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.
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.
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.
Fourth, 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.
Hello, friends & readers. This is a quick update to share links to a couple short essays I’ve written for other blogs.
My first science fiction novel Too Like the Lightning comes out very soon now, May 10th! Initial reviews and reactions have been extremely enthusiastic, and these days Twitter sometimes feels like a surreal dream, with authors I’ve admired deeply for years gushing over… me? (Karl Schroeder: “most exciting SF future I’ve encountered in years.” Ken Liu: “reflective, analytical, smart, beautiful.” Max Gladstone: “I’m kind of in love with this book.” Fran Wilde: “Too Like the Lightning = AMAZEBALLS! GET! READ!”)
In honor of the occasion (and to help pre-orders & first week sales which can do so much for a new author!) I’ve been asked to write a bunch of short guest blog pieces which I hope you’ll enjoy. You can also read the first four chapters up on Tor.com.
On SF Signal I have talked “Middle Future Science Fiction” i.e. SF set later than near future but while the majority of human culture is still on Earth, and why I think this is an exciting and new space for speculative fiction. Take-home quote: “We have many ways to talk about the End of History, so many that talking about the Future of History is now the novelty.”
Ten or so more guest blog pieces will be going up over the next weeks, many of which I’m very proud of, and I’ll gather and post links here. Meanwhile reviews on Barnes & Noble, Fantasy Literature and Romantic Times (<=best ever plot summary!) do a much better job describing the book than I can manage.
Here on Ex Urbe, with readers who know me well through my essays and travels, I can describe it a different way. I’ve poured myself into this book. This is the real thing, the centerpiece. You’ve seen my essays here. You’ve seen my love of craftsmanship, and rhetoric, of playful structures and framing twists, describing a stick in water as the “antagonist” or suddenly letting Descartes stray into a dialog with Socrates. You’ve also seen the depth of my empathy, my Machiavelli series which so many readers have written in to say moved them to tears, and moved me to tears too as I wrote it. I love essay writing, and history writing, but every bit of skill I have at it, every hour I’ve put in, I’ve put in for the novels. “Writing is a long apprenticeship.” That was the best and most important piece of advice I got from my favorite writing professor when I started college. He was right, and I took him seriously, wrote every morning for two hours before breakfast, did extra drafts beyond what class required, spent my summers and my breaks taking more writing classes. Hours and hours and hours. I love writing nonfiction, and I love writing essays, but it was these stories, the ones I wanted to tell in the novels which kept the fire burning through a long, long apprenticeship. Too Like the Lightning isn’t an easy book and it’s not for everyone. It takes a lot of concentration, reading with your brain at your best. It takes skill at reading genre fiction, at picking out the puzzle pieces of world building and piecing them together, which can be difficult if you aren’t used to reading in the genre. It takes patience as you watch very complicated things play out as fast as I could make them when you need to know so much to understand. It takes trust as the narrator and narrative take twists or show idiosyncrasies whose true purpose may not be clear until the end (or until the next book, which comes in December). I hate spoilers, and hate recommendations that give half the story away, and believe strongly that the very best recommendation is simply “You’ll like it, trust me” from a friend who knows me very well. So I’m not going to talk about the plot and themes and characters, since Romantic Times does that much that better than I can. I will just say that this book may be for you, if you like philosophy, and history, and challenging books that really stretch your mind, and new ideas about society and culture, and my essays here are a good sample. But you have to enjoy and be able to handle challenging world building. And above all you have to be willing to trust me, the author, that all the threads will come together, and that in the end the tapestry will be beautiful, the kind of tapestry I can only weave if you give me four books, 700,000 words, a lot more time and trust than I have with my essays here. I will absolutely keep writing essays for Ex Urbe (no worries there!), but if you have enjoyed them, then you may enjoy the real work they were practice for. It comes out in five days; hard to believe it’s real.
Meanwhile, the primary reason it’s been so very long since I wrote a proper Ex Urbe entry is simple: a fire at the end of February drove me from my home. Happily no family members (or books!) were harmed, but the complications of temporary quarters, construction and insurance have eaten the few hours research that already consumed by research and preparing for the book launch. I’m still struggling my way out from under the to-do mountain that has caused, but as I make my way out Ex Urbe is starting to get toward the top of the pile again, and I’m really, deeply looking forward to finishing the essay I did manage to start in February before fire became more than a metaphor. Meanwhile I’ll post here when new guest blog pieces go up. And I’ll try to write another little piece next week to share my feelings when the day comes. May 10th. Five days. So many, many years… five days!
Meanwhile, for general human edification, here are some photos of fascinating plants with cards explaining their interesting historic uses, which I got to see at the botanical gardens in Sydney Australia, where I was for a conference last month. (Did I mention I’ve been overwhelmingly busy?)
Second, due to a recent policy change in Italy’s national museums I was able to finally take literally thousands of photos of artifacts and spaces in museums that have been forbidden to cameras for years. I’ve started sharing the photos on Twitter (#historypix) so follow me on Twitter if you would enjoy random photos of cool historical artifacts twice a day.
Meanwhile I don’t yet have another full essay ready to post here, but I’m happy to say the reason is that I’m working away on the page proofs of Too Like the Lightning, the final editing step before the books go to press. I’ve even received a photo from my editor of the Advanced Release Copies for book reviewers sitting in a delicious little pile! It’s fun seeing how many different baby steps the book is taking on its long path to becoming real: cover art, page count, typography, physicality in many stages, first the pre-copy-edit Advanced Bound Manuscripts, then the post-copy-edit but pre-page-proof Advanced Release Copies, evolving toward the final hardcover transformation by transformation. My biggest point of suspense at this point is wondering how fat it will be, how heavy in the hand…
And now, a quick piece of history fun:
There is a dimly-lit hallway half way through the Vatican museum (after you’ve looked at 2,000 Roman marbles, 1,000 Etruscan vases and enough overwhelming architecture to make you start feeling slightly punchy) hung on the left-hand side with stunning tapestries of scenes from the life of Christ based on cartoons by Raphael. But on the right-hand side in the same hallway, largely ignored by the thousands of visitors who stumble through, is my favorite Renaissance tapestry cycle, a sequence of images of The Excessively Exciting Life of Pope Urban VIII. My best summary of these images is that, when I showed them to my excellent friend Jonathan (author of our What Color is Pluto? guest post) he scratched his chin and said, “I think the patronage system may have introduced some bias.” And it’s very true, these are an amazing example of Renaissance art whose sole purpose is excessive flattery of the patron, a genre common in all media: histories, biographies, dedications, sculptures, paintings, verses, and, in this case, thread.
These tapestries are fragile and quite faded, and the narrow hallway thronging with Raphael-admirers makes it awkward to get a good angle, but with much effort I think these capture the over-the-top absurdity which makes these tapestries such a delight. Urban VIII now is best known for engaging in unusually complicated military and political maneuvering, expanding and fortifying the papal territories, pushing fiercely against Hapsburg expansion into Italy, finishing the canonization of St. Ignatius of Loyola, persecuting Galileo, commissioning a lot of Bernini sculptures, and spending so much on military and artistic expenses that he got the papacy so head over heels in debt that the Roman people hated him, the Cardinals conspired to depose him (note: it usually takes a few high-profile murders and/or orgies to get them to do that, so this was a LOT of debt), and his successor was left spending 80% of the Vatican’s annual income on interest repayments alone. But let’s see what scenes from his life he himself wanted us to remember:
My favorite is the first: Angels and Muses descend from Heaven to attend the college graduation of young Maffeo Barberini (not yet pope Urban VIII) and give him a laurel crown. If all graduation ceremonies were this exciting, we’d never miss them! Also someone there has a Caduceus, some weird female version of Hermes? Hard to say. And look at the amazing fabric on the robe of the man overseeing the ceremony.
Second, Maffeo Barberini receives the Cardinal’s Hat, attended by an angel, while Pope Paul V who is giving him the hat points in a heavy-handed foreshadowing way to his own pope hat nearby. What could it mean?!
Next, the fateful election! Heavenly allegories of princely virtues come to watch as the wooden slips are counted and the vote counter is astonished by the dramatic result! Note how, propaganda aside, this is useful for showing us what the slips looked like.
In the one above I particularly like the guy who’s peering into the goblet to make absolutely sure no slips are stuck there:
On the other side of the same scene, our modest Urban VIII is so surprised to be elected he practically swoons! And even demands a recount, while the nice acolyte kneels before him with the (excessively heavy) papal tiara on a silver platter.
Now Urban’s adventures as pope! He breaks ground for new construction projects in Rome, attended by some floating cupid creature holding a book for the flying allegorical heart of the city:
He builds new fortresses to defend Rome:
He makes peace between allegorical ladies representing Rome and Etruria (the area right next to Rome: note, if there is strife between Rome and Etruria in the first place, things in Italy are VERY VERY BAD! But the tapestries aren’t going into that):
And finally, Urban VIII defends Rome from Famine and Plague by getting help from St. Peter, St. Paul, Athena, and St. Sebastian. Well done, your Holiness!
How about that for the exciting life of a late Renaissance pope? You get to hang out with lots of allegorical figures, and vaguely pagan deities as well as saints, and everyone around you is always gesturing gracefully! No matter they fought so hard for the papal tiara. Also, no bankers or moneylenders or interest repayment to be found!
More seriously, another century’s propaganda rarely makes it into our canon of what art is worth reproducing, teaching and discussing, but I often find this kind of artifact much more historically informative than most: we can learn details of clothing, spaces and items like how papers are folded, or what voting slips looked like. We can learn which acts a political figure wanted to be remembered for, what seemed important at the time, so different from what we remember. A tapestry of him canonizing St. Ignatius of Loyola would certainly be popular now, but in his day people cared more about immediate military matters, and he had no way to predict how important St. Ignatius would eventually become. Pieces like this are also a good way to remind ourselves that the Renaissance art we usually see on calendars and cell phone cases isn’t representative, it’s our own curated selection of that tiny venn diagram intersection of art that fits the tastes of BOTH then AND now. And a good reminder that we should always attend graduation ceremonies, since you never know when Angels and Muses might descend from Heaven to attend.
It’s an amazing, numinous feeling seeing the world I created materialize into a visual, quasi-real in such a different way. Of course, authors generally have no control over the cover art, which is something I have known for a long time, so I spent years preparing myself for a terrible cover. I even picked out the scene from the book which I thought would make the worst possible cover, making it look pulpy and the wrong genre, so that, if I imagined that cover, anything would be better. At one point my wonderful housemates even made a terrible CG mockup of the terrible cover, which I still treasure as a mouse pad, my long preparation bracing myself for the worst. (I will not post that image since it’s a spoiler, but it’s so bad!) It has made me smile and wince for many years.
When my editor said he thought the covers for the Terra Ignota series should be cityscapes, a different city on each of the four books, I was overjoyed. It was perfect. (And not only because if there are no characters pictured on the cover so they can’t look wrong.) Just as this blog is called “Ex Urbe” (From the City) because so much of what I look at is the culture and complexity of cities, and the identities, histories, peoples and events they shape, so this novel series focuses a lot on cities, especially the different global capitals which reflect the cultural and political developments which are the heart of this science-fictional world.
The Terra Ignota books take place in 2454, so some of its cities are present day capitals which I extrapolate forward, asking what Paris or Alexandria will be like in 400 years. Others are new cities founded as results of social, political and technological changes. This first cover shows the city where the action begins, Cielo de Pajaros, a “spectacle city” in Chile, built onto a mountainside overlooking the Pacific coast. The illustration has absolutely captured the idea of the city, built for people who want to enjoy the vista of sea and stone and sky, and the hundreds of thousands of wild birds which are encouraged to live around the city by “flower trenches” which run between each of the layered tiers of the city, and are seeded with native plants that encourage birds to feed and nest. The sheer, cliff-like surface shown here is even steeper than I had imagined, but I like it because it makes it instantly clear how intimately the city is bound to the flying cars we see coming in to land. These cars make it possible for cities like this to rise in areas that could never be reached by land, and for a teeming metropolis to leave the wilderness around it un-scarred, without roads, rail lines or shipyards, since the arteries which connect this city to the rest of civilization need nothing but air. Before I saw this illustration I had not visualized the cars and birds flocking together, but it’s perfect, a feeling of an exciting, technologically-sophisticated future with flying cars and high-tech cities, but also with birds and waves and sunrise, warm inviting colors, air and sea spray. A healthy future, and an Earth which advanced but still familiar, and welcoming. Positive. I think that is what I like most about the cover, the fact that the mood is right, suggesting a science-fictional future which is beautiful and positive.
Everyone involved in publishing this book–editors, agent, publicists, author friends–constantly complains that the book is impossible to pitch. Describing the skeleton of the plot doesn’t work because it leaves you with the wrong impression of what the style will be; describing the style leaves you with the wrong impression of what kind of story it will be. “It’s not like anything” is a frequent refrain when people try to come up with books to compare it to. My agent Amy Boggs told me that, when she was first reading the manuscript, she felt a little smug because all the other agents at her agency were complaining that they were drowning in dystopian submissions, and reading dystopia after dystopia after post-apocalyptic dystopia was a real downer, so she got to gloat saying “I’m reading this nice utopian book!” And it is utopian in some sense. I’ve also caught my editor on panels about the state of the genre, when he was asked about the super-popularity of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stuff which is saturating the field, saying with some excitement that he’s going to publish this great series set in an exciting, good future with utopian things going on. It made me smile. However, I myself am very careful about how I apply the words “utopia” or “utopian” to this book, since it’s definitely not supposed to be a perfect future. But it is a good future. And, for me, “utopia” and “utopian” are not quite the same.
I should say that I love dystopia as a genre (my first term paper way back in middle school was on 1984, Brave New World and We), and when I discuss it in analysis I always try to distinguish between what I call “a dystopia” and what I call “a dystopian work”. For me (these are my own idiosyncratic terms) a “dystopia” means a work that is about its terrifying future, more about the world than it is about the people in it, who serve as portals for us to see the world, and a dystopia–for me–generally also means a story in which the characters are living in the world but powerless to change it. In contrast I call “dystopian” works which are using a dark future setting as a background for a story which really is focused on the characters and their actions, and where the characters end up leading a revolution, or an exodus, or a counter-strike, or escape to a different non-dystopian place, or all the other ways of using dystopian elements as a tool for a wide variety of stories in which the world itself is not the protagonist, the way it was for Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin.
So, similarly, when I talk about a “utopia”–a work intending to depict an ideal future–that is not quite the same as a work which is “utopian” i.e. addressing the idea of utopia, and using utopian positive elements in its future building, while still focusing on people, characters and events, and exploring or critiquing the positive future it depicts, rather than recommending it. 2454 as I imagine it is not a utopia. There are many flaws and uncomfortable elements. For example, as you can learn from the Tor.com reveal (and the first page of the book) there is censorship, a very uncomfortable (and traditionally dystopian) element for an Earth future to have. But there are flying cars, and robot trash-collectors, and low crime rates, and spectacular cities, and awesome jobs, and high-tech fashions, and cool new family structures, and all sorts of things which are, if not perfect, a bit better than 2015, just as 2015 is a bit better than 1915, and a lot better than 1515. It is using utopia and commenting on utopia without being a utopia. But in our tendency to slot futures into different familiar categories (dystopian, cyberpunk, golden age, post-apocalyptic, space opera, eco-catastrophic, post-scarcity decadence…) it can be difficult to articulate what this future is like. It isn’t those.
That is why I think the cover is so excellent, the mood, the feel of it: warm with a bit of shadow, inviting, airy and numinous but also concrete, futuristic but integrated with the familiar realities of Earth. A future where humanity has done pretty well, botched some things but solved some others, created a lot of exciting innovations worth exploring, and has lots more still to do.
So, thank you, Tor, and Victor Mosquera, and Irene Gallo, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, for creating a picture which finally pitches Terra Ignota in a way that makes it feel like the books actually feel, when all the rest of us have failed!
The great New Horizons Pluto fly-by has occurred. We have our mottling, our iron colors, and large patches of light and dark which will keep astrogeologists like Jonathan active and excited for months and years to come. I wanted to make sure you all had a chance to see the NASA reports on the Pluto surface, and Pluto’s moon Charon, whose surface shows every sign of a very active interior.
I am also happy to announce that I have just launched a new Kickstarter campaign, to support the production of two new CDs of my music. “Stories and Stone” is a companion album to “Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok” containing variant arrangements of my Viking music, plus new recordings of my anthem for Space exploration and human progress “Somebody Will”. “Trickster and King” will be the first album recorded by myself and my singing partner Lauren Schiller as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King”. The whole first album and half of the second are finished and streaming online, so please listen and enjoy. And if you enjoy, please consider supporting the Kickstarter, and spread the word about it (NOW OVER – it was a great success, THANK YOU! Hear the music here). Much of the goal of this campaign is to raise money so I can afford to hire help, including my assistant Mack who works with me here on Ex Urbe and with other projects. I am having more and more demands on my time as teaching and research at Chicago become more intense, and especially as the release of my novels approaches, and the more help I can hire the more time I can devote to Ex Urbe posts and other creative projects. So if you’ve been wondering if there’s a “tip jar” or some other way you can support Ex Urbe, this is a great way, as is spreading the word about the campaign.
The finished album, to be released in August:
And the second album still in progress:
Somebody Will with guitar:
It’s hard to pick a single favorite track, but if I had to it is probably Hearthfire in five parts, with guitar performed by my (wonderful and Space exploration-championing!) editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden:
The first CD should ship in September, with an instant digital download when the Kickstarter finishes in August.
Meanwhile, to split the difference between Viking music and Pluto, I recently had the good luck of a daytime flight over Greenland in beautiful weather, so please enjoy this photo essay on the wild and icy geology of our own little planet, and the frosty habitat of our native Jotuns and trolls:
Hello, patient friends. The delight of brilliant and eager students, the siren call of a new university library, the massing threat of conjoining deadlines, and the thousand micro-tasks of moving across the country have caused a very long gap between posts. But I have several pieces of good news to share today, as well as new thoughts on Machiavelli:
The next installment of my Sketches of a History of Skepticism series is 2/3 finished, and I hope to have it up in a week or three, deadlines permitting.
I have an excellent new assistant named Mack Muldofsky, who is helping me with Ex Urbe, music, research and many other projects. So we have him to thank in a big way if the speed of my posting picks up this summer.
Because I have a lot of deadlines this summer, I have asked some friends to contribute guest entries here, and we have a few planned treating science, literature and history, so that’s something we can look forward to together.
For those following my music, the Sundown Kickstarter is complete, and it is now possible to order online the CD and DVD of my Norse Myth song cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok. In addition to the discs, you can also order two posters, one of my space exploration anthem “Somebody Will” and one which is a detailed map of the Norse mythological cosmos. CD sales go to supporting the costs of traveling to concerts.
I have several concerts and public events lined up for the summer:
At Mythcon (July 31-Aug 2), Lauren Schiller and myself, performing as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King” will join Guest of Honor Jo Walton for “Norse Hour,” in which she will read Norse myth-themed poetry in alternation with our Norse-themed songs.
Sunday August 9th, I have been invited do a reading of the freshly-polished opening chapters of my novel Too Like the Lightning (due out in Summer 2016) at the Tiptree Award Ceremony event honoring Jo Walton, who couldn’t make it to the initial ceremony but received the Tiptree this year for her novel My Real Children. The event is being held at Borderlands in San Francisco at 3 PM, and will feature readings by local authors, and music performed by myself and Lauren.
Monday August 17th, at 7 PM, I am joining Jo and Lauren again at Powell’s, where Jo will read from her books, Lauren and I will sing, and I will interview Jo and talk about my writing as well as hers.
Finally at Sasquan (Worldcon, Aug 19-23) Lauren and I will have a full concert, I will do another reading from Dogs of Peace, and I will be on several exciting panels.
Meanwhile, I have a little something to share here. I continue to receive frequent responses to my Machiavelli series, and recently one of them sparked such an interesting conversation in e-mail that I wanted to post it here, for others to enjoy and respond to. These are very raw thoughts, and I hope the discussion will gain more participants here in the comment thread (I have trimmed out parts not relevant to the discussion):
In this discussion, I use a term I often use when trying to introduce intellectual history as a concept, and which I have been meaning to write about here for some time, “Intellectual Technology.”
A little conversation about Machiavelli:
I have been reading your blog posts on Machiavelli. You write with tremendous learning, clarity and colour, and really bring past events alive in a brilliant way. But…….. I think you’re far too soft on Machiavelli!!!
I’m working on a PhD about him and it’s fascinating to see that nearly all present-day academics, and indeed academics during much of the second half of the 20th century, have a largely if not completely uncritical admiration for him and his works. He is lauded, for example as a forerunner of pluralism, and supporter of republicanism/democracy, yet his clear inspiration of Italian fascism is almost completely overlooked. The fact that Gramsci revered Machiavelli is dealt with by many scholars, but Mussolini’s admiration for him is hurriedly passed over.
Your post on Machiavelli and atheism is really interesting – in that context the 2013 book Machiavelliby Robert Black would be of interest to you…
Best regards, Michael Sanfey, IEP/UCP Lisbon.
Reply from Ada:
Michael,Thank you for writing in to express your enjoyment of my blog posts. I think your criticisms of Machiavelli are interesting and largely fair, and my own opinions overlap with yours in many ways, though not in others. I agree with you completely that there are inappropriate tendencies in a lot of scholars to praise Machiavelli inappropriately as a proto-modern champion of Democracy, republicanism, pluralism, modern national pride etc., all of which are characterizations are deeply inappropriate and also deeply presentist, reading anachronistic values back into him. But there is also a tendency, dominant earlier in the 20th century, to villify Machiavelli too much in precisely the same anachronistic and presentist way, characterizing him as a fascist or a Nazi and reading back into his work the things that were done in the 20th century by people who used some of his ideas but mixed them with many others. My way of approaching Machiavelli focuses above all on trying to distance him from the present and place him in his context, to show that he is neither a modern hero nor a modern villain since he isn’t modern at all. The question is separate, which you bring up, of how much to blame him or criticize him for opening up the direction of reasoning which led to later consequentialism, and also to fascism which certainly used him as one of its foundational texts. Here I find myself uncomfortable with the idea of historical blame at all, particularly when it’s blame over such a long span of time.
I tend to think of thinkers as toolmakers, or inventors of “intellectual technology”, innovators who have created a new thing which can then be used by many people. New inventions can be used in many ways, and in anticipatable and unanticipatable ways. Just as, for example, carbon steel can be used to raise great towers and send train lines across continents, it can be used to build weapons and take lives, so it is a complex question how much to blame the inventor of carbon steel for its many uses. In this sense, I do believe we can see Machiavelli as a weapon-maker, since the ideas he was generating were directly intended to be used in war and politics. We can compare him very directly to the inventor of gunpowder in this sense. I also see him–and this is much of the heart of my critique–as a defensive weapon maker, i.e. someone working in a period of danger and siege trying to create something with which to defend his homeland. So, imagine now the inventor of gunpowder creating it to defend his homeland from an invasion. Is he responsible for all later uses of gunpowder as well? Is he guilty of criminal negligence for not thinking through the fact that long-term many more people will be killed by his invention than live in his home town? Do the lives saved by gunpowder throughout its history balance out against the lives saved in some kind of (Machiavellian/consequentialist) moral calculus? I don’t think “yes” or “no” are fair answers to such a complex question, but I do think it is important, when we think about Machiavelli and what to hold him responsible for, to remember the circumstances in which he created gunpowder (i.e. consequentialist ethics), and that he invented other great things too, like political science and critical historical reasoning. The debts are complicated, as is the culpability for how inventions are used after the inventor’s death. So while I join you wholeheartedly in wanting to fight back against the distortion of Machiavelli the Mythical proto-modern Republican, I also think it’s valuable to battle against the myth of Machiavelli the proto-Fascist, and try to create a portrait of the real man as I see him, Machiavelli the frightened Florentine.
I do know Bob Black’s Machiavelli book, but disagree with some of his fundamental ideas about humanism itself – another fun topic, and one I enjoy discussing with him at conferences. He’s a challenging interlocutor. There is a very good recent paper by James Hankins on Academia.edu now about the “Virtue Politics” of humanists, which I recommend that you look at if you’re interested in responses to Black.
Best, Ada Palmer, University of Chicago
More from Michael:
First, I want to thank you for this fantastically detailed and brilliant response… I’d like to “come back at you” on consequentialism and some other points:
* Regarding your point about Machiavelli not being modern at all, I see what you mean, albeit you do say of Machiavelli in the post on atheism that “he is in other ways so very modern”. Leo Strauss certainly thought he had a lot to do with the introduction of what we know as “modernity”.
* When you seek to balance the need to fight against the Proto-republican myth and against the Proto-fascist myth, the first of those “myths” enjoys immeasurably wider currency than the second, and I ask myself, why is this?
* On the “intellectual technology” point below, and its being essentially neutral, in this case I wouldn’t agree with you, because we are not talking here about an object like gunpowder, it’s actually concerning something much more important. In ethical terms, Machiavelli took transcendent values out of the equation. As you put it, Machiavelli created “an ethics which works without God” – except that it doesn’t work!!!
* Machiavelli has had a questionable impact in regard to “realism” in International relations. You mention in one of the posts that he backed an alliance with Borgia so as to protect Florence, agreeing to offer money and resources to help Borgia conquer more – a very good example of Machiavelli‘s undoubted sympathy for imperialism.
PPS On the question of Machiavelli being an atheist or not, I really was fascinated by that part of your Ex Urbe writings. I’ve concluded that, whatever about him being an atheist or not, one could certainly describe him as “ungodly” would you agree?
Quick response from Ada:
I think “ungodly” does work for Machiavelli depending on how you define it; it has a connotation of being immoral–which does not fit–but if instead you mean it literally as someone who makes his calculations without thinking much about the divine then it fits.
A supplementary comment on “Intellectual Technology”:
I find “intellectual technology” a very useful concept when I try to describe what I study. Broadly my work is “intellectual history” or “the history of ideas” but what I actually study is a bit more specific: how particular kinds of ideas come into existence, disseminate, and come to be regulated at different points in time. The types of ideas I investigate–atomism, determinism, utilitarianism–move through human culture very much the same way technological innovations do. They come into being in a specific place and time, as a result of a single inventor or collaboration. They spread from that point, but their spread is neither inevitable nor simple. Sometimes they are invented separately by independent people in independent places, and sometimes they exist for centuries before having a substantial impact. When a new idea enters a place and comes into common use, it completely changes the situation and makes actions or institutions which worked before no longer viable. I compare Machiavelli’s utilitarianism to gunpowder above, but here are some other examples of famous cases of technological inventions, and ideas which disseminated in similar patterns:
The Bicycle and Atomism
Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for a bicycle in the Renaissance, and may have seriously tried to construct one, but afterward no one did so for a very long time. Then many other factors changed: the availability of rubber and light-weight strong metals, the growth of large, centralized cities and a working population in need of inexpensive transit, and suddenly the bicycle was able to combine with these other factors to revolutionize life and society in a huge rush, first across Europe and then well beyond. We have moved on from it to develop more complex technologies that achieve the same function, but still use it and develop it more, and even where we don’t, and cities would not have the shapes they do now without it, and it is still transforming parts of the world it has touched more slowly. Similarly atomism was developed and used for a little while, then languished in notebooks for a long time, before combining with the right factors to spread and rapidly transform society and culture.
The Unity of All Life and Calculus
Newton and Leibnitz developed Calculus independently at the same time. Similarly, both classical Stoicism in Greece and Buddhism in India roughly simultaneously and independently, as far as we can tell, developed the idea that all living things–humans, insects, ancients, people not yet born–are, in fact, parts of one contiguous, interconnected, sacred living thing. This enormously rich and complex concept had a huge number of applications in each society, but seems to have been independently developed to meet the demands for metaphysical and emotional answers of societies at remarkably similar developmental stages. The circumstances were right, and the ideas then went on to be applied in vastly different but still similar ways.
Feminism and the Aztec Wheel
For a long time we thought the Aztecs didn’t have the wheel. More recently we discovered that they had children’s toys which used the wheel, but never developed it beyond that. Which means someone thought of it, and it disseminated a bit and was used in a very narrow way, but not developed further because what we think of as more “advanced” or “industrial” applications (wagon, wheelbarrow) just weren’t compatible with the Aztec world (largely because it was incredibly hilly and didn’t have the elaborate road system Europe developed, relying instead on human legs, stairs, and raw terrain, which were sufficient to let it develop a robust and complex economy and empire of its own. The wheel became more useful in the Americas when European-style city plans and roads were built). Similarly Plato voiced feminism in his Republic, arguing that women and men were fundamentally interchangeable if educated the same way, and people who read the Republic discussed it as a theory among many other elements of the book, but didn’t develop it further (again, I would argue, this was at least in part because the economic and social structures of the classical world depended on the gendered division of labor, particularly for the production of thread in the absence of advanced spinning technology, which is why literally all women in Rome spent tons of time spinning–spinning quotas were even sometimes required by law of prostitutes since if there was a substantial sliver of the female population employed without spinning Rome would run out of cloth. Feminism was better able to become revolutionary in Europe when (among other changes) industrialization reduced the number of hours required for the maintenance of a household and the production of cloth, making it more practical to redirect female labor, and question why it had been locked into that in the first place).
In sum, there is a concreteness to the ideas whose movements I study, a distinct and recognizable traceability. Interpretive analyses, comparative, subjective analyses, analyses of technique, aesthetics, authorial intent, authenticity, such analyses are excellent, but they aren’t intellectual history as I practice and teach it. I trace intellectual technology. Just as the gun, or carbon steel, or the moldboard plow came in at a particular time and had an impact, I study particular ideas whose dissemination changed what it was possible for human beings to do, and what shapes human society can be. It is meaningful to talk about being at an “intellectual tech level” or at least about being pre- or post- a particular piece of intellectual technology (progress, utilitarianism, the scientific method) just as much as we can talk about being pre- or post-computer, gunpowder, or bronze. Such things cannot be un-invented once they disseminate through a society, though some societies regulate or restrict them, and they can be lost, or spend a long time hidden, or undeveloped. Elites often have a legal or practical monopoly on some (intellectual) technologies, but nothing can stop things from sometimes getting into the hands or minds of the poor or the oppressed. Sometimes historians are sure a piece of (intellectual) technology was present because we have direct records of it: a surviving example, a reference, a drawing, something which was obviously made with it. Other times we have only secondary evidence (they were farming X crop which, as far as we know, probably requires the moldboard plow; they described a strange kind of unknown weapon which we think means gun; they were discussing heretics of a particular sort which seems to have involved denial of Providence).
I realize that it would be easy to read my use of “intellectual technology” as an attempt to climb on the pro-science-and-engineering bandwagon, presenting intellectual history as quasi-hard-science, much as we joke that if poets started calling themselves “syllabic engineers” they would suddenly be paid more. But it isn’t a term I’m advocating as a label, necessarily. It’s a term I use for thinking, a semantic tool for describing the specific type of idea history I practice, and linking together my different interests into a coherent whole. When I spell out what I’m working on right now as an historian, it’s actually a rather incoherent list: “the history of atheism, atomic science, skepticism, Platonic and Stoic theology, soul theory, homosexuality, theodicy, witchcraft, gender construction, saints and heavenly politics, Viking metaphysics, the Inquisition, utilitarianism, humanist self-fashioning, and what Renaissance people imagined ancient Rome was like. And if you give me an hour, I can sort-of explain what those things have to do with each other.” Or I can say, “I study how particularly controversial pieces of new intellectual technology come into being and spread over time.”
In that light, then, we can think of Machiavelli as the inventor of a piece of intellectual technology, or rather of several pieces of intellectual technology, since consequential ethics is one, but his new method of historical analysis (political science) is another. We might compare him to someone who invented both the gun and the calculator. How do we feel about that contribution? Positive? Negative? Critical? Celebratory? I think the only universal answer is: we feel strongly.
I have news to share, though not yet a new post in my Skepticism series, so thank you for your patience on that. I will have a post up tomorrow, though, on a different topic. But for now, news:
First, I’m leaving Texas and starting this fall in a new position as an Assistant Professor in the History Department of the University of Chicago! I’m positively giddy. The university and department are so excellent, and when I visited campus the student conversations I overheard were about Marx and Hegel instead of football, and Chicago is a grand metropolis filled with libraries and museums and architecture and food, and I’ll have grad students! Real grad students! So, in the academic sense, as my dissertation advisor said when he heard the news, “now there will be grandchildren.” Anyone with thoughts or advice on moving to Chicago, please share them!
Second, my academic book is now up for pre-order on Amazon. And it has a gorgeous cover! (And relevant, since the diagram is from one of my manuscripts.) It’s also on Harvard University Press’s page, where the money goes to the press, but they (A) don’t have a pre-order option and make you wait until September, and (B) charge $9 more than Amazon, so I understand many of those who want the book will prefer the easy, instant purchase to the inconvenient, expensive one even if the latter helps the press.
Here’s the write-up from the publisher:
After its rediscovery in 1417, Lucretius’s Epicurean didactic poem De Rerum Natura threatened to supply radicals and atheists with the one weapon unbelief had lacked in the Middle Ages: good answers. Scholars could now challenge Christian patterns of thought by employing the theory of atomistic physics, a sophisticated system that explained natural phenomena without appeal to divine participation, and argued powerfully against the immortality of the soul, the afterlife, and a creator God.
Ada Palmer explores how Renaissance readers, such as Machiavelli, Pomponio Leto, and Montaigne, actually ingested and disseminated Lucretius, and the ways in which this process of reading transformed modern thought. She uncovers humanist methods for reconciling Christian and pagan philosophy, and shows how ideas of emergent order and natural selection, so critical to our current thinking, became embedded in Europe’s intellectual landscape before the seventeenth century. This heterodoxy circulated in the premodern world, not on the conspicuous stage of heresy trials and public debates, but in the classrooms, libraries, studies, and bookshops where quiet scholars met the ideas that would soon transform the world. Renaissance readers—poets and philologists rather than scientists—were moved by their love of classical literature to rescue Lucretius and his atomism, thereby injecting his theories back into scientific discourse.
Palmer employs a new quantitative method for analyzing marginalia in manuscripts and printed books, exposing how changes in scholarly reading practices over the course of the sixteenth century gradually expanded Europe’s receptivity to radical science, setting the stage for the scientific revolution.
“This is a brilliant scholarly work that is deeply relevant to today. In exploring the influence of Lucretius on the Renaissance, Ada Palmer shows how the modern world became open to the ramifications of mechanical science. More broadly, her book is a fascinating look at how ideas ripple and spread.” —Walter Isaacson
I promised to be direct and honest when I talked about this book here. This is not a lite, lively fun history like the essays I post on Ex Urbe. It’s a formal academic history. Ex Urbe readers will find that the beginning and the end are in the familiar, strong-strokes voice you’re used to (I moved myself to tears last night doing the page proofs of the Conclusion, a good sign at a stage when one is usually so sick of the manuscript as to be exhausted by the sight of it!) but the middle is meticulous and detailed, and unavoidably a bit dry. It has to be. It’s new data, and new data has to be presented in full, with charts and lists and all that opposite-of-jazz. I’m taking on a big question: how we got from the alien mindscape of the Medieval world to the familiar modern one, specifically looking at how we evaluate true and false, and how we use science and religion in our daily lives. I can’t say something new about that without justifying it with facts and endnotes. This is the fruit of my years of research on manuscripts and marginalia, and I use my results to build up a portrait of how exactly thinking, scholarship and above all reading changed between 1400 and 1600 and how that transformed the way people thought about science and religion leading to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. There are many facets to how we got from Dante and Aquinas to Newton and Voltaire, and many people have addressed the question, but usually they look at the leaders and firebrands rather than looking, as I have, at the anonymous reading public where the deeper mass transformation had to happen for ideas which were once radical heresies to become comfortable parts of daily life. To put it another way, if you read or heard about Stephen Greenblatt’s bookThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern (which won the Pulitzer in 2012 and which I am proud to say I helped with a little bit) it treats the same topic, the rediscovery of Lucretius which suddenly gave Europe access to radical materialism, but The Swerve is about the thrill of the discovery, not its context, cause or mechanism. As I say in my own introduction: “Previous studies have described the epicenter or the ripples–I shall endeavor to describe the medium that carried the ripples so far.”
So, that’s my first academic book. If it sounds exciting to you, it’ll be out in September-ish 2014 through Amazon or HUP, or your preferred library or other book source. And if you’re a bookstore person here’s the flier with the special bookstore info. If it sounds like it’s not your thing, no worries: 2015 will bring the novels, and the fun stuff on Ex Urbe will continue to flow.
My third piece of news is that, at the end of this May, I’m embarking on a train tour of major cities of the USA, accompanying my good friend and fellow Tor novelist Jo Walton as she tours with her new novel My Real Children (a 20th century alternate history story about life, small choices, and gelato, that makes everybody cry.) Starting at Balticon and culminating with Readercon and then Worldcon in London, it’ll be an exciting hop through many cities as I meet librarians and bookstore owners, plus Jo and I have a quest to eat great food with awesome people as many times as possible. And on June 22nd, when Jo does her reading in the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe (an excellent independent venue owned by George R. R. Martin), I will do a concert of my music (some Viking some not) joined by my duet partner Lauren Schiller, performing as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King.”
If any Ex Urbe reader (or Sassafrass friend) would like to come to one of the readings and say hello, please let me know in the comments here.
21st June, 3pm, Page One Books, Albuquerque, followed by dinner with local SF group
22nd June, 7pm Jean Cocteau Cinema, Santa Fe, with Sassafrass: Trickster and King <= me & Lauren
28th June, ALA, Las Vegas, panel, signing, banquet
10-13 July Readercon, Burlington MA (Just Ada, no Jo)
August 14-19 Worldcon, id est Loncon3, London, England
That’s it for today. Tomorrow I will have a full post up, discussing an exciting new novelette, and in a few weeks we’ll have more Skeptics, once I’ve escaped the stack of deadlines that are looming on my desk all saying “May!”
Hello, all. I am happy to announce that some recent, positive life changes mean that I’m now sufficiently comfortable in my career that I don’t feel I need to keep this blog anonymous anymore.
So, here I am: Ada Palmer, historian, a writer, composer. I am an Assistant Professor in the History Department of Texas A&M University, where I teach mostly the Italian Renaissance, and long-term intellectual history. My first academic book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, which talks about the rediscovery of classical science in the Renaissance and its impact on science and religion, is coming out in Summer 2014 from Harvard University Press. I also write science fiction and fantasy, and I am delighted to announce that my first science fiction novel is coming out from Tor Books in 2015.
I also compose and perform a cappella music for the a cappella folk group Sassafrass. Our big Viking mythology project, Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, should be released on CD and DVD this summer (thanks to Kickstarter, hooray!). And on the side I write Ex Urbe, and sometimes write articles or book introductions about anime and manga (another area I research). I sometimes work as an historical consultant for various manga and anime companies. It’s an eclectic mix, but that’s what generates the eclectic mix of topics, and approaches to topics, that I explore here. For me, writing Ex Urbe is fun because it lets me share and explore the exciting things I run across and think about during my history research and teaching, but in a more freeform and open way, without the constraints of academic publishing, not to mention its infinite delays.
In other fun news, I am now blogging for Tor.com. I have two posts up now, one on Ragnarok and one on horror manga. From now on, I will add links here whenever I have a new Tor.com post, and I will also make little announcements as my various publications approach, so you can see whether you think you’d enjoy the historical monograph, or the music, or the novels. And I hope that seeing how much I’m doing will help you understand why I update Ex Urbe fairly rarely. If there’s a long gap between entries, you can assume it’s because there’s either a research trip or a deadline for some exciting project on my plate, and henceforth I’ll post from time to time to tell you what those projects are. You can also follow me on Twitter (Ada_Palmer); I use it rarely, either for announcements or to share fun history things.
And this seems like a good moment to thank you all for reading, and for the many enthusiastic comments and e-mails I have received over the past years. Ex Urbe is a substantial amount of work, and when deadlines press it sometimes gets hard for me to convince myself that it’s worthwhile to take time away from grading and copy edits to write blog entries. But the enthusiastic feedback here, combined with the genuinely stimulating responses and discussions that get going in the comments, continually re-convince me that this too is a very valuable way I can contribute to the Great Conversation. I think Socrates agrees.
And now I shall leave you to enjoy the second installment of my Sketches of a History of Skepticism series, which I posted a few seconds ago.
After the long silence since my last post, I wanted to put up something quick to reassure friends and readers who might find the silence worrisome. I am currently in Italy, with my academic conference duties done, my laptop broken and my camera battery fried, so, with no means of being practically productive and a holiday before me, I have no choice but to tromp about museums and enjoy myself. Accompanied by two good friends, I have carried on a lot of valuable debate with fellow historians, as well as philosophers and classicists. I have also researched many manuscripts, books, paintings, sculptures and other artifacts, along with many varieties of cheese, pasta, cold cuts, gnocchi, meatballs, roasts, fruits, pizzas, and, of course, gelatos. Sometimes fate is kind.
I am brimming with ideas for new posts, which I will start on as soon as I’m not on a borrowed machine and unstable hotel internet. I appreciate your patience. Meanwhile I will share a piece of Italian art fun:
This is an illuminated image from a Renaissance manuscript in the Laurenziana library in Florence. From a page of the French translation of a 14th century Latin History of Rome, the Romuleon compiled by Benvenuto da Imola, this image shows the illustrator’s imagined version of the Carthaginian army camp. In addition to armor and siege preparation, you can see a tent on the right-hand side where a doctor is performing surgery on a wounded officer’s leg. This kind of image is extremely valuable for historians, in learning about what the Renaissance imagined the ancient world was like, which was very much not what we imagine it was like. Hannibal’s lovely gold slit-sleeved coat and colorful hat are particularly choice touches. This type of illustration is also useful as a snapshot for historians attempting to reconstruct information about fleeting artifacts of Renaissance culture, like tents, plumes, the little bottles you used for a meal, or for medical treatment, things which rarely survive in physical form but are casually depicted here by an artist imagining a camp scene, complete with a doctor’s equipment. The illustration itself takes up a whole manuscript page, so pretty close in size to what you probably see on your computer screen: