In episode 16, James and I interview author and historian Ada Palmer about living with chronic pain and studying the past to imagine the future. She offers excellent advice to those managing invisible illness, while also acknowledging how hard it can be.
Ada is an author of science fiction and fantasy, a historian at the University of Chicago, and a composer and musician. Her book series, Terra Ignota, published by Tor, explores a future of borderless nations and globally commixing populations. The first volume, Too Like the Lightning, was a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo award. Ada teaches history at the University of Chicago, studying the Renaissance, Enlightenment, heresy, atheism, and censorship.
Ada has achieved all this and more while living with a number of invisible chronic illnesses, including Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
“There’s nothing more similar than history and science-fiction,” Ada says. “It’s studying long periods of time in which societies change, whether future or past.”
In our interview, she describes her academic research as the history of worldviews, and how she uses her research into the past to imagine human societies hundreds of years in the future, asking, “How does the future think about us?”
Ada also discusses how her Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome have resulted in chronic, sometimes crippling pain, and how she’s learning to cope with living with invisible illness.
“When it’s the same pain in the same nerves over a long time, it causes cognitive trauma damage.”
Ada describes coming to understand herself as disabled as “a powerful and interesting turning point”. The first time that she raised the topic with her university students, she was surprised by their enthusiasm to discuss and learn more.
“It helped me realise how powerful it was as a conversation, how powerful it was for the students for that silence to break, and how powerful it was for somebody’s who’s in a role-model position to talk about it with them.” Her students’ support gave her the confidence to speak to her department head and colleagues about her illness and its challenges.
In this episode, we also talk about authors Arkady Martine, Claire G Coleman, Gene Wolfe, Neil Price, Junji Ito, Julian Barnes, Anita Heiss, Evelyn Araluen, and of course, Voltaire and Diderot.