Ada Palmer and the Weird Hand of Progress

If there is any concept from her books that Palmer hopes will catch on, like “robot” and “cyberspace” did for other authors, it is a model of living called a bash’. The word is derived from a Japanese term, ibasho, which means “a place where you can feel like yourself.” A bash’ is any combination of people—adults, children, friends, couples, polycules—who have decided to live together as a chosen family. Historically speaking, the nuclear family is a very recent invention, which makes it, in Palmer’s view, an unstable isotope. The family of the future, she thinks, will include a far more diverse set of molecular arrangements.

Late last year, in a moment when the pandemic seemed to be ebbing, Palmer invited me to stay at her real-life bash’house, a ninth-floor apartment on a leafy block in Chicago’s Hyde Park. When her building was constructed, in the 1920s, the units were pitched as “bungalows in the sky”—a vision of modern family living cut short by the stock market crash. An elevator deposited me directly into the apartment, where Palmer greeted me with a stiff hug. She was tall and slightly stooped, with brown hair down to her waist, her presence both monumental and demure, like a weeping angel presiding over a cemetery.

The room we were standing in, which Palmer calls the library, could have been a wing of a Florentine villa. It was flooded with an inviting golden light that illuminated the ripple of thick spines on shelves and the profiles of Grecian busts. At its center was a nest of monitors and servers, a pandemic setup that seemed borrowed from the pages of Palmer’s books, where people do futuristic work amid cluttered domesticity. One bash’mate typed away at her computer there. Down the hallway, another practiced trumpet.

Palmer led me to a neighboring room, where the manga, board games, and anime figurines appeared to be quarantined. She reclined on a lumpy chaise draped in Totoro blankets. She looked over my shoulder at a multitiered aquarium and worried aloud about a recent water change. Her father kept dozens of fish tanks, and she had learned just how difficult it is to manage the balance of species, chemicals, and greenery. “I’m playing plants on hard mode,” she said.

Palmer had spent recent weeks mostly in this recumbent position and would not stray far from it during the next 24 hours. Her blood pressure was chronically low, she explained, and she felt dizzy whenever she stood up. She had just filed the paperwork to take a medical leave from the university. But lying down, her brain worked just fine—“as you can see,” she declared to me later, after a few hours of talking about Norse metaphysics.

Palmer speaks in complete paragraphs and occasionally what feel like complete lectures. (She was happy that I was recording, she said at one point, because it would save her the trouble of writing everything down.) Her voice is like the sound of an English horn, nasal and resonant, a breathy “h” forming when she says “while” or “where.” When she grows excited, pantomiming this or that haughty misreading by an old fogy of some ancient text, it rises in pitch, culminating in an incredulous laugh.

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