Archive for Ada’s Personal News

Medical Leave Reflections plus Empathy Sphere Essay

Good news first, I have a new essay out in Uncanny Magazine, “Expanding Our Empathy Sphere Using F&SF, a History,” where I talk about my term ’empathy sphere’ meaning the collection of beings we consider coequally a person with ourselves, something which historically has expanded over time, and which is useful in thinking about why when we read old utopias, like More’s Utopia, or early SF utopias, they often don’t feel utopian to us anymore if they don’t have freedom for groups that are inside our empathy sphere but weren’t inside More’s (like lower classes, women, certain races, clones, A.I.s etc.).  It’s a useful analytic term and one several people have asked me to write about, and I also give a history of how SF has helped expand this sphere over time. I hope you enjoy reading it!

Less good and more personal news next, my health has taken a bad turn, bad enough that I have taken medical leave and had to cancel my fall teaching.  My medical team is still running tests (U Chicago has an exceptional hospital), and they don’t think it’s life-threatening, but it’s probably a circulatory system issue, with symptoms including severe dizziness, faintness, stumbling & falling, all of which make it very hard to do anything, including teaching. They’re still running tests, and generally hopeful that things will improve, but on a scale of months, not weeks or days. I hope to be well enough to teach in spring. As for writing, I’m doing some, since one of the hard things in this situation is to keep my morale up and nothing nothing nothing makes me happier than writing, but it’s still being slowed, alas, though may pick up a bit as the glut of start-of-leave tasks diminishes.

So I wanted to share some reflections on this.

One is that it is amazing how much of the resistance to taking medical leave came from me, not others. Even when friends, colleagues, disability staff at the university, and family were all encouraging it, even when I confirmed my employer policies meant I could do it w/o a bad hit to income etc., even when I was in the doctor’s office and the doctor checked a couple things and the first words out of her mouth were, “Well, you can’t work!”, even when the doctors took it so seriously they wouldn’t let me walk out of the office but insisted I wait for a wheelchair, I still immediately started protesting about, “Well, if I teach remotely from lying down… but this course is special… but if I have X accommodation…” etc. arguing back even against such reasonable arguments as, “Your body is failing to deliver oxygen to your brain! You know what you need to do anything?! Oxygen for your brain!”  Nonetheless, it took many days, much encouragement, and many repetitions of exhaustion & collapses for me to decide that, yes, everyone urging me to take medical leave did indeed mean I should take medical leave. (Important principle: in teaching all courses are special/unique, if you make exceptions for that you’ll never stop making exceptions.)

Where did my resistance to taking medical leave come from, when I was in the extraordinarily fortunate position of my employers, doctors, and family all being 100% supportive? (a rare and lucky thing).  Partly it came from not wanting to let others down, partly from not wanting to admit to myself that it was serious, but a big part of it also comes from narratives, from The Secret Garden, from Great Expectations, from a hundred other narratives, some classic some recent, in which chronic illness/weakness/invalidness is all in one’s head, or where it’s “overcome” by force of will or powering through the pain, so that even in the fortunate case where everyone around me was being supportive and great, those narratives of powering through were unconsciously deep inside me feeding my resistance to accepting that my doctors and employer aren’t exaggerating when they say, “Don’t work.”  This connects to something I discussed in my second-most-recent Uncanny essay, on the Protagonist Problem, that it’s very important to have a variety of narratives and narrative structures, and it can do real harm if one type of narrative or structure dominates depictions of a topic.  Some versions of this have been discussed a lot recently: back pre-Star Trek, when close to 100% of black women depicted on TV were housemaids, it did harm by reinforcing bad stereotypes & expectations; similarly today when a very high percentage of immigrant characters depicted on TV are shown committing crimes, it feeds bad expectations. In the Protagonist Problem essay I argue that it also does harm when a large majority of our stories show the day being saved by individual special (often chosen one or superpowered) heroes, since it feeds a variety of bad impulses, including the expectation that teamwork can’t save the day, and feelings of powerlessness if we don’t feel like heroes; the argument isn’t that protagonist narratives are bad, it’s that protagonist narratives being the vast majority of narratives is bad, because any homogeneity like that is bad, just as it’s important for us to depict many kinds of people being criminals on TV, not a few kinds overrepresented and others erased.

Image from one of many adaptations of “The Secret Garden”, showing the chair the audience hopes/expects he will soon no longer need, and the very special friends whose efforts (more so than his) will make the magic happen.

Thus, for disability, we also have a problem that depictions of disability tend to repeat a few stock narratives, not one but three really, which together drown out others and dominate our unconscious expectations. One form is is the disabled/disfigured villain, a holdover from pre-modern ideas about Nature marking evil with visible indicators (and virtue with beauty). Another is a person falling ill and dying, a tragedy, which ends up focusing on the friends and loved ones who help along the way, or who survive. Another is ‘inspiration porn’ (David M. Perry has great discussions of this) which has a few varieties but tends to focus on how heroic an abled person is for helping a disabled person achieve a thing (like Secret Garden where she gets him out of the chair) instead of on the disabled person’s achievements/experience, or to present “Look a disabled person did a thing!” but in a weirdly dehumanizing way, the same way you would write “Look, this monkey can play chess!” All of these make people resistant to accepting the label disabled, since, even though it’s really useful once you have (I had trouble for a long time) we associate it with being morally bad, being doomed, or being helpless and dehumanized.

The disability narrative most relevant in my recent situation, though, are the stories of ‘overcoming’ disability, where a person is either cured (through their own efforts or others’), or works hard and pushes through, so the disability becomes a problem of the past, that has been left behind. This often-repeated narrative (present in fiction and nonfiction) encourages the attitude of seeing disability’s disruptions to life as temporary and surpassable.  It means that, when I get a new diagnosis, my first thoughts even this many years into having chronic illness, are always about how long it’ll be until I overcome it, what I need to do to get past it, the expectation that it’ll be normal by spring/summer/December/whatever.  This often leads me to delay by weeks or months or longer taking steps to, for example, adapt my home to be more comfortable (like getting a lap desk so I can work lying down), and other changes dependent on expecting the condition to be here to stay.  I think, as a culture, we really hate telling stories about illnesses and disabilities that are here to stay.

I remember a conversation with a friend once about a situation where a medication good at treating their particular condition was taken off the market, and the parents of a kid with the condition contacted my friend to ask how to advocate or find other ways to get more of the medication, and the friend had to keep saying no that wont’ work, no you can’t get it, no you really can’t get it, no your doctor can’t write a special note, until finally they asked directly, “So what do we do now?” to which my friend answered, “Accept a lower quality of life.”  That phrase crystalized things for me.  I think in many ways no ending is scarier for us in narrative than accept a lower quality of life.  It isn’t a one-time tragedy like death, we have good narrative tools to write tragedy, and to transition focus to the characters who live on, commemorate, remember.  Accept a lower quality of life in a story means losing, giving up, surrendering, all the things we want our brave and plucky characters to never do, and then having to live with every day being that much worse forever.  It’s neither a happy ending nor a tragic ending, it’s a discouraging ending, and we rarely tell those stories.

All Creatures Great And Small, part of the PBS comfort viewing of my childhood.

I vividly remember the first story like that I ever met, it was a James Harriot All Creatures Great and Small story, about a man whose family had been coal miners, who really wanted to farm, and bought a farm, and worked tirelessly to do a good job, and was a really nice person and always kind and earnest (unlike a lot of the characters in the stories), but then his cows got sick and James tried everything he could to cure them but it didn’t work, and then the farmer came to tell him, with a calm demeanor, that he was selling the farm and had always promised his father he’d go back to coal mining if “things didn’t work out” (coal mining which in the 1920s-30s meant a much shortened life expectancy as well.)  James realizing how huge this was (accept a lower quality of life) despite so many efforts said, “I don’t know what to say,” and the farmer answered, “There’s nothing to say, James. Some you win.”  I still tear up just thinking of that scene, the cruel unspoken and some you lose applied to a whole long life-still-to-come, every day of which would be worse, and there was no other way. A big part of modern advancement is about avoiding there being no other way–offering insurance, social safety nets, appropriate grants–but it’s also an important type of story to tell sometimes, and one I really needed some examples of.  Why?  Because those stories, those phrases in my memory (some you win, and, accept a lower quality of life) are not where I think I am now, I’m still working hard on treatments and therapy etc., but I needed to have them in my palette of expectations of things that could be the case, to help me plan.  I needed those at the start of term to get out of the, “But surely it’ll get better in a couple weeks if I work hard,” mindset to the better attitude of, “The doctors don’t know how long this will last, I’d better plan in case it lasts a long time.”

If the only outcomes in our expectations are (A) powering through and it gets better, or (B) death/villainy/helplessness-forever, none of those archetypes will give us the sensible advice that it’s wise to plan long-term just in case there is a long-term thing that impacts quality of life. Because today a lot of those can be addressed with adapting tech/stuff/habits. I put off buying a lap desk for 2.5 months this summer, struggling to work lying down, since I didn’t want to waste the money if I was about to get better. But having a lap desk and turning out not to need it is much better than needing one and grinding on without. I also put off adapting the area around my bed to optimize for work, put off getting the new screen which finally today (Oct 7, I started wanting this in July!) got installed so I can have multiple monitors while lying down. I put off realizing that instead of watching chores pile up expecting to catch up when I got better, the household needed to discuss and make changes to reduce the total load of chores (simpler meals, paper plates, self-watering planters, planning! Also: thank you so much Patreon supporters, you made my new lying-down desk and canes and such possible!!).

I have to wear compression socks now, and I just got one pair at first and wore it for 2 months as it got grungier and grungier, always thinking “Won’t be long now!” until the doctors said clearly, “We don’t know that!” and then I bought more pairs with FIRE on them and now I like my fire socks and hate having to wear them way less! Morale is as important an adaptation to make in one’s home as mobility!

The some you win stories are extremely sad and shouldn’t become our dominant narrative, but they need to be in the mix, one color in the color wheel, to help people who do face disability to weigh the odds better, and not think well, in 90% of stories I know the person gets better so probably I’ll get better and this [desk/ screen/ cane/ adaptation] is likely to be a waste of money.  Because you now what’s a good thing even if the end of one’s real life story is accept a lower quality of life?  Accepting a quality of life that’s only 5% lower instead of 20% lower because you’ve adapted your home/ routine/ desk/ fridge/ breakfast routine etc. to mitigate as much of the negative impact as you can.  So here I am in what is probably the best possible lying-down desk, writing and producing more than nothing, but I sure would’ve produced more over the last few months if I’d done this sooner.  And I also would’ve been a lot more willing to say “You’re right I should take medical leave,” if I had believed my odds of recovering quickly were, say, 50/50, instead of, as narrative tells me, expecting that if I tried hard it was certain that I’d quickly power through (and that if I didn’t recover quickly that heralded either moral weakness, helplessness, or death, three things our minds work very hard to resist).  A broader mix of disability narratives whispering in the back of my unconscious mind, telling me there might be many outcomes and I should plan for many outcomes not just for the best, would have done so much good–that’s why we need variety.

As a coda to this discussion, chatting about it with Jo Walton, she pointed out that both my examples of accept a lower quality of life stories are nonfiction (Herriott’s fictionalized from real life, the other just real life), and that after she and I first discussed the Herriott story she tried hunting for examples of that kind of story far and wide but basically never found them, that she often found it as “a Caradhras, a mountain you can’t get over so you go under, never the end.” But recently she found several examples in the work of the extremely obscure and neglected Victorian writer Charlotte M. Yonge; it’s great to find one, but also to have confirmation from a voracious reader about how rare such narratives genuinely are.

Now, my other reflection is on academia not disability things.

When I finally decided on taking leave I joked to myself, “For academics, ‘vacation’ means when you do the work you really want to do, and ‘medical leave’ is when you actually vacation.”  But the reality is that even medical leave I’ve been finding myself doing minimum four hours of academic work a day, sometimes much more. It has been an interesting chance to see, both which specific parts of academic work absolutely can’t be cancelled or handed off to others, and just on the sheer volume of time that academics are required to give to things which are neither teaching nor research. Letters of recommendation wait for no man, ditto letters for other scholars’ tenure files, and mentoring meetings with Ph.D. students about their urgent deadlines; it’s one thing to set aside one’s own agenda but another to neglect things that other people really depend on. So here I was on full disability leave, with all teaching and research obligations on hold, something my university was quickly able to give, and yet I found myself working intensively from waking until dinnertime and still falling farther and farther behind even when the only work I did was letters of recommendation and inescapable paperwork.  In other words, at least when rec letter season is upon us, the paperwork and mentoring parts of academia are pretty close to a full 9-to-5 job even without teaching or research!  And that is for someone tenured at U Chicago, one of the most privileged teaching positions in the world, with a light load at a very supportive university.

As one friend put it, “I’m not a teacher, I’m a full-time e-mail answerer,” another, “I teach for free, it’s the grading and admin they pay me for,” another, “You can either produce research or keep up with email, but you can’t do both.” We need to factor this in as we think about how academia functions and what reforms to push for, and into how we teach Ph.D. students since things like email skills and time-management skills are absolutely essential to teaching and research when they need to be balanced basically like hobby activities squeezed into the corners of time we can scrape out around the full-time job of admin.  It doesn’t have to be this bad. Possibly the problem is best summarized when I was talking to people about a high-level search committee (i.e. hiring at tenured full professor level instead of junior level) and they said they weren’t going to ask for letters of recommendation until they got to the short list of finalists and would only ask for letters for those few, not everyone, “Because we want to respect the time of the important people writing the letters.” Subtext: we don’t respect the time of the less-high-status people writing the many hundreds more letters needed for junior hires. I genuinely think every academic field would produce another 80+ books per year if we just switched to only requesting rec letters for finalists instead of all applicants, and that’s just one example of a small change. In sum, anyone near academia needs to acknowledge that the real pie chart of academic work is depicted below, that we need to plan for that and remember that small changes to self-care or workflow (just studying up on gmail tag and shortcut things for example) can make a huge difference to reducing the unreasonable load and avoiding burnout, and above all that we should always remember that phrase–respect the time of the people doing X–when we plan how to organize things (syllabus, meetings, forms, applications, committees, etc.). And I’m sure a lot of this applies far beyond the academic world as well.

Meanwhile, between recommendation letters I can’t get out of writing, plus disability paperwork, doctor’s appointments, and working on getting my home adapted so my quality of life is diminished by a little instead of a lot in my present state, I’m definitely working-rather-than-resting more than 40 hours a week, and that’s a pretty typical illness experience. It’s good to know that going in, accept it, plan for it, carve out time for the inescapable tasks and to think of adapting the home as time-consuming (or something we should ask for help with!) Otherwise it’s very easy for a week, or month, or three months of ‘rest’ to be not at all restful, and the hoped-for ‘recovery’ to remain elusive.  I still have three months of leave before me and I’m definitely leveling up at how to make my leave actually be leave (delegating, adapting things, finding others to write letters when possible) but learning how to make leave actually be leave, and rest actually be rest, is definitely a skill one must level up at, and I think if we understand that it’s a skill (and perhaps tell stories about it?) we’ll be better at realizing we need to actively work to learn it when we (or loved ones) need that skill.

So, for now, I’ll be focusing on rest, and doctor’s appointments, and home adaptation, and things to keep my morale up, and writing (keeps morale up!), and getting ready for the release of Perhaps the Stars (!!!!!!!) but I hope these reflections are helpful, and many thanks to everyone who’s been supportive & helpful throughout.  I’ll see you soon when I’m either (A) better or (B) fully adapted to a partly-but-minimally-lower quality of life.

And if you enjoy my writing don’t forget about the Uncanny essay: “Expanding Our Empathy Sphere Using F&SF, a History.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

5 News Items: Podcast, Online Teaching, Gene Wolfe, Audiobooks, & Perhaps the Stars

Hello, friends – I have a proper essay underway, but short-term I have a five pieces of exciting news:

  1. My new podcast,
  2. An online history course I’ll be teaching this fall through U Chicago’s Graham school, which isn’t free but can be taken by anyone from anywhere.
  3. My Introductions to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun,
  4. A new Terra Ignota audiobook series is coming soon from Graphic Audio
  5. The approaching publication of Perhaps the Stars, the fourth and final volume of Terra Ignota.

First I have a podcast now!

It’s called Ex Urbe Ad Astra

Partnering with my good friend and fellow author & history lover Jo Walton (more on her below), we interview fellow writers, historians, researchers, editors, and other friends, talking about the craft of writing, history, food, gelato, and other nifty topics, with some episodes of just me and Jo having the kinds of intense writing or history discussions we enjoy. You can listen for free on Libsyn, on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, and on YouTube.  Those who support me on Patreon get new episodes early (and new ExUrbe posts early too.) 

Sample Episode: Speculative Resistance with Malka Older

The episodes in this first season are modeled on the kinds of panel discussions one has at science fiction conventions, and are long (an hour plus), and since our interviewees are all so interesting! Episodes of this season will come out monthly, with occasional bonus episodes, those are the ones with just me and Jo.

For those who aren’t familiar, Jo Walton is a voracious reader in a huge number of genres with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of genre literature, as well as the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of more than a dozen novels including Among Othersand an F&SF critic, author of What Makes This Book So Great and An Informal History of the Hugos. Jo and I travel a lot together when I go to Europe for research, and we’ve had such wonderful conversations over the years connecting dots between our shared interests in history and the writer’s craft that we wanted to share such discussions for more people to enjoy.

Interviewees in the first season (to give a sense of the range) include Malka Older, political scientist and author of Infomocracy, Jonathan Sneed, a Mars astrogeologist & astrobiologist, Ruthanna Emrys, a city/state planning & politics expert and author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, Mary Anne Mohanraj a wonderful writer friend and creator of Sri Lankan cookbooks, Max Gladstone, author of The Craft Sequence and a favorite friend to discuss the craft of writing with, David M. Perry, journalist, activist, and Medieval historian, Emily Cambias, game writer & editor/writer for Cricket, the children’s magazine company, and another writer friend Naomi Kritzer, author of Cat Fishing on CatNet.

Second, I’m Teaching an Open-to-All Online History Course This Fall!

I’ve long wanted to find a way to open up my teaching beyond the university, so through U Chicago’s Graham School continuing education program, and taking advantage of the Zoom skills we’ve all developed this year, I’m teaching an online course this fall on Saturdays, 10 AM to 12:30 PM Central Time, called FFAC10100 Monks to Voltaire: European Intellectual Transformations 1200-1750. It’s a version of a course I’ve taught for undergrads which starts with late Medieval thought and looks at four successive major revolutions in European ideas, scholasticism, then Renaissance “humanism,” then the 17th century’s “new philosophy” or “scientific revolution”, then the Enlightenment, presenting them in continuity and showing how they didn’t replace each other (as summaries often make it seem), but rather joined each other, continuing to thrive side-by-side. I’m aiming at a variant on a “flipped” model of a course, in which I will share the lectures as text transcripts people can read, and then the class sessions can be entirely Q&A digging in more intensively. If you’re interested, anyone can register for it, and you can learn more at the discussion I’m going to have about it with the Graham School staff on August 24th, which you can register for here: Conversations @Graham, August 24 | UChicago Graham

Third, My Introductions to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun

Tor invited me to write introductions for the new Tor Essentials editions of Gene Wolfe’s four book Book of the New Sun, collected into two volumes, Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel. It’s hard to express how formative these books were for me, staggeringly brilliant and ambitious SF which showed me how high I could aim, how deep world building can reach, and how complex a narrator can be. I haven’t felt nearly so nervous and impostor syndromy about a project in a long time as sitting down to write about these books, so seminal both for the history of science fiction and for me, but I’m really happy with the resulting essays, so if you’d like to read or reread (these are books designed for rereading!) some incredible SF with a little bit of my guidance, I can’t recommend them enough, especially to anyone who enjoys Terra Ignota.

Speaking of which…

Fourth, a new Terra Ignota audiobook series is coming from Graphic Audio

I’m extremely excited for this project, now up for pre-order. I’m planning to do a blog post about them soon, but while the Recorded Books audiobooks have a single actor, these are a cast recording, with many different performers playing the different roles, and it’s amazing how different that is in terms of things it can achieve. At my suggestion we’re trying a somewhat radical experiment, so the recording begins a note from Gordian saying the performances have been made in line with Gordian’s recommended genderblind casting practices, and then the casting of the parts is largely unrelated to the gender of the performers, so voices of all kinds are playing characters of all kinds, letting performers who never usually get to do a booming-voiced old man or a delicate child exercise those parts of their ranges, and adding an amazing additional layer to the book’s complexly-worked gender confusion, layering on top of how Mycroft’s use of pronouns often doesn’t match physical descriptions of bodies, and now it won’t match voices either, further encouraging the listener to question all Mycroft’s gendered language and to examine even more how perceived gender affects the way we judge or react to different characters. I’m also especially excited that, against this backdrop of intended ambiguity, the amazing casting director Alejandro Ruiz met my requests to be careful about representation, and found brilliant trans woman Kay Eluvian to play Carlyle Foster, and a nonbinary performer, Taylor Coan, to do Sniper.

Alejandro and I are also both excited about how diverse the cast is in terms of race and nationality, even with a performer from Mumbai to play Bryar Kosala, and we’re doing some double-casting, giving multiple roles to the same performers to encourage the listener to think about and compare them (Ganymede & Danae for example), creating intertextual links between different characters, modeled on the way the inestimable Jane Howell did it in her direction of her Henry VI sequence for the BBC Shakespeare project, my very favorite work on film. These recordings will be slightly abridged, as Graphic Audio usually does, adding some music and special effects and cutting things like “he said” “she said” or some of the descriptions designed to remind readers of who characters are or where they’re from since hearing a Mumbai accent will by itself achieve the same information reminder.  It’s been an absolute thrill working on the productions, and I couldn’t be more excited for the new layers they’re adding to what the books are already aiming at in creating a truly global-feeling cast of characters, and stimulating questioning and introspection about gender.

Fifth and last, the publication of Perhaps the Stars is finally close!

The fourth and final volume of Terra Ignota comes out October 19th, and it’s really for sure this time, it has a cover, and the final most finalest final page proofs are done, and all the Latin and Greek and other special characters are taken care of, everything! It’s up for pre-order on Bookshop.org and Amazon and Barnes & Noble and at all sorts of local indie bookstores (please support them if you can!). It may not feel like news that a book which has been planned for months to come out in October is actually coming out in October, but it’s hard to articulate how many invisible steps there are on the back end, including a somewhat-COVID-related continent-wide shortage of printing press time which is making book printers everywhere struggle for time spots to actually get the physical book made at the factory, pushing a lot of things back to 2022…. but not this thing! I’ll definitely be blogging more about book 4 in the coming months, but short version, there are only 2 chapters in the whole of book 4 which, from a craftsmanship point of view, weren’t harder than the hardest chapter in any of the earlier three books, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Self-Care & Healthy Work Habits for the Pandemic

Two hands holding cups of bright pink, deep red, and white gelato, with colorful protruding spoons.
Not really sure how best to illustrate this post, so have a beautiful gelato!

Short version: I’m posting today to share two files I made for my university. One is a Healthy Work Habits and Self-Care Guide for the Pandemic Crisis, which many people have said they found helpful and refreshingly different from others that are going around (details below).  Some bits are academia specific but most of it is applicable broadly, and I’ve left in the links to university services because it’s likely you can find such services .  The other is teaching-specific, a guide to Adapting a Syllabus for the Crisis, not focused on remote teaching, but on the fact that everyone on Earth is already on the verge of breaking down, so it’s vital to do all we can to structure courses and assignments to have a little more leeway, and paths to recover when students (and instructors) do break down.

I want these to help as many people as possible, so please download them, share them, excerpt them, adapt them, make a version for your school or business, use them any way you wish; while credit would be nice my only firm request is that, as you pass them on, you also pass on the wish to pass them on. (If you want .docx files they’re here for self-care and here for syllabus design.)

Long version:

Early this spring, as the COVID-19 crisis set in, someone on #DisabilityTwitter asked (I wish I could find the tweet) if others too had found that the self-care skills needed for chronic pain are the same as the ones needed to cope with the pandemic.

I was among many who answered “Yes!”, and soon a small thread was describing our experiences, that it felt almost like a superpower, already understanding the slow, invisible toll of constant daily trauma, the exhaustion that sets in, how to self-monitor, how to spot when you can’t do it and should switch to a different task (rest is a task), and how to fight back against that self-accusing voice inside that insists you should keep pushing through, and is plain wrong.  Worldwide health organizations have recognized this as a World Mental Health Epidemic, as well as a viral epidemic.  Chronic exposure to fear and anxiety (which are forms of pain), have a real, measurable traumatic effect on the brain, dealing neurological damage which is worse because it repeats every day, and which is affecting every human on Earth right now.  Symptoms include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, short temper, diminished higher cognitive functions like writing, reading, creativity, second languages and other skills seeming to vanish away.  Does that sound familiar?  It’s very familiar to me, the feeling of waking up one morning to find I just can’t do it, words aren’t flowing, my eyes keep straying from the screen, the Latin or Italian which made sense yesterday is just a wall.  This is not to say that the crisis hasn’t been bad for me and others with chronic pain, it’s like having the condition twice at once; not like, it is having two chronic-traumatic conditions at once, the usual plus 2020 (and with quarantine many aspects of treatment and care are harder, higher risk, or just not possible). But having the skill set there was still invaluable.

So I joined my university’s committee to adapt teaching for COVID in the fall, and made these guides.

A lot of it is stuff that’s always helpful, but polished specifically for the current crisis.  Here’s a little bit of the logic behind the things I tried to focus on, while the downloadable files themselves are more the focused methods than the abstract principles:

First, I tried to make it non-proscriptive. A lot of Pandemic productivity advice says “60% of people are more productive when they [wear a suit or whatever] so you must do it!”  So the other 40% of people should, what, get bent?  So I tried to focus on learning about yourself: try this work tip, then try the opposite, try different things to learn what helps you personally produce at your best.

Have another beautiful gelato. This one is two different flavors of pistachio: salted pistachio, and pistachio sorbet! What a glorious world that contains such things!

Second, I talk about self-care as a work task and a duty. Culture pressures us to skip it, that when corners need to be cut we cut rest, play, and sleep.  We shouldn’t.  When we cut those, we start producing less (in quality and quantity) in those hours when we do work.  It hurts our productivity as much if not more than cutting work tasks, and also makes us miserable.  I remember a dreadful article a couple years ago with the thesis If you want to be successful you have to work 60 hours a week like these rich CEOs, but when you looked at the breakdown of what they called “work” they counted in those 60 hours all their commuting time, the gym & shower, power naps, tennis with a colleague, lunch meetings. So, to be clear, if you worked 9-5 with a 30 min commute on each end they were counting that as 10 hours’ work for the CEO but only 8 for employees, and if there was a trip to the gym and dinner or drinks with colleagues after work the CEO got to count those too, increasing 10 to 12, but the employee didn’t.  If you counted only the activities that regular employees get to count as “work” the CEOs were working barely 35 max but the article was calling it 60 to advance this horrible false argument that only work-a-holics get ahead (a claim so many corporations want us to believe).  You know what that article showed helps people get ahead?  Having time in the day for rest, and exercise, and breaks, and games, and leisurely lunches, and spending time outside, and counting that self-care as vital to your work.  Most jobs won’t count that as work (and the offices that do have nap rooms & massage chairs & lego rooms often do that to entice employees to also ridiculously late and never leave), but we can at least count self-care as work in our minds, and tell our guilt reflexes that this is not where corners should be cut.

(And if you’re a Terra Ignota fan, remember how the Utopian Oath requires you to promise to take that minimum of rest and play that’s necessary for your productivity? And remember that in their society twenty hours a week is the default work week? Utopia’s standards of rest and play are very high, and skipping the self-care that keeps you at your best is oathbreaking just as much as skimping on work. Also, Unusual Frequency has awesome new Utopian travel mugs if you want to reconfirm defeating death and attaining the stars! And Cousin flags if you want to affirm doing so kindly while taking care of yourself and others.)

Third, I talk about the brain like an organ.  A body part.  Which it is, one we push to its max a lot in daily life.  So we should monitor it like one.  Tennis elbow affects 40% of serious players, so it’s common sense for any tennis player to learn about tennis elbow and how to watch for it to set in.  The latest studies I’ve seen show at least mild depression affecting 33% of undergrads, 41% of Ph.D. students, and in this pandemic it’s affecting a huge swath of the entire human race, so we should all learn about it, and watch for it, and train ourselves on how to mitigate it as much as possible while the symptoms are still mild, just like tennis players learn about tennis elbow. The only reason we don’t is that our culture stigmatizes problems with the brain totally differently from other organs, treats them as a failure of character or failure of will; they aren’t. “Push through the pain” is the wrong advice for that tendon in a tennis player’s elbow, and it’s the wrong advice for brain things too.

Fourth, I tried to stress in both documents that, in this situation, breaking down is normal.  Lower productivity is normal.  Grief, exhaustion, short tempers, snapping at friends, regretting it, they’re all normal.  We have to plan for that, expect it, brace for it, recognize that in a team or in a household these months are going to be everybody taking turns having small breakdowns – if we prepare for that we can help each other prevent the *bigger* breakdowns that are the real problem.  Voices inside will tell us that the days we wake up in the morning and sit down to work and just… can’t… deal, are bad, our fault, our weakness, failure, but all the neuroscience we have says it’s not our fault, it’s natural, it’s what brains do pushed past their limit, and our brains are past their limit.  So on the mornings when you sit down to work and just can’t deal, and the self-doubt voice inside looms up to say weak! failure! push back.  That voice is common too.  I hear it.  I still hear it after years of chronic pain and every saying that the pain is real, that I should take it easy, and all my friends being supportive, and my family, but something in our culture still makes us blame ourselves inside, weak! failure!  So if you hear that voice on mornings when you just can’t deal, try to summon up another voice to shout back at it: everyone on Earth is breaking down. Today my job is not this task–today my job is to take care of myself, and protect the work I’ll be able to get done tomorrow.  

One of many unfinished Michelangelos. We aren’t sure if it’s an Apollo or a David.

A closing thought: Early in the pandemic the anecdote went viral that Isaac Newton came up with his theory of gravity while he was quarantining in the country from a plague, and many people (not jokingly enough) used it to say we should have high standards for what we produce in a pandemic, or that if we don’t set high standards it means we’re not geniuses like him. The true fact (historian here, this is my period!) is that Newton did theorize gravity while quarantining, but didn’t have library access, and while he was testing the theory he didn’t have some of the constants he needed (sizes, masses), so he tried to work from memory, got one wrong, did all the math, and concluded that he was wrong and the gravity + ellipses thing didn’t work.  He stuck it in a drawer. It was only years later when a friend asked him about Kepler’s ellipses that he pulled the old notes back out of the drawer to show the friend, and the friend spotted the error, they redid the math, and then developed the theory of gravity.  Together, with full library access, when things were normal after the pandemic.  During the pandemic nobody could work properly, including him.  So if anyone pushes the claim that we should all be writing brilliant books during this internationally recognized global health epidemic, just tell them Newton too might have developed gravity years earlier if not for his pandemic.  And for a better historical model to use for how productive we should be in 2020, remember 1522-3, when Michelangelo was being hounded by lawsuits, and there was a political takeover crisis in his homeland, and he was  so stressed he wrote later that he couldn’t touch a chisel the whole time, he couldn’t concentrate on any kind of art, too stressed and scared.  Even Michelangelo, whom everyone agrees to call “genius.”  Breaking down is normal for everyone, there are no special geniuses immune somehow to the slings and arrows of outrageous 2020.  So next time you find a project taking longer than your planned, and your attention straying, and your ability to cope fading away, remember that if you’re getting anything accomplished in these months you’re already doing better than Michelangelo.  And then do some self-care.

The links again:

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.

Misc

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.

 

Food

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.

Hives

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.

Clothes

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.

Masons

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.

Brillists

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.

Utopians

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.

Bash’es

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.

Languages

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.

Gender

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.

Music

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

Campbell Award & Invisible Disability

With my wonderful father Doug Palmer after the Hugo ceremony.

Last night I was overjoyed and overwhelmed to receive the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the Hugo Awards ceremony at Worldcon 75 here in Helsinki, Finland. I was so overwhelmed by this warmest of possible welcomes to the field that I mounted the stage crying too hard to actually read my speech. I also mounted the stage with difficulty, leaning heavily on my cane. Here is a transcription of the speech I ended up giving, which I want to follow with a few comments. You can see a video of the speech here.

Thank you very much. I have a speech here but I actually can’t see it. I can think of no higher honor than having a welcome like this to this community. This… we all work so hard on other worlds, on creating them, on reading them, and discussing them, and while we do so we’re also working equally hard on this world and making it the best world we possibly can. I have a list with me of people to thank, but I can’t read it. These tears are three quarters joy, but one quarter pain. This speech wasn’t supposed to be about invisible disability, but I’m afraid it really has to be now. I have been living with invisible disability for many years and… and there are very cruel people in the world for which reason I have been for more than ten years not public about this, and I’m terrified to be at this point, but at this point I have to. I also know that there are many many more kind and warm and wonderful people in this world who are part of the team and being excellent people, so, if anyone out there is living with disability or loves someone who has, please never let that make you give up doing what you want or working towards making life more good or making the world a more fabulous place.

I have never discussed my invisible disability in public before, so I want to add a little more detail here for those who must have questions. In my case, the pain comes and goes, often affecting me mildly or not at all, so many of you have seen me singing on stage, or in the classroom, or speaking at a conference with no sign of any pain, but sometimes, as last night, the pain sets in ferociously, too much to hide.

As is often the case with this kind of invisible and intermittent disability, the cause of mine is complicated: for me it’s a combination of Crohn’s Disease (an autoimmune disorder primarily affecting the digestive system), plus P.C.O.S., and some other factors for which I continue to undergo testing. These conditions cause a variety of problems, including inflammation, swelling, and periodic spasms in my lower abdomen. Over the years, this has damaged the muscles of my pelvis. The damaged area can go into spasm at any moment, causing severe pain and difficulty walking, as happened last night. Sometimes the pain is gentle enough that I don’t even notice it. Sometimes it’s medium, so I can walk with a cane and work with effort but get tired easily. Sometimes it is too severe to let me walk or work at all. And once in a while it’s so severe that, without special breathing exercises, I can’t not scream. All medications powerful enough to deal with the stronger forms of the pain also make me extremely sleepy or out-of-it, too much to work, or teach, or give a speech at a Hugo ceremony. So last night, I faced the choice between revealing this to a large public, or turning down the invitation to go receive the honor that means so much to me. So I chose to go to the podium.

I had not discussed this in public before because being public about disability (especially for women) so often results in attacks from the uglier sides of the internet, a dangerous extra stress while I’m working hard to manage my symptoms. I have been open about my disability with my students and colleagues at the University of Chicago, every one of whom has been nothing but outstandingly supportive. In fact, much of the strength which helped me get through last night came from the earlier experience of discussing my disability with my students this past year when I had to explain that I might miss class for surgery. Their outpouring of warmth and support was truly beautiful, but I was also awed by how eager they were to discuss the larger issue of invisible disability, and to hear about how I’ve worked to balance my projects and career with my medical realities, a type of challenge which affects so many of us, and many of them. Thinking of their kindness helped me keep my courage up last night, when having an attack at such a public moment made it impossible to avoid having this same conversation in a much more public and therefore scary space.

A very happy person, in a lot of pain.

I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2004, in the third year of my Ph.D. studies at Harvard. My first attack came suddenly, with no warning signs, on the morning I was supposed to have administered the final exam for one of my very first classes. Thanks to good medical care, and careful control of what I eat, the condition went into remission and was mostly dormant for several years, but it took a bad turn in autumn 2012, and another very bad turn in October 2015, which is when the pelvic damage reached its present level. From October 2015 through June 2017, almost half my days were “pain days,” i.e. days I am in too much pain to do anything but lie down. If I’m strong enough to, I usually watch Shakespeare DVDs, my way of at least doing some primary source research on Renaissance history even when I’m too weak to read or type.

Despite my disability, I have managed, over the past few years, to accomplish many things: publishing award-winning academic articles and my book on Lucretius in the Renaissance, securing a tenure track job at the  University of Chicago, composing and recording CDs of my music, and publishing science fiction novels which have now received the warmest welcome to the field I could imagine: the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the Compton Crook award for best first novel, and finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. But the nasty flare-up that ate so much of 2015-2017 is the real reason that I haven’t posted to this blog much recently, and that the new Sassafrass CD still isn’t done, and that I didn’t do a “blog tour” for the release of my second novel, and that book four Terra Ignota still isn’t done, and that, for the first time, I’ve had to pull out of some academic publications I’d promised to be part of, and turn down invitations that my younger self could never imagine turning down. With more and more opportunities opening before me, one of the hardest parts of living with this disability is learning to say ‘no’ to good and worthwhile things because I need to save those extra days, not for projects, but for pain.

What I have done, what I am doing, I am not doing alone. I have had so many kinds of help from so many people. They were who my speech last night was supposed to be about, because if there is a triumph here, it is the triumph of what can happen when a community of warm, generous people come together. So there was a long list of people I was planning to thank in my speech. I have incredibly supportive parents, Doug and Laura Palmer — thanks to them, I’ve never had to doubt that, when I need help, it will be there. That feeling of safety is invaluable.  I also have incredibly supportive housemates Michael Mellas, Lauren Schiller, and Jonathan Sneed, who step up to take care of me when I’m incapacitated, and remind me to take my meds, and often notice before I do when I’m too weak and need to rest, and mean that I never have to push past my limits the way I would if I were alone. I have other friends who’ve helped in so many ways: Carl Engle-Laird, Lila Garrott, Irina Greenman, Jo Walton, and so many more. I have supportive communities:  my college science fiction clubs, Double Star at Bryn Mawr and HRSFA at Harvard, my childhood local convention Balticon, and the broader science fiction fan community and filk community. I have the numerous convention staff, liaisons, and friends who have known about my condition for years and been my “spotters” in case I had flare-ups at conventions, and who have kindly honored my request to keep it private. I have colleagues and administrators at my university who instantly rose to the occasion when I brought my condition to their attention, and let me know that if at any time I felt I could no longer handle my teaching duties, they could put things in place to relieve me within 24 hours. I have a team of the best doctors in the world at the University of Chicago Hospitals. (At the risk of making this even more political, I have the larger team who went to bat for America’s health care this year, and preserved the protections without which I could not afford the medications which are finally making my pain days less frequent, and my teaching and writing possible.)

As an author, I’ve had a world class team, too. My agents, Amy Boggs and Cameron McClure, put their all into both disseminating the books and protecting them. My editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, always does everything he can to give me the flexibility I need, and his indispensable assistant, Anita Okoye, makes the process run on time. My publicist, Diana Griffin, gets the word out that the book exists, without which it would never reach the readers who are the most important part of all this. My amazing cover artist Victor Mosquera whose covers keep stunning me every time I look at them again. Other friends at Tor and Tor.com help with advice and insights: Miriam Weinberg, Irene Gallo, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. My UK publishing team at Head of Zeus is also fantastic and I can’t wait to do more projects with them.

Nothing means more to me than the opportunity to pay it forward, to build on the immense generosity of everyone who has helped and given me so much, and to give back, through my teaching, my books, my blogging, every conversation, every day. So above all, I want everyone to know that everything I’ve produced, and everything I will produce during my life, living with this condition, is the fruit of the gifts of kindness, large and small, that I have received from so many, many people. Thank you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Seven Surrenders is Out: New Links Post

Ada’s second novel, book two of the Terra Ignota quartet, Seven Surrenders, is published today, so at last people who have been waiting since reading Too Like the Lightning last May can read it.

If anyone hates cliffhangers so much that they have been waiting to read Too Like The Lightning until Seven Surrenders came out, you can safely now read both, because there’s a proper pause at the end of Seven Surrenders before the other two volumes. You’ll still really want the other volumes, but it has satisfying volume completion.

The series will be complete in four books. The third book, The Will to Battle, is currently scheduled for December, and Ada is presently writing the fourth and final book.

Seven Surrenders is available in hardcover and e-book form, and is also now available as an audio-book, narrated by T. Ryder Smith.

Links to interesting and worthwhile reviews, interviews, and blog posts Ada has written about the book will be added to this post —  so more links will appear here as time goes on.

There was a Crooked Timber seminar on the books.

 

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Four Updates

fourdoctors
Carlo Signorelli, The Four Doctors of the Church, clearly pictured here as if they’re in a train designed by the same people who designed the luxury elevator in the Vatican

One day (soon! Soon I hope!) Ada will have time to make the more substantive posts here we’d all prefer, but for now I’m doing another brief update for her.

Some things come in fours — elements, doctors of the church, virtues, and this post.

First, fire, St Augustine, and fortitude: an intensive review of Too Like the Lightning by the erudite John Clute at Strange Horizons.

The moderately peculiar title may be intended to illuminate an inchoate suspicion that this tale may be all about how lightning precedes comeuppance (as always) but stops short of the thunder: Too Like the Lightning seems to be how two hundred years of an immensely complex and constantly negotiated peace are about to explode in an immense light show, leaving tatters, but does not tell us anything about the thump and consequence of landing. Its large loquacious cast—each member of which is significantly involved in maintaining a utopia responsible for the weal of ten billion souls—seems by the end of this volume to be running out of words: illustrated men and women about to char. You can almost feel the electricity.

This isn’t so much a review as a long essay. There have also been reviews on NPR, in the Chicago Tribune, and all over, as well as lots of interviews, including Scientific American. There are long lists of guest posts, interviews, and interesting reviews here.

giolitti
Giolitti, some of the best gelato in Rome

Second water, St Gregory, and temperance: The Gelato Atlas has been updated to include not only Gelateria della Passera, the great new place Ada spotted from fifteen feet away when it wasn’t even open — so exciting to have good gelato in the Oltrarno! — but gelato other people have found in Finland, Rome, the USA and other exotic locations.

Page-UsualPathToPub600x900Third, air, St Ambrose, and justice: the book The Usual Path to Publication has just been released, and Ada has a piece in it about how Too Like the Lightning came to be published. This project arose out of a question at a convention when somebody asked a panel about “the usual path to publication” and the title reflects the answer that there isn’t one, because everyone’s experience is different. This makes it fascinating to read, and especially for aspiring writers. E-books are available from Book View Café: http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/the-usual-path-to-publication/ Amazon: http://amzn.com/1611386020, B&N: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-usual-path-to-publication-shannon-page/1123876756?ean=2940158509636 and for Kobo: https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/ebook/the-usual-path-to-publication. It’s a physical book too, available where all good books are sold.  ( For example at Barnes & Noble and Amazon)  (Ada says: I’m extremely proud of this essay, one of my very best explorations of the art of the essay; highly recommended!)

jeromeFourth, earth, St Jerome, and patience (thank you for yours!) — after Readercon, Ada will be doing three events in bookstores in the north-eastern US. She’ll be reading from Too Like the Lightning, and I’ll be there too, reading from my new novel Necessity. We’ll also be discussing the books, answering questions, and signing books.

And here’s hoping the fifth element–aether, pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Ada actually writing a full essay here–will follow in the not-to-distant future.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email