Will the people of the future still be reading classical literature and thinking about ancient exempla – and, if so, in what ways? This isn’t a topic that gets a great deal of attention in science fiction; I’m not thinking of the sorts of books that imagine a new Roman Empire with spaceships (see this list – the Trigan Empire lives!) or which deploy classical motifs as a key plot element (hello BSG) but rather those that try to imagine the world of the future in its own terms, but take the time to mention whether anyone still references Thucydides.
Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books, Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders – still, absurdly, showing no signs of getting published in the UK – are a spectacular exercise in world-building, imagining humanity in a post-religion, post-state 25th Century, to the point where at times the narrative seems to serve the delineation of a complex, contradictory, multi-faceted future society as much as the other way round. It’s an enormously rich text based on deep learning, and intellectual flexibility in imagining the different ends to which such learning might be put. I can only urge you to buy the books (trans-Atlantic postal charges be damned) and then head over to Crooked Timber where a book seminar has been running for the last week or so. I’ve contributed some musings on the role of different theories of history both in the imagined future and in its construction (comments already closed, so feel free to continue conversation here), but inevitably I had more thoughts than could be accommodated in a single post.
A minor theme in the elaborate intellectual and cultural architecture of the novels – Palmer’s day job is as a historian of ideas, and the depth of learning in the books is astounding – is the reception of classical antiquity. This is a world where classical names and allusions are commonplace: we have a Caesar, albeit with his capital in Alexandria rather than Rome for reasons that are clearly explained; a Senate and a rostrum, quaestor, tribunes and Censor in Romanova; the use of classical forms in buildings and gardens to signify power or learning; references to Epicureanism, Cynicism, Plato and Aristotle; Odysseus, Achilles and the Iliad; the idealisation of Sparta (albeit secretly, communicated to those in the know through the absence of decoration in a particular living complex, bearing in mind that this is a society that largely prides itself on achieving three hundred years of peace); passing references to Athens against Sparta, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and above all the conquests of Alexander.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that this list is incredibly conventional, and that the image of the classical world it offers is that of the old Glory That Was Greece, Grandeur That Was Rome tradition. What we see in Palmer’s world is, intentionally, partly if not entirely the reception of a reception; the 25th Century’s conception of classical antiquity is based above all on the version of it presented and discussed by the 18th-century Enlightenment with which its leading figures are obsessed. Both societies look back to Greece and Rome for a model of political organisation before and/or beyond the nation state (the close-knit organic community of the polis, the empire that extended citizenship to anyone who chose to adopt its values), for an example of a society focused on philosophy and culture, and above all (especially in the 25th) for a world predating and opposed to the monotheism that had led to the appalling destruction of the Church War (in their past, our future).
In other words, like all the other societies where classical reception is a thing, they adopted an idealised version of antiquity that perfectly suits their purposes, mistaking it (to some degree, at least) for the real thing, insofar as that matters. But the image of antiquity in Terra Ignota is not wholly sanitised or simple. As noted above, both the Iliad and the Spartan Mirage persist, offering a disruptive and martial set of ideals out of step with a world of peace; the ghost of Thucydides hovers in the background, in cahoots with Hobbes, persuading at least a few people that war may be inevitable and even necessary or desirable as the expression of human nature or the engine of progress. Our narrator, Mycroft Canner, is a kind of slave – he’s a Servicer, atoning for appalling (but possibly necessary) crimes by doing whatever work is demanded of him in return for food – and as a result has a powerful sense of the dark side of classical civilisation, accentuated by fact that he’s proudly Greek in heritage (indeed, I wonder whether there’s an underlying dynamic of Horace’s Graecia capta line in the way that the ever-subservient Mycroft exerts his influence into every corner of this world).
The questioning of different aspects of the classical legacy becomes stronger in the second book, Seven Surrenders, as buried tensions and contradictions come to the surface, and the veneer of eighteenth-century civility and rationalist starts to fracture. In particular, it raises the question of whether one should wish to be ruled directly by a god – since they happen to have one on hand: J.E.D.D. Mason is (or at least is believed to be, and believes himself to be) an incarnate deity, just from a different universe, whom the leaders of the world have raised as their own child to be placed at the head of society. Cornelius MASON, the Emperor, who in any case speaks largely in Latin, makes the explicit comparison: “The mad Roman Emperors had themselves proclaimed gods, and inflicted unspeakable horrors on their subjects, but the sane ones were proclaimed gods too, and they did fine.” The future of this future is envisaged not as the radical, rational Enlightenment but as the apotheosis of enlightened despotism, Caesarism taken to its limits.
But there is concerted opposition to such a development, and Seven Surrenders ends with society on the brink of stasis (in its full sense, not just as civil war but the total dissolution of social bonds into factions and fragments, and the questioning of foundational values). The idea of an absolute pax Romana rediviva and imperium sine fine is confronted with a resurgence of older classical ideas: the pitiless power politics of Thucydides (at least in a Hobbesian reading) and the martial ideals of the Iliad. Apollo Mojave had treasured his copy of the poem and started writing his own version, with people controlling giant battle robots, as the only way of conceiving of individual heroism in the technological age; a dramatic reimagining of Marx’s question in the Grundrisse, “Is Achilles possible with powder and lead?” – to be answered in the third book, one assumes, as the second has concluded with the resurrection of Achilles himself
Towards the end of Seven Surrenders, J.E.D.D. Mason reflects on the fact that, unlike in his own universe, the god of this one has created time:
I am nowhere near understanding Time. It seems to be a direction in which sentience can only move one way and perceive the other, but it also destroys, and twists and swallows, making legacies differ from, or even oppose, intent. It annihilates, repeats, erases. It is too alien to me.
It’s easy to read this as metacommentary not only on the enterprise of science fiction as a whole but specifically on the processes of classical reception both depicted in and underpinning Palmer’s novels. On the one hand, reception offers a kind of return to or revival of the past that has been erased by the passage of time (though that cuts both ways: repetition can weight like a nightmare on the brains of theliving as much as it offers a means of recovering lost wonders). On the other hand, classical legacies do indeed, time and again, differ from the original intent. In the case of the legacy of Rome, of course, that could be considered a good thing…