Ada Palmer, Assistant Professor of Early Modern European History, was presented the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Helsinki, Finland on August 11 at the Hugo Awards Ceremony, held in conjunction with WorldCon 75, the 75th World Science Fiction Convention. Her debut novel, Too Like the Lightning, was released in May 2016 to critical acclaim and received multiple award nominations, including the Campbell Award and the Hugo Award for Best Novel, among others. Only three times in the history of the Hugo Awards has the same author been nominated for both at the same time.
The book, described as "dense and complex" by NPR, takes aim at a host of modern social and political issues and extrapolates them to an extreme interpretation for the year 2424. Palmer takes aim at gender identity, religion, censorship, and the "engineering" of society in this first novel of the planned series Terra Ignota in her first book-length work of fiction. An academic by training, Palmer's research interests include early modern Europe, the Renaissance, history of science and religion, and Enlightenment reception of earlier radical thought, which inform the book's themes and narrative style.
The plot is knotty, but it's nothing compared to the tangle of ideas at play. Palmer, a professor at the University of Chicago with a doctorate from Harvard, packs a textbook's worth of learning into Lightning. Historical references abound, as do bits of economics, genetics, and sociology. Politics, though, lies at the heart of the book. The world Palmer creates is extraordinarily intricate, with forces and organizations forming a delicate web of tenuous coexistence.
Her scholarship focuses on intellectual history, or the history of ideas, and explores how history and thought shape each other over time. Palmer says the Italian Renaissance is a perfect moment for approaching this question because at that point the ideas about science, religion, and the world that had developed in the Middle Ages suddenly met those of the ancient world, reconstructed from rediscovered sources.
"All at once many beliefs, scientific systems, and perceived worlds clashed, mixed, and produced an unprecedented range of new ideas, which in turn shaped the following centuries and, thereby, our current world," explains Palmer.
In addition to her appointment in the Department of History, Palmer is also affiliated faculty in the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies, associate faculty in the Department of Classics, and a member of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge.
To read a first person account of receiving the award in Helsinki and her personal battle with an invisible disability, visit Palmer's blog, Ex Urbe.