Archive for Ada’s Fiction

Terra Ignota AMA Questions: Meatmakers and Kitchen Trees

Briefly: live right now is the Chicon Auction to raise money for this summer’s Chicago Worldcon, and they have some great Terra Ignota stuff including signed books and a special 2454 Antarctic Olympics Hoodie I made for Terra Ignota fun. You can bid online!

Meanwhile, hello friends! Sharing some more fun discussions from my recent AMAs, in this case ones which invited me to talk more about a worldbuilding element that was very backgrounded in the book, quiet but present: food. For more on the politics of food in Terra Ignota see also my recent guest post on Books, Bones, and Buffy: Octopus Rights and Imaginary Civil Rights Allies

Q: How do meatmakers and kitchen trees work in the Terra Ignota world?

The meatmaker grows meat by cloning and 3d printing tissue based on cell structures it has stored in a database; for the material that goes in, it uses a protein and fat powder mix that you can buy (made mostly from farmed legumes), but if you have room for it (i.e. not a small apartment) it’s also common to have an algae tank which grows algae using sunlight and a nutrient mix that you put in, and then has an apparatus that processes the algae to make that into a feed which supplements the meatmaker’s powder, so you can have the carbohydrate and iron components that algae can supply be grown at home, and be less dependent on purchasing the powder. Some apartment complexes have communal algae tanks which all residents get a share of as one of the normal building services. The meat takes a few hours to be printed, so you need to plan ahead like with a breadmaker, and a few meats that have unusual components might need supplements, for example if you want to print a whole lot of squid, squid meat has way way way more cholesterol than most tissue (that’s why it’s so sproingy!) so you might use that up and need to get a little pouch of extra cholesterol for your meatmaker, like running out of yellow ink in a printer. In addition to having different cells it can print in different patterns, so you can print a beef-like ribeye structure in terms of protein/fat distribution but make the cells be from a tortoise, or as Chagatai does with the Carnivore Roll print a huge slab of hummingbird meat; it makes it possible to eat creatures which are delicious but impractical or rare without harming the species except taking the original cell sample that then gets cloned.

The kitchen tree is indeed a living tree, both genetically engineered and grafted from many separate plants (the way you can graft a lemon and lime on the same root and have a plant that produces both or the famous Sam Van Aken Tree of 40 fruits.

The kitchen tree control panel lets more or less liquid and nutrient go to different parts stimulating more or less growth, blooming, and fruiting, and can also release hormones or other chemicals into different parts of the tree to stimulate particular types of growth. Thus it has lots and lots and lots of fruiting bud branches, but only the ones you want will be activated at any given time. It also has lots of different types of leaves, many of them optimized for efficiency, but some are herbs (mint, basil, kefir lime). Depending on the size of your home and the number of people in your bash’ you might buy a larger or smaller kitchen tree, and they vary in what types of foods are included, so a chef might have a specialized one that grows a lot of types of spices and varieties of peppers, while most people might just have ten or so spices and peppers. The tree photosynthesizes and grows under a glass roof (or opening if it’s an area that doesn’t get frost) but generally they don’t by themselves produce enough photosynthetic energy to supply all the harvest people want, so they are supplemented with a nutrient injector, which can be made with a bought powder or come from the algae tank or a bit of both. They also can produce edible roots in the lower sections. The trees are substantially more efficient in photosynthesis than natural plants because (like all crops in the Terra Ignota future and likely many in our own) they have genetic enginerring to fix the RuVisCO limiter which is a chemical inefficiency in the photosynthesis process which makes an enzyme intended to capture CO2 sometimes capture oxygen instead, creating poison instead of energy, and if we fix that we can probably more than double the energy efficiency of plants.

Since the tree has to grow the food, even with hormones and genetic engineering etc you need to program about a month in advance what you want to grow, so people still sometimes run into food waste or shortage problems, programming too many or not enough of a particular fruit. The trees tend to have a pre-programmed “this fruit is in season and will prosper at this time of year” default for snacking fruits, so when programming you basically modify that, or you can do your own fully custom version.

Kitchen trees are generally used to grow what we would consider fresh produce, i.e. fruit, salad greens, asparagus, etc., not to grow what we would consider staples like pulses (lentils, beans), rice, or wheat, since those need to be processed before consumption anyway, grasses have large root systems, and it isn’t efficient to grow them at home since you have to give the tree so much extra nutrient anyway which is usually made of the same thing that it’s somewhat wasteful. Thus most people’s grocery shopping consists of (A) staple grains and pulses, (B) nutrient powders for the meatmaker and kitchen tree (C) extra fruit or veggies they forgot to program, and (D) specialty goods like a finished loaf of bread, a cheese, or a sausage link. Milk and dairy can be synthesized by the meatmaker, but some people still prefer direct-from-cows dairy, so there is still demand for that, just as the Humanists still occasionally eat meat from real animals a a kind of semi-taboo thrill, Europeans still do some UNESCO-protected culturally important traditional recipes that require the bone-in animal such as Peking duck or a traditional ham, and the Mitsubishi still consume seafood but not land creatures; the Cousins, Masons, Utopia, and Gordian do not permit members to eat meat from animals though all four have complex exemptions for things like being invited to a wedding where Europeans are having a traditional animal-sourced dish, and there is an ongoing Octopus Rights movement attempting to secure minor’s status for the octopus which would ban its consumption, but the movement has not yet succeeded.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Terra Ignota AMA Questions: Craft of Writing & Performer Casting

Hello, friends!  Sharing some more more favorite questions & answers from recent AMAs, including some about the craft of writing, and about the question of what it would be like casting Terra Ignota for film or TV.

Q: Why Don’t You Describe the Flying Cars?

So, we get a bit more detail in book 4 for which reason I won’t talk here about what I envision because I don’t want to disrupt that. But, the lack of detail and description is in fact very intentional. If I say “a flying car” and you envision it, in your head it will always look plausible to you. If I say “a flying car with turbines” suddenly it has to have turbines, and maybe that still feels plausible to you, or maybe it doesn’t, maybe your understanding of physics and engines and friction means that the detail ‘turbines’ breaks plausibility and distracts you and throws you out of the narrative. Maybe I say they’re long and streamlined; maybe I say they’re short and fat but have deflection fields, whatever I say will work for some people and not for others. Why? Because all readers have different knowledge levels: some of us know almost nothing about the engineering that would be involved, some of us know some things but not others, some know a lot; no matter what I say even if what I say is accurate and totally well-researched it will seem wrong to some people if they don’t know the same research I know, someone might know a detail that seems to contradict the other. No matter what I say, it will be a problem for some readers–if I don’t say at all no one will be distracted.

To give a real example, I contacted an awesome ant expert, Sanja Hakala, and discussed with her what ant species would make sense to be the Mars ants, given the locations of the space elevators, and how the resources for Mars were harvested and packaged, and the types of engineering they would need to navigate, and different likely ant migrations over future centuries, and with much debate we settled on Paratrechina longicornis as the most likely and appropriate ant species. Sure enough, the very next beta reader I had (a scientist but not a biologist) commented “Paratrechina longicornis! Really! What a boring choice, couldn’t you have bothered to do some real ant research?” A similar thing happened in book 4 with one particular bit of technology (intentionally being vague here) where I was working with 2 experts in that kind of tech and asked them, “So, it might seem they could achieve the goal by doing X, do I need to make clear in the book why they can’t do X?” Both experts answered, “No, it’s super obvious X wouldn’t work, X would fail because ABC, don’t bother to bring up X, anyone who knows anything will realize it’s obviously not an option.” Sure enough, beta reader’s response: “I spent the whole book thinking ‘why don’t they just do X! Obviously X would solve everything!” So I went back in and specified why they couldn’t do X.

Another thing which makes this worse is that our science changes over time. If I did the best possible research on what we right now think would be the best shape for a superfast flying thing (based on the Blackbird perhaps?), nonetheless ten years from now we might do other research and discover a new shape is better, and using that shape would come across as wrong and super dated. To give a real example though I forget what story it was, there’s an SF story set in the future where an explorer entering a derelict spaceship pulls out her cell phone and turns the screen white so she can see by its light–instantly dates it to the brief phase when phones didn’t have flashlights, and feels distracting. If it just said “She shone a light” it wouldn’t be distracting at all, it would always feel correct no matter how much tech changes.

In sum, sometimes adding the detail is great, if it’s detail that’s important, detail you’re using for world building, detail that serves the plot, detail that’s teaching something about science, detail that’s advancing representation, detail that’s establishing an aesthetic. There are many types of stories where being detailed about the flying cars would be great. But especially in books 1-4 I didn’t need to, and if I don’t describe them then they’ll always look right to you.

Short version: Shakespeare begins Henry V by asking you to imagine the fields of France, and no matter how expensive the special effects and sets in a movie, the fields of France of your imagination will always look better. Shakespeare knew when to use that, and authors today should too.

Q: How much time do you spend planning?

I do at least 5 years of planning and worldbuilding, then 6 to 12 months outlining a whole series chapter by chapter, then writing the book which takes between 1 year and 3 years depending on how many other things interrupt taking away my time, and then very little time on revision, usually just a couple months for little tweaks, since I plan very carefully so rarely have to go back and change anything, and I have a few beta readers who read things chapter by chapter as they go so I know what is and isn’t working as it goes along and fix it as I go rather than at the end. I know a lot of authors who have very different methods, some of whom plunge in with very little plan, but a lot of them do a lot of revision at the end. In my opinion the real difference is simply doing the same tasks in a different order – some writers figure out the structure in advance with an outline and then write a fairly polished thing, others figure out the structure as they go and then go back and make revisions in the revision stage that I would’ve made in the outlining stage – same steps, different order, both produce great books.

Q: How difficult is it to show a whole world through the lens of one biased narrator?

It’s usually more of a tool than an impediment, actually. I modeled Mycroft on a mixture of Severian in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and on Diderot’s narrative style in Jacques the Fatalist, and both of those use strange and very strong narrative styles where the narrators express a lot of their opinions and ideas and explanations, and include a lot of their interiority, which is a tool you can use to get so much across: information about events earlier, about history, about the belief systems of that world, about the ways the narrators describe themselves as strange which tells you what the narrators think is normal, and it creates a kind of puzzle where a lot more layers of information are happening at once compared with a simple narrator who just sees and reports. And once the reader becomes very conscious of the narrators’ unreliability in such works then the reader starts thinking critically about it, trying to read between the lines and question more. In many ways, when you think the narrator is reliable that leads the reader to question less, analyze less, pick up details less, trusting the narrator to say what’s happening, but any narrator is unreliable really, since they all have opinions, points of view: Bilbo is anti-dragon, right? And we don’t question it since we think of him as reliable, but with Mycroft or Severian we question everything, and that leads to a more careful and critical read. So it’s almost always more an asset than not, especially since when I want to make clear to a reader that a fact is a fact I have tools for that, like having other characters confirm it. The one thing that is challenging, though, is having a narrator who is actively distrusted by some people, since then it can be hard to figure out how the narrator could get a hold of a particular piece of information that I want the reader to get. In book 3, for example, Mycroft has access to a lot of what is happening but there is just no one in the upper ranks of the Mitsubishi who would trust him enough to give access, so it was very difficult figuring out how to give the reader access to what the Mitsubishi are doing there (chapter 10 of The Will to Battle is where you see this in action)

Q: Is there going to be a movie or TV series? Could there be?

Periodically I do have talks with various people who have an ambition to make it into a Netflix-type TV series, and it is interesting to think about. It’s waaaaaay too complicated, really, I used to imagine the only way it could be done would be as one of those terrible made-for-TV Scifi channel miniseries specials, the ones that are always way too ambitious and have campy special effects and try too hard and make no sense, like the old Merlin miniseries, or the weird Dune miniseries if anyone remembers those. But with the new Netflix model it’s not impossible. Even if a series didn’t manage to capture much of the original, if it could present some of the basic world concepts, exposing a lot more people to ideas of voluntary citizenship, and spreading the terms bash’ and voker, I think that alone would do a lot of good even if the rest of it were atrociously bad. It would also be a great thing for diversity since it has a minority white cast of characters and people from all parts of the world, and it’s a good thing for there to be more TV like that, with characters from Francophone Africa, and India, and Korea, and Japan, and Chile, and Turkey, and lots of mixed-race characters, and characters whose race and nationality are an unexpected mix, like Toshi being both black and Japanese, which does happen but hardly ever gets depicted. There’s also a great opportunity for trans and nonbinary rep, in casting the complex characters of Carlyle, Dominic, and Sniper (so excited for some of the casting in the ongoing Graphic Audio cast recordings, they have an amazing nonbinary performer Taylor Coan doing Sniper, and an absolutely brilliant trans woman Kay Eluvian doing Carlyle Foster, we’ve had great exchanges about the complexities of Caryle’s gender & identity developments over the course of the series).

One thing that would be complex, and that I’d be very excited about in such an adaptation, is how to handle sex and gender in casting, since there are so many different options. One that I think would be really cool, and which we are doing in the currently-in-production new set of cast audio recordings (different performers for each character) is to experiment with “gender-blind” casting, imagining that this is an adaptation being made in the Terra Ignota future and that they cast performers in roles they think that performer would be great at without regard to whether their bodies match the anatomical sex of the person they’re performing. So when I would imagine a cast I would often imagine John Hurt as Madame D’Arouet because he would have been amazing, or Helen Mirren as Papadelias. But casting actors more traditionally could also be powerful because you could juxtapose the feeling of the book vs. the show where you would be looking at a person whose body seems female and thinking “her” in your head as you watch but in the book it would be “he” and you could compare how you felt about people.

The oddball answer to who I would ideally cast, apart from many of the audiobook people being amazing, is that I really love listening to Derek Jacobi narrate audiobooks, he’s so brilliant in his Iliad audiobook especially, I love hearing him do so many different voices, his Helen, his Hera, his Hector, his Zeus, His Thetis. So if it were being made just for an audience of me I would want an animated series with every single voice done by Derek Jacobi! But I know that’s a very idiosyncratic want. I would really love if he was any part in any version of it, of course. Beyond that there is a stage actor called Jamie Wilkes who I saw as Dromio of Ephesus in the Globe Comedy of Errors who has amazing body language performing as the servile but prickly slave character in that play, so I think he would be a fabulous Mycroft. And it’s very odd but since I also listen to a lot of anime I have opinions about voice actors too, and would really love to hear JEDD Mason voiced by Seki Toshihiko, based on the voice he gave to Alexander the Great in Reign, or his roles in Gundam Seed & Destany. But on the whole, if it were adapted, what I would really want to see is a lot of opportunities to encounter for the first time a lot of really great actors of groups that don’t get a lot of representation on TV (trans, nonbinary, mixed race, international)!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Gender in Terra Ignota (Queership Repost)

18th century portrait of the Chevalier D’Eon, one of many prominent Enlightenment figures who help challenge ideas of gender, historically and today.

This is an essay I was invited to write in 2017 for the delightful spec fic blog Queersship, which has since ceased to exist, but many people have asked me to re-post the essay, especially now as the series finale is coming out. For a more recent (though less expansive) discussion of similar issues see my guest post on Nine Bookish Lives which asked me here in 2021 to discuss Terra Ignota and the question of “a future that doesn’t see gender.”

Going Deep into the Gender of Terra Ignota

First I want to thank Queersship for inviting me to write about gender in my Terra Ignota series, since gender stuff is probably the part of the book that took the most time and effort word-by-word.  (Well, the Latin and J.E.D.D. Mason’s dialog were literally more effort per word, but there is a lot less Latin in the book than there are pronouns…)

I want to talk separately about two levels of what the book does with gender:

(A) the larger world building, and (B) the line-by-line pronoun use.

On the line-by-line level the series uses both gendered and gender neutral pronouns in unstable and disruptive ways, designed to push readers to learn more about their own attitudes toward gendered language as they grapple with seeing it used so strangely and uncomfortably.  On the macro level, the series presents a future society which is neither a gender utopia where all our present issues have been solved, nor an overt gender dystopia like The Handmaid’s Tale, but something both more difficult to face and, in my view, more realistic: a future which has made some progress on gender, but also had some big failures, showing us how our present efforts could go wrong, or stagnate incomplete, if we don’t continue to work hard pushing for positive change.

At the beginning of Too Like the Lightning the main narrator, Mycroft Canner, addresses the reader directly, asking “forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity.”  We soon learn what this means: in the 25th century world of Terra Ignota, people have no assigned sex, practically all clothing and names are gender neutral, English has stopped using gendered pronouns, and normal dialog always uses the singular ‘they.’  But in the narration Mycroft assigns gendered pronouns to people based on his own personal opinions of which gender suits their personalities.  Mycroft insists that his history won’t make sense without the “archaic” tool of gender, a claim which invites the reader to judge Mycroft’s decision to do this, and to think about how this use of gender manipulates us and the narrative. So, Mycroft uses ‘he’ and ‘she’ in narration, while most characters use ‘they’ in their dialog.  But this is more than Mycroft reviving the gender binary in a genderless world, since Mycroft applies gender in idiosyncratic ways no one would today—just as authors today who use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in literature practically never use them as they were actually used in pre-modern English.  Mycroft’s understanding of ‘he’ and ‘she’ has nothing to do with biological sex, or anything we can recognize from how our society uses the words today, and learning about how Mycroft uses gender is our first window into the strange gender attitudes of the world he is trying to describe.

Illustration of unisex clothing used by “Drapers Magazine” for an article called “Unisex Clothing: Fad or Future?” a question I decided to zoom in on in Terra Ignota. The clothing is identical, but do our minds still assign gender to the wearers based on other cues? What cues? Can we change that about how we perceive gender?

World Building: An Age of (Gender) Silence

I want to talk about the larger world building before I go more deeply into Mycroft’s pronoun use. We learn early in Too Like the Lightning that the gender neutral language of this 25th century is not the result of society’s efforts toward inclusiveness finally succeeding, but the result of global trauma and severe censorship.  In the twenty-second century a global conflict called the “Church War” devastated much of the Earth, and in the aftermath both religious discourse and gendered language were forbidden, by severe taboos and censorship laws.  Using ‘he’ and ‘she’ is not just outdated in this world, it’s completely disallowed, and discussing religion without a state-licensed chaperone is a severe crime.

This element of the world is intentionally polarizing for my readers, creating a future that feels like utopia to some and dystopia to others.  A world where family members are forbidden to discuss religion with each other may feel liberating to anyone who’s had nasty interactions with proselytizing parents, but oppressive to anyone who values religious community and heritage.  Similarly a world where ‘they’ is the only permissible pronoun may feel liberating to some who see it as an escape from the current binary, but feels oppressive to anyone (whether cisgender, transgender, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, or something else) who strongly desires to express gender, considering gender an important part of identity and wanting to be acknowledged with the pronoun of their/his/her/zir/its/etc. choice.  But in the world of Terra Ignota, even Sniper—a character who actively prefers the ‘it’ pronoun because Sniper wants to dehumanize itself and be treated as a living doll—is denied the right to be ‘it’ if it wants, just as others are denied ‘he’ or ‘she.’  One of my big goals in creating this polarizing world was for readers to discuss their reactions with each other, exploring how one person’s utopia can be another’s dystopia, and exploring the tensions between our different ideals of religious freedom and of gender liberation—tensions we need to understand and address as we work together in the real world to create inclusivity which will work, not just for some people, but for everyone.

Our narrator claims in the text that this forced global silencing of gender and gendered discourse has resulted in a false gender neutrality, that under the surface people in his world still think in terms of binaries, and that inequality continues, just without anyone being willing to admit it.  Real gender progress stopped short under the silence, so the society kept unconsciously passing on forms of gendered thought and inequality, not because they’re somehow ineradicable or biologically ingrained, but because the abrupt end of dialog meant no one was working to eradicate them, so they continued to be passed on.  In a world that insists gender is gone, no one is doing studies on the pay gap, or discrimination, or gender ratios of politicians, or analyzing fiction for how it presents gender.  Since the society declared that the big problems were solved, no one is watching for the effects of gender on the world anymore, so no one perceives those smaller problems which haven’t been solved, or tries to address them.

Dystopia’s like Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale are one way to look at ways the future could fail on gender – imperfect futures like Terra Ignota are another.

This is one of several threads in the series which press beyond the question “Does the end justify the means?” to another question: “Does a bad means poison the end?”  Is gender equality achieved through censorship so problematic in itself that it might harm efforts toward true equality more than it helps?  Is forced silence in the name of progress actually an enemy of deeper progress?

Put another way, in Terra Ignota I wanted to show a world that botched the endgame of feminism and gender liberation.  Sometimes you hear people say things like, “Feminism is done, women have equal rights under the law, so we don’t need all this gender discussion anymore.”  It’s a strategy people use to try to shut down discourse.  But gender progress isn’t done.  We’re only beginning, through psych studies and research, to understand how we unconsciously pass on gendered behavior patterns to children.  We’ve only just realized how much we’ve been drowning our kids in stories where women have less narrative agency than men, and where ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are harsh, unquestioned binaries.  We’re only just beginning to produce new works that do better.  Transgender and nonbinary gender rights and representation are in their infancy.  And realistically in fifty years, with many legal battles won, these processes will still be in their infancy.  Olympe de Gouge wrote her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen in 1791, yet female suffrage didn’t gain momentum until the late 1800s, and we’re still struggling to make an equal space for women in politics even now.  But imagine if feminist discourse had shut down in 1960 when the last Western nations adopted women’s suffrage. If we’d stopped the conversation then, declared that to be victory, then no one would now be doing things like watching the pay gap or writing feminist literature, and progress would slow to a crawl, or possibly stop entirely.  And the same could happen to other forms of social progress (race, ableism) if their conversations are shut down.  So, as a rebuttal to those who say feminism is finished and should stop, and who will in the future say that other movements like the transgender movement are finished and should stop, I wanted to depict a world where these conversations did stop, where silence fell in the 2100s, and we see the bad effects of that stagnation still affecting the 2400s.

First page of Olympe de Gouges’s 1792 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen

Pronouns: ‘Thee’s and ‘Thou’s and ‘He’s and ‘She’s

As for Mycroft’s line-by-line narration, one challenge I posed for myself in these books was writing from the point of view of a narrator so immersed in his world that he is inept and clumsy at critiquing it.  I’m a historian, so, from reading historical documents all the time, I’m acutely aware that it’s incredibly difficult it is to start a conversation about an issue one’s society has silenced.  When we read early feminist or socially progressive works, like Olympe de Gouge, or Mary Wollstonecraft, or Voltaire, or even Plato’s Republic (which argues that male and female souls are fundamentally the same; proto-feminism in 300+ BC!), we admire some of their ideas but often find their actual discussions of the subjects painful to read.  Authors so early in the discourse tend to be so saturated with the outdated prejudices of their eras that a lot of those prejudices leak through, even as they seek to battle them.  You see people fighting for women’s rights while voicing deeply sexist ideas about the attributes or role of women, or calling for the rights of people of color while using the condescending, infantilizing racist language that saturated the 1700s and 1800s.  First generation members of a movement nearly always express themselves ineptly by the standards of their successors, because, when there has been no critical conversation about a topic, it is very hard for the first critics to get a good perspective on it.

So in framing my tale of the 25th century as a historical document, written by someone in the period, I decided to have that fictional author be limited by how plausibly difficult it would be for someone to start seriously discussing gender again when no one had done so in 350 years.  And I chose to model the narration on 18th century narration partly because 18th century critiques of gender are brilliant-yet-inept in precisely the way I wanted to examine. Giving my narrator the sophisticated terminology of the 21st century would have made it too easy for his critique to become comfortable for us.  Mycroft Canner, and also all the other characters we hear discuss gender in the books, all have deeply bizarre, twisted, and by our standards unhealthy ideas about gender.  Because realistically that’s the best I think people could do as a first step in a world so wracked by silence, just as Plato and Mary Wollstonecraft’s works were the best they could do in their own eras.  It’s disorienting reading Mycroft’s discussions of gender, and seeing his strange and uncomfortable attitudes, and the other characters who address gender are generally just as uncomfortable to us.  And that discomfort pushes the reader to distrust all the pronouns and all the gendered language, to try to cut through Mycroft’s distorting perspective, much as we have to do when trying to get past the bias in real historical documents.  It shows just how difficult it could be to restart these conversations after silence, which I hope will strengthen readers’ commitment to keep on pushing, writing, talking, and critiquing.  To make sure silence doesn’t fall.

Thus, my narrator Mycroft, struggling to express himself, resorts to using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and also ‘he’ and ‘she’, assigning ‘he’ and ‘she’ based on which gendered archetype he associates with a character’s personality and actions, regardless of appearance.  Mycroft’s gender categories are very idiosyncratic, and we learn about him by observing them, much as in Star Wars we learn a lot about Darth Vader observing how he uses ‘thee’ and ‘thou’.  To start with, Mycroft’s own attempt to stick to a gender binary quickly breaks down.  For some characters gendered pronouns fit easily, and do indeed help the reader make sense people’s actions, as when we deal with Heloïse, a nun whose religious vocation is deeply steeped in traditional ideas of gender, and who very consciously embraces an identity as ‘she’.  For other characters, gendered pronouns are such a mismatch that even Mycroft resorts to ‘they,’ as with the human computer Eureka Weeksbooth.  And for yet other characters Mycroft assigns gendered pronouns but they feel so irrelevant that there would be no change if one reversed them, as with the otherworldly Utopians Aldrin and Voltaire. (I’ve sometimes had readers forget what pronoun Mycroft gives each of them—I’m so proud when people forget!)  As the series advances, Mycroft sometimes switches pronouns for a character, or apologizes to the reader for having trouble finding the right gender fit.  For some characters, physical descriptions make it clear which sex the character’s body appears to be (Mycroft will mention a beard, or breasts, or genitalia) so the reader knows whether the sex matches the pronoun, while for other characters the reader is given no clue to the character’s appearance or biological sex other than the pronoun assigned by the narrator.  All this strangeness aims to make the reader hyperconscious of the pronouns, and of the ways gendered pronouns mislead, clarify, distort, help, and harm.

In the new Graphic Audio cast recording audiobooks we get to make the gender complication even more acute by playing around with the perceived gender of the voice vs. the gender used by Mycroft

Some readers have told me that the book’s use of pronouns changed how they felt about the singular they, that they’d disliked it before, thinking of it as a distortion of grammar, but that Too Like the Lightning helped them see for the first time how manipulative binary gender pronouns can be, how ‘they’ can be a valuable and liberating alternative.  (This was one of my big goals!)  Other readers have told me they were surprised to find themselves obsessing over the ‘real’ genders of the characters whose genders aren’t clear, painstakingly tracking every hint in physical descriptions, and that discovering that they were doing this helped them realize for the first time how much they really do judge characters differently based on gender.  (This was another big thing I hoped to help make readers conscious of.)  Some readers have said they were particularly fascinated by their reactions to the characters whose physical descriptions clearly don’t match their pronouns, that for some characters they found themselves thinking of the pronoun as the ‘real’ gender while for other characters they thought of the physical description as the ‘real’ gender, and that this made them rethink how they understand the relationship between gender and bodies.  (Brace yourselves for books 3 and 4, where things get even trickier!)  I’ve been particularly touched when readers have told me that the books helped them gain more respect for the transgender movement and for transgender, nonbinary, and gender-noncompliant people, understanding at last why many people want so badly to be able to choose their pronouns and genders for themselves. (So proud when people have that reaction!)

In contrast, a couple of readers have told me they felt they didn’t get much out of the book’s strange use of pronouns, that it just replayed for them the familiar (and often painful) problems of assigned sex and the current gender binary.  Writing intentionally uncomfortable fiction like Too Like the Lightning is high risk.  For some people it hits too close to painful areas and just hurts instead of being productive.  For others it’s too rudimentary, spending a lot of time demonstrating the manipulative effects of pronouns which many readers are already very conscious of.  But other readers are not so conscious of them.  Right now F&SF readers, and readers in general, vary enormously in how much we’ve thought about gender, about binary and non-binary gender, about transgender and cisgender, about intersex and agender—some readers live and breathe these issues every day, while others have just dipped a toe into the conversation.  With readers in so many different places in that conversation, a book which one group of readers finds stimulating and productive may totally fail for another group.  I know some readers have found the first book painful in a bad way, and whatever my intentions that pain is real and I’m sorry I caused it, that try as I might it was too difficult walking the line between the productively painful (1984 and A Handmaid’s Tale are very painful) and the unproductively painful.  But I hope this essay will at least help those readers who found it too painful see that I was aiming for something constructive, even if, while I hit the mark for some readers, I missed it for others. And I agree 100% with my (amazing!) fellow Hugo finalist Yoon Ha Lee’s comment that it’s important that we accept works that try hard to address difficult topics, even if they don’t succeed as perfectly as we would like, because we don’t want to scare people off from trying.  (And I can’t tell you how proud I am to be part of such an incredibly diverse group of fellow Hugo finalists!)

Portrait of Gustavus Hamilton Second Viscount Boyne (1730) in the Met. The combination of fashion and the way the lace hood normally worn under the Bauta mask looks like long hair challenge our 21st century expectations of how we are intended to parse gender.

Writing Mycroft’s inconsistent pronoun use was also a fascinating learning process for myself as an author.  First, I worked out carefully what Mycroft’s own ideas about gender were, what characteristics would make him choose ‘he’ or ‘she’ for someone.  Then, when I had mostly outlined the series, I went through and read over the outline in detail three times for each of the thirty-four most important characters (more than 100 rereads total), once imagining the character as “he” in the narration, another time as “she,” and a third time trying to think of the character without gender. For some characters I did more than three passes, when I decided to try something even more unusual with gender. My goal was to see how each character’s arc might feel different with a different pronoun.  Some characters’ arcs felt much the same regardless of gender, while, for other characters, actions or outcomes felt very different when gendered differently, suddenly falling into a cliché, or defying one.  I learned a lot about my own attitudes toward gender by seeing when the pronoun made a big difference for me, and when it didn’t.  By making myself live through the four book arc of Terra Ignota 3+ times for every character, I made sure that I was 100% clear on how Mycroft’s choice of pronoun might change the reader’s feelings and expectations about each character, so I could be sensitive to that as I wrote the actual books, and make use of its potential to disrupt expectations. In a few cases where I felt Mycroft would waffle about which pronoun to use, I took the opportunity to have him use the one which would make the character’s arc more striking, or to have him minimize gendered language for that character to create a nearly-genderless arc, as with Eureka, Mushi, Aldrin, and Voltaire.  In the end I found this gender-swapping reread process so productive that now I’m doing it with every story I outline, even if I’m not planning to do much with pronouns, since it’s such a great way to discover new narrative possibilities, and to notice when I’ve slipped into a gender cliché.

Once writing was underway, I also spent pass after pass through the manuscript hunting for inconsistencies in my own pronoun use, correcting ‘they’s to ‘she’s, ‘she’s to ‘he’s, ‘they’s to ‘it’s, and ‘he’s to ‘He’s (for the character who capitalizes His pronouns). Some chapters I wrote more than once with different pronouns to see how they would feel each way. Switching so constantly totally broke the pronoun habits in my own head, so that it leaked out into all my other work. While working on these books, I’ve constantly had the editors of my academic articles complaining about how I was switching between ‘they’ and ‘he’ and ‘she’, and once (my favorite) I got the baffled question, “Why are you using ‘she’ for Jean-Jacques Rousseau?”  (In Terra Ignota Rousseau is ‘she’ by Mycroft’s rules of gender, but it wasn’t easy explaining that to an academic journal!) And some chapters are narrated by other characters who don’t use gendered pronouns at all, so switching from narrator to narrator also took great care (but gives the reader a much-needed break from the disruptive pronouns).  In the end, even with the giant team effort of (I kid you not!) thirty-six beta readers, plus the editor, copy editor, and page proofer all hunting for (and finding!) inconsistent pronouns, a few still slipped through into the printed version, moments a ‘they’ that should be a ‘he,’ or vice versa.  The process was exhausting, and imperfect, but more than worth-it—I feel that every time a reader tells me that it helped them discover new aspects of how pronouns affect our thought, our culture, and themselves. (Yes!)

Baroque 18th-century wigs recreated in paper by Russian artist Azya Kozina, a brilliant example of our contemporary fascination with how gender was performed in the 1700s, and how we redeploy those historical gender tools in our own era for our own ends.

Cover of Aldous Huxley's Brave New WorldBetween Utopia and Dystopia:

Terra Ignota is neither a dystopia nor a utopia—it’s a future that has taken two steps forward but one step back.  It has a lot of things that feel Utopian: flying cars, a 150+ year lifespan, a 20 hour workweek, a Moon Base, long-lasting world peace.  Maybe 80% of the attributes of this world are the stuff of Utopia.  But it has a lot of things that feel dystopian: censorship, surveillance, “Reservations” (hello, Huxley), a resurgence of absolute monarchy, and the complete dissolution of our current political world.  Gender is only one of many axes on which it presents a disorienting mixture of things we long for and things we dread.  It’s not an easy read, not a comfortable read, not a safe read.  For many (myself included) it’s a painful read.  The more you love the good aspects of this future (and I love them dearly!), the more painful it is seeing the bad ones mixed in with them.  I sometimes say Terra Ignota is the opposite of beach reading.  And right now it’s especially difficult because, with only two books out, it isn’t finished, and a lot of things (especially with what path forward this world will take to address its problems with gender) are absolutely unresolved.

It’s also a harder read, I think, than pure dystopia.  When we read 1984, and The Handmaid’s Tale, and V for Vendetta, and The Hunger Games, we know these worlds are terrible.  We the readers, the author, and the characters can all cry out together in one voice: “No!”  Something like Brave New World is more difficult, because there, amid the things we find abhorrent, we are forced to admit that we would be happier, in a pure pleasure-center-synapses-firing-per-lifetime sense, if we lived in Huxley’s world than in our own.  That’s a painful thing to admit.  But Huxley’s world strips away so much we value more than happiness that we can still cry out together: “No!”  But what if it stripped away even less, and gave us even more? (ADDENDUM: see my 2021 essay on hopepunk for an expansion of this idea.)

By most metrics of how we evaluate civilizations, the civilization in Terra Ignota is the best era humanity has experienced in Earth’s history.  It has no war, no poverty, no hunger, very little crime, very little disease, very little labor, long life, amazing toys and games, spectacular future cities, unprecedented political self-determination, no homophobia, no ecological problems or pollution, less racial tension, genuinely less gender inequality even though some lingers, and kids take field trips to the Moon.  But it also has deep, deep flaws—not as deep as Brave New World, but deep.  The series keeps coming back to a pair of questions, asked in different ways by several core characters: Would you destroy this world to save a better one?  And its opposite: Would you destroy a better world to save this one?  These aren’t questions about having two planets or two realities and blowing one up, they’re questions about history, and progress.  Will the characters risk destabilizing this flawed-but-best-yet age of human civilization, risking the return of catastrophe and violence, in hopes of someday making an even better world?  Or will characters try to prevent this society from changing to preserve how nearly-wonderful it already is?  Destroying the possibility of a better future world to avoid endangering this already very good one?  These are questions no utopia or dystopia can ask—only a hybrid of the two.


“The Two Carlyles” character portrait by Atiglain, one of their many gorgeous images of the Terra Ignota cast which capture the complexities of the characters’ engagement with gender throughout the series. We made the Terra Ignota calendar together for 2022!

So that’s Terra Ignota’s gender project in a (rather lengthy) nutshell.  I hope everyone will enjoy reading on to later volumes where the gender pronouns are disrupted even more, presenting new challenges and instabilities, and where we get to see this future society come face-to-face with its lingering gender issues, and seek a good path forward.  And I hope readers will be patient as the four books come out.  Some novel series are episodic, each adventure completing before the next, but some, like this one, really are one project so complex it can’t be told in 140,000 words.  It needs 560,000.  The society of Terra Ignota will have to face its newly-unsilenced gender issues, and its solution cannot be stasis, nor can it be reversion to the old binary.  But, just as real world reform movements are shaped by events—disasters, recessions, crises, wars—I want to show how this one could be shaped by events, and take a different shape depending on those events.  And those events need a lot of pages to be told.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you will continue to read and enjoy Terra Ignota, but I hope above all that many of you will go on to write your own new works (fiction and nonfiction) addressing gender, and these ideas, and others.  Because the biggest goal is that discourse continue!

(Want to see more recent discussions? See my guest post on Nine Bookish Lives which asked me here in 2021 to discuss Terra Ignota and the question of “a future that doesn’t see gender.”)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Perhaps the Stars Essay Roundup plus AMA best-of: Religion & Utopia in Terra Ignota

Hello, friends!  Quick post today to say three things:

  1. I am (barring emergencies) going to Worldcon in DC this December! It looks like my recovery/therapy should be just enough to try it, my first venture out to an event since the onset of the new problems, but the doctors are encouraging! It will be wonderful seeing people again!
  2. I recently did some more guest blogging as well as an online discussion for CUNY of world building and social science, along with my good friend Jo Walton, and others including Henry Farrell, Paul Krugman, and Noah Smith.  The links are below! The one I’m most excited by is the Hopepunk essay.
  3. I recently did two AMAs, one in summer and one this week, and I thought I would re-share some of the most interesting questions/answers here for you to enjoy. Below I’m sharing two to start, touching on religion and utopia in Terra Ignota, and I’ll share more in the coming weeks. I hope you enjoy!

Recent Posts & Pieces:

Q: Is Terra Ignota a utopia?

My ideal is when readers debate it being a utopia or not, which aspects of it do seem utopian and which seem bad or even dystopian. I intentionally made a mixture: it has a twenty hour workweek, a 150 year average lifespan, general prosperity, unprecedented political self-determination, you can live with your friends, there’s been peace for 300 years… and it has censorship, severe religious restrictions, weird silencing of gender, tension over land and rents, various political strife and prejudices, and other flaws. It’s wonderful how often a pair of friends will read the book and it will feel dystopian to one and utopian to the other. The silencing of religion makes some people say, “Yay! My super-religious parents would have to shut up and theocrats would be kept out of politics!” while the same makes others say, “Wait, I couldn’t have a passover dinner or a religious wedding without state supervision?!” Similarly the silencing of gender makes some readers feel like it would be ideal, making everyone stop gendering each other and use ‘they’ for all, while other readers feel like suppressing gender expression would be terrible and prevent them from feeling like themselves. It’s often the conversations between people for whom the world feels great or very-not-great that get richest, something I intended to help show how we need to think carefully about social change if we want to make a world that works for everyone. My real goal was to make a world which would feel to us as I think our present would feel to Diderot or Voltaire: some things are amazingly much better especially medicine and lifespan and daily tech; other things are weirdly confusing like (in the Enlightenment case) clothes that would seem to them as if we’re naked all the time, and social class working totally differently; other things are depressingly familiar like, for Voltaire especially, the campaigning Voltaire did against religious intolerance, torture, and anti-vaccination movements (he was a smallpox innoculation proponent and fought with antivaxxers in the 1700s!) the continuation of those problems still being issues would be weirdly depressing. That mixture is what I was going for: better in a lot of ways, worse in a few, in others just weird and confusing. Since that is really what the future is likely to be to us.

Q: Why does everyone (in Terra Ignota) assume there’s only one god?

So, short answer I don’t, and they don’t. This is a space where I think Mycroft’s own frequent discussions of Providence and a singular ‘Peer’ are overshadowing for you the details we learn about everyone else’s. Remember that Mycroft says in Seven Surrenders that he and Saladin were explicit atheists before his all-important encounter with you know who, and that while Mycroft has unitary ideas about Providence he also lenses them through Greek polytheism. Also recall that in the descriptions of sensayers especially in Too Like the Lightning it specifies that they consider atheism a belief system to be studied and discussed in all its pluralness and richness alongside the others, so sensayers are studying atheism among all the systems they study, and it’s just as diverse and complex, many different variant atheisms, than the others, all of which also enters the dialog with a sensayer. Having sensayer sessions isn’t about pushing people toward any particular belief, but facilitating people having an examined set of ideas, and making sure that everyone encounters many different systems, including several variant atheisms alongside a variety of theisms. Also important to note that, apart from the King of Spain and those close to JEDDM, the only other people whose beliefs we specifically hear about are the ones JEDDM encounters in the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’house on pages 196-7 of Too Like the Lightning, one of whom is exposed as Catholic but the other as a believer in karma; belief in karma is definitely not the same thing as monotheism, and Carlyle tells Bridger on page 118 of Too Like the Lightning, “People have a lot of different ideas of different ways that reincarnation and karma might work,” and again most (though not all) belief systems that include reincarnation and/or karma are not monotheistic. So there’s a lot of complexity, but we see forefronted most the headspace our narrator is in, and the monotheistically-structured systems at Madame’s, precisely because they’re being *inappropriately* brought out in public while the properly-handled ones are silent, i.e. the many characters whose beliefs we don’t know because they’re correctly following the taboo. In other words, we are only seeing explicitly the religion that’s being done “wrong” by the metrics of the culture, and that one is dominated by Madame-influenced quasi-Catholic monotheism, but we see many many hints of the others in different corners of the text. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in a more complex dive into polytheism & religious pluralness in the Terra Ignota future, then I think you will enjoy Perhaps the Stars.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

From Ada’s AMA: Minutiae Ignota

On 11th January 2018, Ada did a marathon “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit. This last post collects the questions and answers that are about the Terra Ignota world and don’t fit anywhere else. 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.


Injygo: In Terra Ignota, it seems that the Great Men and Women dictate a lot of the course of history. The events that are the responsibility of collectives or of nonhuman forces seem to be minimized or put aside. Mycroft praises the nobility and exceptional nature of the Great Men characters, and seems to dislike the concept of popular revolution. Is this point of view Mycroft’s doing or yours? Do you think that history is driven by individual Great People?

Ada: While Mycroft’s discussion of Thomas Carlyle, and his focus on depicting great leaders, certainly focus on the sort of people we’d think of as Great Men and Women, if you look a little deeper the story substantially, and intentionally, undermines that, since, as the crisis unfolds, what we’re seeing isn’t the big leaders having their way, it’s the big leaders being overwhelmed and dragged by vast public forces: outrage, fear, demand for change. Not one of the Great Men and Women of the book wants the war to come, not even those most responsible for it. Not one of them wants the war to take the shape it does. I am depicting Great Men and Women, and their comparative powerlessness within the great forces of history. Much as I discuss in my essay on Progress and Historical Change, individuals have the power to try to channel the great forces of society, to try to push them toward desired outcomes like building channels when a dam is about to break and cause a flood, but they absolutely can’t control them, and I think it’s refreshing writing a book where ultimately the leaders are caught up in a massive social change, instead of having the unrealistic ability to create and shape it.

Factitious: How well supported does a guess that someone’s the Anonymous have to be for it to count for the succession? Are public figures constantly getting “You’re the Anonymous!” letters?

Ada: Yes, people who seem likely to be the Anonymous do get letters from time to time, though this is the first time in history the Anonymous has been such a prominent person, it’s usually someone comparatively unknown, thus people don’t expect it to be a major world figure. As for how well-supported the guess needs to be, it needs to satisfy the Anonymous as being well-reasoned enough to prove someone a worthy successor.

Infovorematt: What are your thoughts on opening up contemporary Olympic Games to include things like tennis, pole-dancing, skateboarding, surfing, etc?

Ada: I think having more Olympic sports would be great. You’ll note in Terra Ignota there is Olympic debate, and Olympic mathematics, among other things.

Madscientistninja: More of an observation than a question – what’s up with all the similes? They’re amazing! I was bothering my friends with pictures of the book every now and then the whole time I was reading TWTB

Ada: Glad you enjoy the similes! I work hard on them. They are usually modeled on Homer, and results of how many times I re-listened to Fagles’ Homer translation on audiobook as a kid.

MakoConstruct: Is JEDD’s other world both complex and orderly enough to be applied to evaluating complex mathematical functions?

Ada: Yes, and sometimes those interested in understanding His nature pose complex mathematical questions to Him to evaluate how, and how quickly, He can do things like factor huge prime numbers etc.

MakoConstruct: Ganymede was sickened by tapwater, his skin would rash under anything other than silk. I laughed a lot during that scene. Was I supposed to laugh? It was too outlandish to me, it read as if it was saying “of course this didn’t really happen, Mycroft is embellishing Ganymede’s inability to survive in normal, middle-class living conditions to present a clarifying caricature of Madame’s strange children. It is hyper-real. It is fiction but it conveys more truth than the real truth.”- but… If I’d known that nobles really could be locked in gilded cages, like that, I probably wouldn’t have laughed. It occurs to me, esteemed historian, that this scene may have been based on some real precedent, among royalty, in history? Was it? If so, would you consider clarifying the scene to make sure the reader knows this is real?

Ada: I know there’s been polarization in reader reactions to Ganymede in The Will to Battle, some finding it funny, others moving and tragic. I like that, and many parts of the book are intended to cultivate disparate reactions. In Ganymede’s case, this is based on my knowledge that when dukes and princes were imprisoned in the past it was often in a palace, with servants and finery and their usual food, and that when they were imprisoned in harsher circumstances it was often as an extra-vicious punishment, and considered surprising, even tyranical. To us the idea of going to prison with your servants is very alien, to Ganymede it’s as expected as there being toilet paper, or clean water, and the deprivation is as shocking. The scene is meant to bring to the fore how powerful Madame’s manipulative child-rearing is, how real and crippling Ganymede’s mind-out-of-time state is, and why people would compare what Madame has done to the rearing of set-sets. And to make us more nervous about just how alien a psyche J.E.D.D. Mason has, if Ganymede is far closer to normal.

Delduthling: Are there any actors who would be ideal fantasy-casting for Mycroft, JEDD Mason, Sniper, or any of the other major characters? I honestly can’t really envision what an adaptation would even be like (or whether it could possibly work), but it’s fun to speculate.

Ada: For Mycroft, Derek Jacobi if he were still young enough, or Jamie Wilkes

For J.E.D.D. Mason, I keep imagining him voiced by the Japanese anime voice actor Seki Toshihiko, who did such an amazing Alexander the Great in Alexander Senki, and plays some of my favorite characters in other series too.

For Sniper I’ve never found anyone quite right, same with others. I enjoy trying to find one male and one female person to play each character, so I can imagine them both ways, which I think is how casting would be in Terra Ignota’s future, genderblind. Imagine John Hurt as Madame, for example, or Helen Mirren as Papadelias!

MayColvin: At one point toward the end of TLTL it’s mentioned that suicide is the most common cause of death in 2454. Is this just because other causes of death (diseases, accidents, murder) have become rarer, or has the suicide rate actually gone up? How do people in the 25th century think about suicide – as a symptom of mental illness, a rational choice, an immoral act, a social problem, something else?

Ada: On suicide, yes exactly, all other causes are now rare. The way people talk about suicide varies a lot Hive by Hive: as a rational choice but tragic waste among Humanists, a social problem among Cousins, a fascinating but tragic phenomenon among Brillists, a tragic failure among Utopians, a betrayal of the Empire among Masons, with lots of diversity among the Mitsubishi and Europeans.

SotoX3: Was there an historical event you drew from for the set-set debate\riots idea?

Ada: It’s based on Protestants and Catholics kidnapping each others’ children during the Reformation wars of religion, justifying it that raising kids in the wrong faith was equivalent to murder.

Infovorematt: If Athena popped down and offered you the chance to try and make The Republic a la Jo Waltons novels (and you didn’t get to ask questions about who would be there, where or when it’d be) would you go?

Ada: If Athena popped down I’d be very torn because I’m doing important work here, but I’d say yes not because I wanted to help make the republic, but because I’m confident that, with access to Athena, I could convince her to use her power to help me do even more amazing things than I can here. So I’d go to the Republic but then spend my time in philosophical dialog with her trying to convince her to help me do a more important project.

Delduthling: Were there any other points in your future history that you considered writing about instead of the one you selected?

Ada: I didn’t consider setting it at any other point, though I’ve sometimes imagined a spinoff in another medium (a game, a TV show) set during the Great Renunciation, or during the Mardi murders.

Delduthling: The potential disaster that keeps me up at night is not the possibility of nuclear apocalypse or world war, it’s climate catastrophe. How has climate change played out in your future timeline? It’s not something we hear about a lot in the books, beyond some hints in the First Law about harming Nature.

Ada: Climate got worse, but then humanity worked hard at it and it got better. It’s now a solved problem, so much so that they don’t talk about it. I try to communicate this through how obviously eco-conscious much of their city design is, the kitchens, the gardens, the many birds, and how powerful Greenpeace is. As with the Church War, it was bad, but then after it was bad there was recovery. So it isn’t a world where there was no eco-disaster, it’s a world where we put in the hard work and it succeeded.

Wisegreen: Am I wrong in seeing a lot of Machiavelli in Terra Ignota? Despite Enlightment figures and Hobbes being sort of “philosophical figureheads” in the books, a lot of what the characters do or don’t, specially OS and Hive Leaders, also look & feel like exploring how far powerful figures would go for the world they believe is the better one…

Ada: Machiavelli certainly permeates a lot of my thought, but I have a very specific reading on him, very united with patriotism and the desire to protect one’s people. So while most would associate the power-hungry powerbroker characters with him, the characters that most remind me of Machiavelli are probably Ancelet, Sniper, Kosala, Huxley in a way, Ando, people protecting their groups, their nations. But that’s not what most people think of with Machiavelli.

My blog series may help.

Delduthling: What does Vancouver, British Columbia look like in 2454? I am imagining a split between Europeans, Humanists, and Mitsubishi with perhaps a Utopian enclave, but given the general absence of description of a lot of North America I’m worried it could as-easily be a glowing crater.

Ada: Vancouver specifically is actually mostly Greenpeace Mitsubishi, they own a lot of land in North America, and are extra eager to have the areas near mountains and forests, areas where there’s lots of Nature. There are also lots of European members of the Canadian nation-strat in the area, and some Humanists. But yes, I’m being intentionally cagey with info about North America, intending to cultivate exactly the anxiety that makes you imagine a glowing crater. After all, most of the scifi fans in other countries in the world have read 100s of books where they never found out what happened to their countries, so I wanted to create the opposite, where Poland and New Zealand and Korea and Banglidesh know but Americans don’t. And more will come.

A_500: You’ve mentioned that you sometimes play a game where you “imagine sending a message back in time to some historical figure to tell him/her one thing you really, really wish they could have known.” Do you ever imagine sending messages from the imagined future of Terra Ignota, rather than from the present? What’s something you would want to tell someone from our past (or present!) if you lived in the 25th century?

Ada: I haven’t thought about that. Certainly Utopians would write to current people working on the space program to tell them that they’re still at it, and that the work is not in vain. They would likely also write to people working to battle climate change to thank them for their efforts and tell them that, in the end, it worked and we survived. Many people from 2454 would probably want to try to tell people not to have the Church War, or recommend the Hive system early, but that kind of interventionist letter is less interesting to me than just what you would say. Mycroft would certainly write to Voltaire and Diderot, and Alexander the Great, and Homer.

AREalRedWagon: JEDD Mason’s upbringing reminds me a lot of the education of the english philosopher John Stuart Mill. Both of them were raised to speak several languages and with the intent to foster some sort of society changing genius. Is this a coincidence or are the parallels intentional?

Ada: Yes, Mill was one inspiration, but even more so Montaigne whose father experimented by raising his son speaking only Latin throughout childhood, hoping to sculpt a more ideal scholar/philsopoher/statesman. Experimental upbringing, especially doing strange things with languages, has been tried by those with a philosophical interest from time to time, often with fascinating results, so I was interested in examining it.



A_S00: Given your attention to details like staple grains of historical societies, and your correspondence with Steve Brust (mentioned in the acknowledgments of The Will to Battle), you must have given some thought to the foods of the 25th century. Most of what we’ve seen so far, however, is what we eat today (e.g., the sushi provided to Mycroft by Danae in Too Like the Lightning). Can you describe an exciting or unfamiliar food commonly enjoyed by the characters of Terra Ignota?

Ada: And best for last, food…

So they have programmable kitchen trees, and cloned meat.

I talk about the kitchen tree a bit on Fran’s Cooking the Books podcast, but it’s a major ecological innovation which allows produce to be custom-grown in the home, so it doesn’t spoil on transit and can be picked fully ripe, making for better fruit without preservatives, and less spoilage. The tree has bits of many plants grafted onto it and you program it to release the sugars and hormones that trigger each individual part of it to fruit. The trees can’t photosynthesize enough naturally to produce all the fruit a family needs, so they’re fed extra sugars from a kind of feed which goes into a tube, and is partly bought in sacks, produced from industrial farming, and partly from the algae tank which grows sugars for the home.

The cloned meat means that most of them never eat a formerly-live animal, though it’s legal for Humanists to eat whatever they like, for Mitsubishi to eat non-endangered seafood, and for Europeans and Mitsubishi to continue to prepare traditional ethnic dishes that will only work with a real dead animal and can’t be approximated with cloned meat. The cloned meat gets its protein and sugars much as the kitchen tree gets its extra stuff.

The cloned meat also means they can eat, in huge volumes, meat of creatures you would never normally get to eat for practical reasons, like panda, or chinchilla. Scientists have worked out what the most delicious animals in the world are and they clone those, so people don’t often eat beef or chicken or pork anymore because they can eat more delicious things. I never managed to make it fit in the text (it broke the mood) but Dominic’s carnivore roll is actually made of a huge steak of cloned hummingbird meat, lined with cloned wild boar bacon, larded with goat butter and cloned fat from something (I’m waffling about what) and rolled up in a big roll with spices and then glazed with a prune and persimmon based fruit glaze at several points in the baking so it has a crunchy sweet skin – hopefully I’ll fit at least the hummingbird detail fact into book 4.

As for restaurants, since you can go to any restaurant on earth with practically no effort, all restaurants have to be really good, or at least a minimum of good, so the general food quality is way above ours. One happy part of a mostly happy world!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.







Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email