Polymath historian-novelist Ada Palmer has just published Seven Surrenders, the long-awaited sequel to her astounding debut novel Too Like the Lightning, in which she continues to spin tales in an intricately devised, wonderfully original 25th century.
In an editorial on Tor Books's blog today, Palmer brings her historian's expertise to the fore, reflecting on how eras are defined by their successor eras -- how what our present thinks about our past tells you as much about the present as it does about the past.
This is remarkably relevant to Palmer's novels, which can teach you more about history and futurism (and our present) than any history book on its own. If you're interested in reading (or participating in) a fascinating discussion of Palmer's work, I heartily recommend Crooked Timber's ongoing seminar on Seven Surrenders, which kicked off yesterday with an opening salvo from Jo Walton and continues today with this essay by Henry Farrell.
What if they call these centuries the Genocidal Age? Or the World War Era? Such names are simultaneously deeply upsetting, predicting that we will be remembered above all for our darkest failures, and strangely hopeful, since they imply futures where humanity has moved beyond such things. Calling it the Early Mormon Era, like the Early Christian Era, makes a whole sequence of historical and cultural changes play out in the reader’s mind with just three words. What if this future that calls our age the Space Age? If the 2400s see themselves as being as far beyond the Space Age as we are beyond Shakespeare, then either humanity has given up on space exploration, and considers it a blip in their past like the 19th century vogue for spiritualism or the 12th century obsession with Aristotle–or it means there’s some new frontier beyond space which makes the Space Age feel as quaint to this future as the Age of Sail does to us. The Screen Age. The Digitization. The Greenhouse Era. The Educational Revolution. The Age of Capital. The Age of Free Capital. The Age of Capital Lockdown. By showing what characteristic looms largest in the future’s memory of now, each name does tons of world-building, or rather world history building, in one short phrase.
Even more can be packed in if you use a historical name which—like Late Antiquity or Early Industrial Revolution—implies that our centuries are mostly important for their relation to some even more important neighboring era. If this is the Prepandemic Age, then 2100+ are going to be very bad centuries; if this is the Late Pandemic Age, they’re going to be great centuries. The Early Unification. The Late National Era. The Late Surface Era. The Interimperium. The Truce. The Early Digital Ages. The Late Digital Ages. Comparative labels with a strong judgment—positive labels, negative labels—can also imply enormous amounts about what comes after the 21st century. Are we the Dark Digital Age? Or the Golden Digital Age? Are we the Dark Interracial Age? The Golden Interracial Age? Entire future histories spin out in the imagination from each one.
Seven Surrenders [Ada Palmer/Tor]
What the Future Will Call This Era