to do so could fail. I talk more about this in my essay on  queership about what I’m doing with gender in the series.


Haverholm: Do you listen to music while working on your books? And do you use music actively, choosing it depending on what you’re writing (achademic or fiction) or what mood you need for a specific passage?

Ada: I find music very immersive so I can’t work while listening to music, except when I’m doing a copy edit for which I sometimes listen to Renaissance instrumental music to keep me relaxed.

But to get myself into the mood for writing, I have a “Bridger” playlist with songs that remind me of the story, or characters from it. I find it very intense and often cry listening (I listen while on an exercise machine, to get myself ready for writing and relaxed through exercise at once). It’s a mix, and not the sort of music I listen to for pleasure (I like Renaissance music for that) but it’s songs that resonate for me. The main one is Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” (which I first heard via a Gundam Wing AMV) and I have a whole imaginary music video of the four books worked out that plays through my head as I listen. A lot of the others are anime songs. The Stellvia opening which is the Utopian theme, the FLCL ending which is Sniper’s theme, the first Gundam Seed ending theme (Anna ni Isshodattanoni) which is Apollo Mojave’s conflict with Mycroft, the 3rd Gundam Seed opening for the war themes of the first two books and the 4th opening for the second two books.

MayColvin: As both a writer and a musician, have you thought at all about what music is like in the world of Terra Ignota? (Is “Somebody Will” an actual Utopian song in-universe?)

Ada: I speculate about Cannerbeat a bit but haven’t worked out music in huge detail. Somebody Will I play with as a Utopian thing and it certainly captures their values, so I think of it as their anthem in my head, but it’s too sad to be an anthem really. It’s something else.

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From Ada’s AMA: Life

Ada, wearing the jacket she borrowed from Sniper

On January 11th 2018, Ada did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, and I’m extracting the most interesting questions and answers and preserving them here. The ones in this post are about life, work, work-life balance, imposter syndrome etc.

A Space-X engineer: I’ve been at SpaceX for about two years now. My actual, real-life experience since graduating school has been voking 50-60 hours a week for the Great Project. I don’t really have a question; I just wanted to say thank you, thank you so much for the Utopians, and for the world that created them <3

Ada: Thank you. A friend mentioned to me that he’d seen a SpaceX engineer post online with great enthusiasm for Terra Ignota, and I was so happy it made me bounce in my chair and tear up. The Great Project is a profound act of love giving such a gift to the future, and also a profound act of teamwork with so many parts. For some of us the challenge is that our contributions feel so distant, that (as my song Somebody Will says) we are contributing to the civilizational path to the stars but at such a distance that the connection between our efforts–running a store, marketing a device, standing in a classroom–can be dishearteningly invisible. But at the same time I know that friends on the other face have a different kind of disheartening experience, the slowness of it all, as you work on improving rockets, or mapping Mars, understanding fully how huge the task is, how long, how certain it is that what we’re working for is not for our generation. So thank you so much for keeping at it, that wonderful, invaluable, difficult work, and also thank you for telling me you found Utopia and Terra Ignota so powerful. A world where the project and its interconnections are no longer invisible. A world where we, and the fact that we are a we, is no longer invisible.

logomaniac reviews: As someone with a literary bent entering academia, I’m interested in how you balance your careers day to day. I imagine it’s a lot of writing, for one. And it’s clear that your research influences your fiction – in what ways does the influence go the other way (has your fiction work changed the way you teach/write for academia)?

Ada: Career balance is really hard and I’m really struggling to balance academic obligations with writing time with disability, but I feel I’m getting better at it all the time (the Utopian oath printed on my desk helps! So does taking lots of breaks to rest and mentally refresh by watching anime or playing Pandemic Legacy with friends). The history work absolutely transformed how I think about the change and development of worlds over time and is a huge part of how I world build, the questions I ask about how institutions got to be the way they would be. I’m so incredibly fortunate to be at a university where colleagues are supportive of my fiction and don’t see it as taking time away from my other work.

Logomaniac: What’s your favorite course you’ve ever taken or taught?

Favorite course Alan Kors’ intro to the Enlightenment, which is now immortal on DVD so you can enjoy it too!

Logomaniac: I’d also love to hear a little more about your project on censorship throughout history, what inspired you to do that, what your goals are, etc.

Ada: On Censorship I just managed to upload these videos of my GoH talk at Chessiecon where I talk about it. Very exciting!

Injygo: You’re the Ur-Fan, the Alpha Nerd, filker, historian, novelist, and sff fan. Can it be that you, like us mere mortals, have been frustrated or demotivated? How have you managed to become as cool as you are, and do you have advice for aspiring Alpha Nerds?

Ada: Yes, I absolutely struggle with frustration, demoralization, impostor syndrome, all of it. I talk about it a bit in my author’s note at he end of “Too Like the Lightning” and also in my blog post about how I sold it: (also has a lot of my advice, the big one being to keep doing and making and writing more and more things, not getting stuck on one attempt)

A lot of people don’t believe I could feel impostor syndrome with how much success I’ve had, but I absolutely do, despite the books’ success, despite awards, despite getting tenure here at the University of Chicago. But impostor syndrome isn’t rational so it doesn’t go away no matter how much counter-evidence you have. It still stuns me sometimes how one negative from someone who doesn’t like the novels can make me gloomy for days even if there are fifty sparklingly positive ones in the same time. So one big piece of advice is to remember that everyone struggles with motivation and frustration, and that struggling with it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

I also self-monitor very carefully, which helps a lot. There is a history of depression in my family so from early childhood I learned about it and learned to watch myself carefully for symptoms, to talk to friends about it and ask them to keep an eye out, etc. I learned to observe my mood and listen to my body, to notice what small environmental changes can help me concentrate better, work better, feel better (I concentrate better when slightly chilly, for example, which is why I usually wear sleeveless shirts , and I feel happier when I exercise semi-regularly and when I’ve washed my hair recently. Why? Who knows, but now that I know that I can use it to keep my spirits up.) Fortunately I’ve never had bad depression the way my family has, despite being at great risk and extra risk because chronic pain, which I do have, so often brings depression with it. But I think learning about it young and watching myself carefully, and surrounding myself with supportive friends, has done wonders for giving me healthy work habits. I make sure to have meals with friends often, to take breaks for board games or interactive fun often (studies show that interactive fun like a conversation or watching a show together is more emotionally restorative than passive fun like vegging out with the TV). It’s not for nothing that the Utopian oath mentions taking the rest and leisure you need to be your most productive, which can be a lot! The oath really means that working is your default, rest/play your mandatory assignment, rather than the other way around.

This got rather rambly, sorry. But above all I recommend going forward and doing and making and writing more and more, always having a next project in mind, never stopping to dwell on one. As Jo put it in her poem “Go away and be more awesome.



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From Ada’s AMA: Writing

On 11th January 2018, Ada did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. I’m preserving the most interesting parts of it here. In this post, questions about reading and writing.

quite_vague: It’s amazing to me that Terra Ignota is your fiction debut; it’s so ambitious and accomplishes so much.

How did you manage to write Terra Ignota as your first published work? What other writing have you done along the way? Do you have any thoughts or observations on a debut that’s managed to be ambitious, unusual, and popular as well?

Ada: First, yes, it’s unusually polished and ambitious for a first novel. One fact that helps is that it isn’t the first series I planned or the first novel draft that I finished. In fact this was the fourth series I planned, and I’d already written complete drafts of three earlier novels, each the first of a different series. So, unlike people whose first published novel was their first full novel-length project, I’d already had the experience several times of planning a world, creating an outline, following it from beginning to end, giving it to beta readers, polishing it up etc. That experience helped a ton, and is definitely a big part of why these books came out so well. I may someday go back and (now that I’m a better writer) write better versions of those story worlds; something for my long to-do list.

This is also why, whenever I talk to an aspiring novelist who has written a first novel and is stuck in the frustrating phase of sending it off and getting rejection letters, I always encourage the person to go write novel #2. I have a big fat folder of rejection letters for my first, second, and third novels/series, many generic, some encouraging which, as I look at them now, I can tell meant that the drafts were already pretty good and that the editors who rejected them saw potential in me, enough for them to send personalized, encouraging rejections instead of form letters. Though I got my share of form letters too. But what I’m infinitely glad of is that I didn’t get discouraged with the rejection of the first one, nor did I get obsessed with selling that one project and stuck in a rut polishing it over and over, or getting angry that people wouldn’t take it. I always held on to the conviction that the next one would be better, the next one better than that, and that eventually one would be good enough.

My academic writing also definitely helped. Academic writing often has strict length limits, which require me to communicate complicated ideas in limited words, and forced me to learn the art of concision. The Terra Ignota books are pretty long, so most people wouldn’t associate them with concision, but I do think a lot about being concise in every line and paragraph, since the more information you pack into fewer words the more powerful prose becomes. That doesn’t mean I don’t take plenty of time off for little touches, descriptions, Mycroft tangents etc., but when I do so it’s because I’ve thought hard about the content I’m trying to convey there, and determined that it’s valuable, not just for that sentence, but for the mood, the character development, the reader’s emotional arc. Whether it’s a “she sighed” or a description of the glittering water outside a harbor, I really have read over every line carefully to make sure every word matters. Learning to do that helps so much.

One time in my third year of grad school I had to cut a 16,000 word paper down to an 8,000 word presentation, so I paused my then-current novel project for a while and worked and worked until I got the paper short. And then when I went back to writing the novel draft it’s amazing there’s this line, what I’d written before I did that and what I wrote after, and suddenly BOOM the prose is better. IT’s the only kind of exercise I’ve ever found that really improves writing quickly. That’s why I always recommend the “Half and Half Again” exercise to people: take an old thing you wrote (an academic paper, a chapter, a letter, anything) and make yourself cut it down to half the word count without removing any content. It’s agony but it’s so good for learning where the slack is in your writing, how you can make it more powerful. After you do it, put it in a drawer for six months, then get it out and make yourself do it again. It can do wonders for your prose. Of course it can go too far, and you don’t want to cut all descriptions or all adverbs or something crazy like that, but it teaches you to think through every word, what it achieves, and whether another tighter way of putting it might give you more power.

Other writing: academic articles and books, historical notes for the Hetalia TV series DVD release and the Mythical Detective Loki DVD release (those sure required concision since they have to fit on a screen!), and blogging on and

Scottynuttz: After Terra Ignota, do you have other science fiction ambitions?

Ada: Yes, first a more fantasy series with Viking Mythology, and then a couple SF things planned for after that. It’ll be a few years, because I worldbuild slowly, but they’re coming!

Book Recs

Madscientistninja: What other books (fiction and nonfiction) would you suggest for someone who has completely fallen in love with the French Renaissance period because of the way you have portrayed it in Terra Ignota?

Ada: Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist is always my top pick. This won’t sound flattering, but it’s like Terra Ignota with no plot. It’s like Mycroft’s narration but with no story, just pure narration. It’s gorgeous. I also can’t overrecommend Alan Kors’ lectures on the 17th and 18th centuries.

Praecipitantur: Given the content of Apollo’s Iliad, I have to ask: What are your favorite mecha animes?

Ada: Gundam is my favorite Mecha, and I have a whole bookcase of Gundam in my anime room. I really love how it comments on war and whether individuals can make a difference in war, and I love comparing the series to each other, looking at how the same archetypes and events are re-framed in parallel narratives in original MS, Zeta, Wing, Seed etc. My single favorite is probably Gundam Seed, which was new as I was finishing writing Too Like the Lightning, so the parallels kept making me extra happy. I also love the moral and theological parts of Evangelion (I have a big collection of figures of Nagisa Kaworu), and I absolutely love the original Gunbuster, not quite a normal Mecha but in the space. And I like Nadeshiko, Escaflowne, Gasaraki, Shingu… I have RahXephon and Gurren Lagann in my to-watch stack but have been sidetracked doing a fresh pass through Double Zeta and am excited to finally watch Turn-A, so those are backburner for a while.

Also does anyone know if the new rerelease of Gundam Wing is a better translation? I want to show it to a friend but only have the horrible dubtitled old US release and am desperately hoping the new deluxe one has a new translation. I phoned Right Stuf but they said they weren’t sure.

Also, if there’s one other anime that was a big influence it was Reign: Obsession of Alexander. Especially the relationship between Alexander and Olympias for the relationship between J.E.D.D. Mason and Madame.

And Kenshin had a non-negligible influence on my concept for Mycroft Canner, especially the domesticity, and the sudden switching to the old dormant personality.

Chtorr: What were your favourite books as a kid?

Ada: When I was little I read a lot of Brian Jacques novels, a lot of Sherlock Holmes, and Tolkien. Also, through my father’s recommendations, Heinlein, Bester, and Asimov. I also had the Derek Jacobi audiobook of Homer’s Iliad (Fagles translation) and listened to it over and over.

Injygo: What’s the most recent book you’ve fallen in love with?

Ada: The manga Ooku, by Fumi Yoshinaga. BRILLIANT. Such exquisite storytelling, use of history, characters, art, gender stuff, just so good!

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From Ada’s AMA: What’s the most effective way for someone today to encourage space exploration?

On 11th January 2018, Ada did a Reddit “Ask Me Anything”. I’m going to be extracting the most interesting of her answers and posting them here. Most of them I’ll be grouping thematically, but this one stands alone.

Injygo: What’s the most effective way for someone today to encourage space exploration and colonization of other planets?

Ada: Probably by passing on aspiration. Our world is saturated with messages telling people to give up, to settle, to take whatever path will make ends meet, to expect to face a grim job market when we reach adulthood, to expect the hours from 9 to 5 to be sacrificed to drudgery, to expect closed doors. When kids are in kindergarten they’re encouraged to say they want to be an astronaut, or a race car driver, or a president when they grow up, but by the time young people reach High School the negative messages have usually won out, that the world is unfair and against them, that dreams are unrealistic, that aspiration is naive, that optimism should be mocked, that cynicism, criticism, and the realism of a pessimistic norm are the smart path. I think the best thing we can do to brighten the future is to stop telling people that it can’t be brightened, that they can’t brighten it. We can all lay down stepping stones in the long road to the stars, but we can lay down exponentially more by telling other people that they can do it too, that they don’t have to waste themselves for the present, that there are a hundred thousand paths open to all of us that let us lay the vital stepping stones.

I spoke recently with a couple of reps from Oxford and Cambridge universities who work for the programs designed to offer scholarships to underprivelaged students, to help kids raised in poverty have a shot at being anything the want to be. They told me their biggest problem is lack of applicants, that young people in that situation don’t apply. Their worlds are full of messages that telling them that all the doors are already closed, that there’s no path forward, no way out. As one rep put it “The level of aspiration is appalling.” So if we can combat those messages, the messages that kill aspiration, I think that can unlock so many paths forward.

But, and this is important, I don’t mean just giving empty encouragement. Recently on the phone with my Dad I mentioned that a former undergraduate friend of mine called Angel is now a veterinarian. He cried out in astonishment, “I can’t believe it!” “What?” “When you were undergrads you wanted to be a novelist and she wanted to be a vet and you both just did it!” And it’s true, we did, out of so many people who want to be a XXX when they grow up, we really did it. Because we kept that aspiration. And because those around us took that aspiration seriously, and when we told teachers and friends and parents, I want to be an XXX when I grow up, they didn’t say we couldn’t, but they also didn’t just blithely say “Great, go for it!” They helped us plan. They helped us see the steps. You want to be a writer? Okay, you need to do writing exercises, and give hours of training this. You want to be a vet? Okay, you need to take these classes, and look into these schools, and take these steps. You want to be a Renaissance historian? Okay, you need Greek so you need to transfer to a school that has it even though you really like the school you’re at. That’s what kept the door open for me. I think that’s the key, that we need to turn encouragement into a path with concrete steps, whether it’s a path we make for ourselves by looking into what we want, what we need to do to get there, and making a plan, or whether its a path we help make for others. Because all doors are open when we’re little, but as we grow up they close. That’s hard to understand. They close more and faster for some people than others, depending on poverty, race, gender etc., but for everybody some doors stay open and some close. I don’t think we’re very good at teaching young people to understand that. When I was seventeen advisers told me that, if I wanted to be the kind of historian I wanted to be, I had to make a hard choice, leave my college, give up my friend group, to get the Latin and Greek and training I needed to get into a grad school. And because I knew that was a step on the path, I did it. And it hurt, but I’m so glad. And every year I see several dozen applications from students who want to become historians who can’t because they don’t have the languages and background they need to do it well, they didn’t take the right steps at the right time. That door is closed to them. That’s something no one tells you when you’re ten and you want to be an XXX when you grow up. Sometimes people say “Go for it!” and sometimes people say “You’ll never be an XXX, you should be a computer science major so you have a secure job.” But very rarely do people say “That door is open, but it will close if you aren’t careful, so let’s sit down together and work out the steps to get you there.” So I think we need to do that more.

This is mostly advice for how to treat others more than advice for one’s self, because the self is difficult, but no matter what path you’ve ended up on generally you have a few hours you can give to the stars, whether it’s through work or through hobby time, or just through encouraging people. And sometimes, as I say in my song “Somebody Will” we’re already laying those stones, in ways we can’t quite see.

So I think the best thing we can do to lay down stepping stones in the long road to the stars is to tell ourselves and others that we don’t have to waste ourselves toiling for the present, that we are laying the stepping stones. Sometimes we can make that be our work, our vocations, our 9-5, our 40+ hours. Sometimes we can’t do that so it’s an avocation, something we do on the side. Sometimes practicalities of life mean it can’t be more than an attitude, an idea. But it’s all one project, real and succeeding. And Utopia is real already, so long as we keep aspiring to disarm death and touch the stars.

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Promoted Comment: The Scary Atrocious Thomas Hobbes

330px-thomas_hobbes_portraitIn the comments to the Progress post, a reader asked for clarification on what was so awful about Hobbes, and this was Ada’s response, which I am reposting as a post so that it doesn’t stay buried down there:

Ah, yes, that was probably to brief an abbreviation. To be clear, I LOVE Hobbes, and I both teach him and read him for pleasure all the time. In fact the title quote for the 3rd volume in “Terra Ignota” comes from Leviathan.

The Hobbes reference referred, not to my opinion of him or modern opinions on him, but contemporary opinions of him, how hated and feared he was by his peers in the mid-17th century. I’ll treat him more in the next iteration(s) of my skepticism series, but in brief Hobbes was a student of Bacon (he was actually Bacon’s amanuensis for a while) and used Bacon’s new techniques of observation and methodical reasoning with absolute mastery, BUT used them to come to conclusions that were absolutely terrifying to his peers, attacking the dignity of the human race, the foundations of government, the pillars of morality of his day, in ways whose true terror are hard for us to feel when we read Leviathan in retrospect, having accepted many of Hobbes’s ideas and being armored against the others by John Locke. But among his contemporaries, “The Beast of Malmsbury” as he was called, held an unmatched status as the intellectual terror of his day. In fact there are few thinkers ever in history who were so universally feared and hated–it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that for the two decades after the publication of Leviathan, the sole goal of western European philosophy was to find some way to refute Thomas Hobbes WITHOUT (here’s the tricky part) undermining Bacon. Because Bacon was light, hope, progress, the promise of a better future, and Hobbes was THE BEST wielder of Bacon’s techniques. So they couldn’t just DISMISS Hobbes without undermining Bacon, they had to find a way to take Hobbes on in his own terms and Bacon better than Hobbes did. It took 20 years and John Locke to achieve that, but in the meantime Hobbes so terrified his peers that they literally rewrote the laws of England more than once to extend censorship enough to silence Hobbes.

Also the man Just. Wouldn’t. Die. They wanted him dead and gone so they could forget him and move on but he lived to be 91, a constant reminder of the intellectual terror whose shadow had loomed so long over all of Europe. To give a sample of a contemporary articulation of the fear and amazement Hobbes caused in his peers, here is a satirical broadside published to celebrate his death:


My favorite verse from it is:

“Leviathan the Great is dead! But see
The small Behemoths of his progeny
Survive to battle all divinity!”

So I chose Hobbes as an example because he’s really the first “backfire” of Bacon, the first unexpected, unintended consequence of the new method. Hobbes’s book didn’t cause any atrocities, didn’t result in wars or massacres, but it did spread terror through the entire intellectual world, and was the first sniff of the scarier places that thought would go once Bacon’s call to examine EVERYTHING genuinely did examine everything… even things people did NOT want anyone to doubt. So while Hobbes is wonderful, from the perspective of his contemporaries he was the first warning sign that progress cannot be controlled, and that, while it will change parts of society we think are bad, it will change the parts we value too.

Hope that helps clear it up? I’ll discuss Hobbes more in later works.

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Intellectual Technology—a Promoted Comment

Vicenzo Foppa, Young Cicero Reading, 1464
Vicenzo Foppa, Young Cicero Reading, 1464

Welcome to a new feature here on Ex Urbe — the promoted comment.

From time to time, Ada makes a long substantive chewy comment, which could almost be its own post. Making it into an actual post would take valuable time. The comment is already written and fascinating — but hidden down in a comment thread where many people may not notice it. From now on, when this happens, I will extract it and promote it. I may even go back and do this with some older especially awesome comments. You’ll be able to tell the difference between this and a real post, because it’ll say it’s posted by Bluejo, and not by Exurbe, because it will say “a promoted comment”, and also because it won’t be full of beautiful relevant carefully selected art but will have just one or two pieces of much more random art.

This comment is promoted from a discussion of Machiavelli and Intellectual Technology.

Nahua Kang says:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this new post. As I am reviewing macroeconomics, especially the different variations of Solow Model, I cannot help but link “intellectual technology” with the specific endogenous growth model, which attempts to led the model itself generate technological growth without an exogenous “manna from heaven”. In this model, technology growth is expressed endogenously by the factor capital as “productive externalities”, and individual workers, through “learning by doing,” obtain more “skills” as the capital grows. Of course, the “technology factor” in the model I learned is vaguely defined and does not cover the many definitions and various effects of “intellectual technology” not directly related to economic production.

Your conversation with Michael reminds of me the lectures and seminars I took with you at Texas A&M. By the time I took your Intellectual History from Middle Ages to 17th Century, I have already taken some classes on philosophy. Sadly, my fellow philosophy students and I usually fell into anachronism and criticized early thinkers a bit “unfairly” on many issues. That is why your courses were like a beam of light to me, for I was never aware of the fact that we have different logic, concepts, and definition of words from our predecessors and should hence put those thinkers back into their own historical context.

It seems to me that Prof. Peter E. Gordon’s essay “What is intellectual history’ captures the different angles from which you and Michael construe Machiavelli: Michael seems more like a philosophy/political science student who attempts to examine how and why early thinkers’ ideas work or not work for our society based on our modern definitions, concepts, and logic, thus raising more debates on political philosophy and pushing the progress of philosophical innovation; your role as an intellectual historian requires one to be unattached from our own understanding of ideas and concepts and to be aware of even logic that seems to be rooted in our subconsciousness so that to examine a past thinker fairly without rash judgement. Michael is like the one who attempts to keep building the existing tower upward, while you are examining carefully the foundation below. For me personally, it would be nice to have both of these two different ways of thinking.

I have a question: I have been attempting to read a bit of Karl Marx whenever time allows. He argues that our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions. If we accept his point of view, would it be useful to connect intellectual history with economic history?

Ada replies:

Nahua, I think you have hit it spot on with your discussion of Peter Gordon’s essay. When I worked with him at Harvard (I had the privilege of having him on my committee, as well as being his teaching assistant for a course) I remember being struck by how, even when we were teaching thinkers far outside my usual scope like Heidegger, I found his presentation of them welcoming and approachable despite my lack of background, because he approached them in the same context-focused way that I did, evaluating, not their correctness or not or their applicability to the present, but their roots in their contemporary historical contexts and the reasons why they believed what they believed.

For Marx’s comment that “our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions” I think it is often very useful to connect intellectual history with economic history, not in a strictly deterministic way, but by considering economic changes as major environmental or enabling factors that facilitate or deter intellectual change and/or the dissemination of new ideas. I already discussed the example of how I think the dissemination of feminism in the 19th century was greatly facilitated by the economic liberation of female labor because of the development of industrial cloth production, more efficient ways of doing laundry, cleaning, cooking etc. Ideas about female equality existed in antiquity. They enjoyed a large surge in conversation and support from the intellectual firebrands of the Enlightenment, through figures like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Wollstonecraft. But mass movements and substantial political changes, like female suffrage, came when the economic shift had occurred. To use the “intellectual technology” concept, the technology existed in antiquity and was revived and refined in the 18th century, but it required economic shifts as well to help reach a state when large portions of the population or whole nations/governments could embrace and employ it.

As I work on Renaissance history, I constantly feel the close relationship between economics and the intellectual world as well. Humanism as I understand it began when Petrarch called for a revival of antiquity. Economics comes into this in two ways. First, the reason he thought a revival of antiquity was so desperately necessary was because Italy had become so politically tumultuous and unstable, and was under such threat of cultural or literal invasion from France–these are the consequences, largely, of economic situations, since Italy’s development of banking and its central position as a trade hub for the Mediterranean had filled its small, vulnerable citystates with incomparable wealth, creating situations where powerful families could feud, small powers could hire large mercenary armies, and every king in Europe wanted to invade Italy for a piece of its plump pie. Then after Petrarch, humanism’s ability to spread and succeed was also economically linked. You can’t have a humanist without books, you just can’t, it’s about reading, studying, correcting and living the classics. But in an era when a book cost as much as a house, and more than a year’s salary for a young schoolmaster, a library required a staggering investment of capital. That required wealthy powers–families or governments–to value humanism and have the resources to spend on it. Powers like the Medici, and Florence’s Republican government, were convinced to spend their money on libraries and humanism because they believed it would bring them glory, strength, respect, legitimacy, the love of the people, that it would improve life, heal their souls, bring peace, and make their names ring in posterity, but they couldn’t have made the investment if they hadn’t had the money to invest, and they wouldn’t have believed humanism could yield so much if not for the particular (and particularly tumultuous) economic situation in which Renaissance Italy found itself.

Yesterday I found myself thinking about the history of the book in this light, and comparing it to some comments I heard a scientist make on a panel about space elevators. We all want a space elevator–then space exploration will become much, much less expensive, everyone can afford satellites, space-dependent technologies will become cheap, and we can have a Moon Base, and a Mars program, and all the space stations we want, and all our kids can have field trips to space (slight exaggeration). To have a space elevator, we need incredibly strong cables, probably produced using nanofibers. Developing nanofibers is expensive. What the engineer pointed out is that he has high hopes for nanofiber devlopment, because nanofibers have the ideal demand pattern for a new technology. A new technology like this has the problem that, even if there are giant economic benefits to it later on, the people who pay for its development need a short-term return on that, which is difficult in the new baby stages of a technology when it’s at its most expensive. (Some of you may remember the West Wing episode where they debate the price of a cancer medication, arguing that producing each pill costs 5 cents so it’s unfair to charge more, to which the rebuttal is that the second pill cost 5 cents, but the first pill cost $300 million in research.) Once nanofiber production becomes cheap, absolutely it will be profitable, but while it’s still in the stage of costing $300 million to produce a few yards of thread, that’s a problem, and can be enough to keep a technology from getting support. One of the ways we work around this as a society today is the university system, which (through a form of patronage) supports researchers and gives them liberty to direct research toward avenues expected to be valuable independent of profit. Another is grant funding, which gives money based on arguments for the merit of a project without expecting to be paid back. A third is NASA, which develops new technologies (like velcro, or pyrex) to achieve a particular project (Moon!), which are then used and reused in society for the benefit of all. But looking at just the private sector, at the odds of a technology getting funding from investors rather than non-profits, what the scientist said is that, for a technology to receive funding, you want it to have a big long-term application which will show that you’ll make a steady profit once you can make lots of the thing, but it needs to also to have a short-term application for which a small number of clients will be prepared to pay an enormous amount, so you can sell it while it still costs $300 million, as well as expecting to sell it when it costs 5 cents. Nanofibers, he said, hit this sweet spot because of two demands. The first is body armor, since it looks like nanofibers can create bullet-proof fabric as light as normal fabric, and if we can do that then governments will certainly pay an enormous amount to get bullet-proof clothing for a head of state and his/her bodyguards, and elite military applications. The second is super-high-end lightweight golf clubs, which may seem like a frivolous thing, but there are people who will pay thousands of dollars for an extremely high end golf club, and that is something nanofibers can profit from even while expensive (super lightweight bicycles for racing also qualify). So nanofibers can depend on the excitement of the specific investors who want the expensive version now, and through their patronage develop toward the ability to produce things cheaply.

In this sense the history of the book, especially in the Renaissance, was very similar to the situation with nanofibers. In the early, manuscript stage when each new book cost the equivalent of $50,000 (very rough estimate), libraries were built and humanism was funded because wealthy people like Niccolo Niccoli and Cosimo de Medici believed that humanist libraries would give them and their home city political power and spiritual benefits, helping them toward Heaven. That convinced them to invest their millions. Their investments then created the libraries which could be used later on by larger populations, and reproduced cheaply through printing once it developed, but printing would not have developed if patrons like them weren’t around to make there be demand for the volume of books printing could produce. It took Petrarch, Niccoli and Cosimo to fund a library which could raise a generation of people who could read the classics before there was enough demand to sell the 300-1500 copies of a classical book that a printing press could print. And, working within current capitalism, it may take governments who really want bullet-proof suit jackets to give us our space elevator, though universities, NASA, and private patronage of civilian space programs are certainly also big factors pushing us forward.

In sum, I would say that economics sometimes sparks the generation of new ideas–as the economically-driven strife Petrarch experienced enabled the birth of humanism–but it also strongly affects how easily or quickly a new idea can disseminate, whether it gets patronage and support, or whether its champions have to spread it without the support of elites, patrons or government. Thus, in any given era, an intellectual historian needs to have a sense of funding patterns and patronage systems, so we can understand how ideas travel, where, and why.

One more thought from last night, or rather a test comparison showing how the concept “intellectual technology” can work. I was thinking about comparing atomism and steel.

Steel is a precursor for building skyscrapers. Despite urban demand, we didn’t get a transition to huge, towering metropoles until the development of good steel which could raise our towers of glittering glass. Of course, steel is not the ONLY precursor of the skyscraper–it also requires tempered glass, etc. And it isn’t the only way to build skyscrapers, you can use titanium, or nanotech, but you are very unlikely to get either of those things without going through steel first. Having steel does not guarantee that your society will have skyscrapers. Ancient Rome had steel. In the Middle Ages Europe lost it (though pretty-much everywhere except Europe still had steel). When steel came back in the Renaissance it still didn’t lead immediately to skyscrapers, it required many other developments first, and steel had to combine with other things, including social changes (growth of big cities). But when we look at the history of city development, studying steel is extremely important because the advent of steel-frame construction is a very important phase, and a central enabling factor for the development of modern cities.

My Lucretius book looks at the relationship between atomism and atheism in the same way that this analysis looks at steel and skyscrapers. Atomism was around for a long time, went away, came back, etc. And you can have non-atomic atheism, we have lots of it now. But atomism, as the first fully-developed mechanical model of the working of Nature (the first not dependent on God/gods to make the world work) was, in my opinion, one of the factors that you needed to combine with other developments to reach a situation in which an intellectual could combine mechanical models of nature with skepticism with other factors to develop the first fully functional atheistic model of the world. It’s one of the big factors we have to trace to ask “Why did atheism become a major interlocutor in the history of thought when it did, and not before or after?” just as tracing steel helps us answer “Why did skyscrapers start being built when they did?” There had almost certainly been atheisms before and independent of atomism (just as you can make really tall things, like pyramids or cliff-face cities, without steel-frame construction) but it was rare, and didn’t have the infrastructural repeatability necessary to let it become widespread. Modern atheists don’t use Epicurus, they more frequently use Darwin, just as modern skyscrapers use titanium, but the history of skyscrapers becomes clear when we study the history of steel. Just so, the history of atheism becomes much clearer when we study atomism. Of course, we now use steel for lots of things that aren’t skyscrapers (satellite approaching Pluto!), and similarly atomism has lots of non-atheist applications, but we associate atomism a lot with atheism, just as we think a lot about “towers of glass and steel” and usually think less about the steel bolts in our chairs or the steel spoons we eat with. All applications of steel, or epicuranism, can be worth studying, but skyscrapers/ atheism will never stop being one of the biggest and most interesting, at least in terms of how they changed the face of our modern world. And finally, while minority of buildings are skyscrapers, and a minority of contemporary people are atheists, the study of both is broadly useful because the presence of both in the lives of everyone is a defining factor in our current world.

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