J.M. Ledgard is the author of one if not two of our favorite novels of recent years. They are works that reveal an author who's not just an accomplished stylist but an intriguing, broad-minded, unorthodox thinker, one who's forward thinking and future-focused. A little nosing around his bio—long-time Africa correspondent for The Economist, current director of Afrotech-EPFL—suggests that those tendencies run deep in him, so it's with great excitement that we are able to bring you his new Terra Firma Triptych. And we could think of no better way to greet him and his new Digital Original than to sit him down with one of our own notably broad-minded resident futurists, Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (FSG) and the Digital Original Ajax Penumbra 1969. Here the two discuss our relationship to technology, writing advice, and next projects.
Robin Sloan: Hello from California, Jonathan. Where are you writing from? What’s your vantage point when penning FSG Digital Originals, incandescent Q&A replies, etc.?
J. M. Ledgard: I am just back from Africa and sitting in my functional office at EPFL in Switzerland. EPFL is the European version of Caltech. Unlike Caltech, which has some remarkable literature, history and economics professors, EPFL is pure science. So I am on the edge, but it’s that liminal space where interesting thoughts happen. I am mostly thinking through robotics, especially augmented robotics for poorer communities, but I spend time with astrophysicists and am learning from them a little about our ever accelerating universe. Right now the campus is empty; everyone is up in the mountains, or off for the summer.
Terra Firma Triptych ranges from a memory of a hike through parched pastureland to a sharply-rendered vision of cargo drone networks circa 2050, and one thing that unites those parts is an appreciation for scale that seems, to me, almost science-fictional. (There are, in Triptych, surprising flashes of interstellar space.) So: where does that come from? Have you always been inclined towards this planetary scale?
Yes, but it is becoming more pronounced. I see it in physical and temporal terms.
Being born in the far north, in the Shetland Islands, left a mark on me. Storms, scoured land, sea stretching to Greenland, a wilding scape, really, with always journeys and a pronounced sense of otherness, sagas of Vikings gone before who sailed over the edge of the world or went to Byzantium to serve in the Varangian guard, and even now stories of seal people, miserably trapped in human form on land after their skins were stolen, or rising up in their seal form far from land and staring at you with such intelligence and melancholy as to suggest another civilization in the waters, unwritten by us.
That was anyway the start of my thinking about how sea and sky ran together. You could fairly call it romantic, and it has never let up. Being a foreign correspondent took me to many places, often in unsettling times. You could see how humans always spun together: Babylon spun out, gunpowder spins, germs spin, money spins.
In my first novel, Giraffe, I thought about the wild creatures we share the planet with. I considered the vertical condition of giraffes and man relative to the plane; how we are spun in another sense and locked hoof and foot to the thin surface by gravity. In Submergence, I juxtaposed the burning land with the black ocean deep. That was where the temporal bit came in. I became aware of a weight of microbial life in the world that was billions of years old and saw that we were an incidental species, time-wise, and that made the planet loom larger for me.
But there is another temporal element to the planetary scale. Not just our planet, but our planet on these next turns around the sun. It is clear we are living in an extraordinary moment. We are about to merge with our technology, and that will produce questions which literature will have to speak to, if it is to remain relevant. Not just the mess of the anthropocene, the burning up, annihilation of other lifeforms, the laying down of poisons, and so on, but the slow realization that it will not be our species which reaches other planets, it will not be William Shatner looking out of a window, it will be another species entire, no longer wet-brained and limited in size and life but silicon based and without death. We are in science fiction land already. In this sense, designing and throwing up a cargo drone route in Africa is simple.
You mention your foreign reporting, which was for The Economist, a publication that boasts a strong house style, and is one of the last—maybe THE last?—to forgo bylines. You’re obviously writing in a different mode now: as yourself, with a strong voice, a strong point of view. How did that transition feel? Liberating? Unsettling?
The Economist years account for the density of my writing, but I don’t see getting out as a liberation. I don’t have a literary circle, or a technology circle, and I still belong to the genus hack foreign correspondent and gravitate towards my disarranged kind from across a room.
That said, literature is more significant than reporting. Milton will get out way beyond the Kuiper Belt, New York Times editorials never will.
I became a foreign correspondent in order to become a novelist - that was clear from the first. I traveled with two notebooks. In The Economist one I scribbled about GDP and generals, in the literary one it was moths and the latticed light you find inside a camel herder’s hut. I was lucky to get the habit of writing in the world rather than removed from the world. A lot of my writing was done in waiting rooms of ministries and broken down airports – it still is.
As to The Economist, I’d say it’s fun to be stripped of your byline. It’s empowering. When you write for The Economist, you are always thinking only of what the reader need to know. There’s no point in writing anything to make yourself look good. No one cares!
In two decades at The Economist no one ever once told me how to write. We did have a style guide edited by Johnny Grimond, my first foreign editor, who is from the Orkney Islands, and I recommend this to anyone who wants to write clear English. To whit: “Do not be too pleased with yourself. Don’t boast of your own cleverness by telling readers that you correctly predicted something or that you have a scoop. You are more likely to bore or irritate them than to impress them.”
Besides, The Economist house style is mainly a function of space. You have 500 words to show the Taliban are winning, just 500, so no adjectives, no quotes. The requirement is to source and winnow large amounts of information quickly and dispassionately. Most reporting is A to B, this is what happened, but The Economist is C to D, what does this mean, what is coming next. It helps to be good-humoured. I don’t know many people at The Economist who take themselves seriously. I was lucky to have some extraordinary desk editors, Xan Smiley is one, and Anne Wroe*, now the obituary editor, is another. The new editor in chief, Zanny Minton-Beddoes, is a shining star.
*Ann Wroe is a luminous writer who will eventually be lauded as the equal of Hilary Mantel: her take on Perkin Warbeck is a masterpiece.
Terra Firma Triptych begins rooted—as the title suggests—firmly in the ground, but there’s a clever twist in the middle where you take us aloft, and then of course it closes with this stunning vision of a new aerial economy. I have to ask: which has the strongest claim on your heart, earth or sky? Forced to choose, is it the view from above or the view from below?
How about a shallow valley, sometimes shrouded in sea fog?
We will use sky and never understand it, in our present form, although my friend the artist Tomas Saraceno evisages communities living in vast aerosolar balloon formations, drifting forever on the wind, and that puts me in mind of my hero Cosimo from Italo Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, who climbs to the top of a tree and never touches the earth again: “A gentleman, my Lord Father, is such whether he is on earth or on the treetops.”
What’s next for you, writing-wise?
Ah, it’s the opus. Species survival, ours and some others.
And I want to write a film treatment for Wes Anderson involving safaris.
J.M. Ledgard was born in the Shetland Islands. He is the author of the novels Submergence and Giraffe, is a longtime foreign correspondent for The Economist, and serves as the director of a future Africa initiative based at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.