Ann Leckie. Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch)
Other works mentioned:
Laila Lalami. The Moor’s Account
Salman Rushdie. The Enchantress of Florence
Reading as a writer, I: the totally original idea (not)
I definitely came to the Imperial Radch series as a writer . “Ooh, someone else is writing sentient starships?” and then stayed for the awesomeness, and the horror.
When you discover a writer who’s working with similar ideas to your own, you can think of it as competition or as community/dialogue. There are no truly original ideas, but the same idea plays out very differently in the hands of different writers. Politics and culture and technology all cooperate and mutually influence each other; the history of technology (if carefully considered) also reveals the lopped-off branches, the lines of inquiry never pursued.
So, as a writer meeting a story that uses some of the same machinery, my next question was: how is mine different? Does the technology I’ve written derive as logically from its cultural context?
The universe I’m writing in is neither as far-flung nor as materially rich. A minority faction is contemplating empire but it’s based on a (fictional) past. In short, they have SF archives from the original generation ships but some interpret it as real history. Most of the societies I’m writing are more loosely organized, not top-down, except for one that has turned all its resources to repression and has nothing left over for interstellar travel. A society organized on family, clan, or tribal plan will not think of their technology in a top-down way either. While crew titles (captain, quartermaster, doctor, engineer) still exist, they don’t mean the same thing as they did once.
As a student of the history of technology, I know that culture and politics shape technology. Leckie is writing a galactic empire long since committed to creating multi-bodied AIs to run troopships for annexing other planetary civilizations. The physical ships and the troops are both peripherals run by a unitary artificial intelligence; the human bodies (ancillaries) are captives kept in frozen suspension until it’s time to turn them into extensions of the ship.
In other words, zombies, original flavor: the horror of being a slave, even in death. We’re reading a novel from the somewhat bewildered perspective of a rogue peripheral, or a zombie operating in the absence of her necromancer.
Reading as a fan, I: hanging out with the characters!
This post on Ann Leckie’s blog, “Beyond Cool” (and you bet it is! I’d be so stoked if I found fan art for my novel!) sent me to see the fan art (ooh, how did they imagine the characters?) I searched Tumblr and found even more fan art, alongside fan commentary. Online, I met artist Chloe Chan, who created these elegant, richly colored character concepts (The first row is Breq/One Esk Nineteen, the narrator of Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, and the second row is Anaander Minaai, the galactic emperor who is of more than one mind.) We chatted about all sorts of things, including the joys of digital painting and our favorite books; the “fandom secret handshake” is squeeing together over the same things, or different things. “Squee” is the larval stage of divine enthusiasm, and not to be scorned; it’s the common root of the love that motivates both fans and writers.
The fan-artists and commenters sent me back for the re-read, on everything from cultural beauty standards to the major and minor plot-threads of developing relationships between different characters. Fanwork creators focus on relationships, and this is one of the awesome things about this series: how characters resonate with each other, how they operate within and against their cultural constraints.
Reading as a writer (and hanging out with fans), II: not characters, but imaginary friends
As a writer, I find the company of fans exhilarating. My colleague Devin Harnois is currently enmeshed in the world of Dragon Age. He put the writer/fan fascination succinctly. “There’s a point where you go from thinking, ‘oh interesting’ about a character, to having a personal connection with them.” Whether you’re a novelist, game developer, or filmmaker, that’s the magical tipping point. Devin and I hang out and watch various highlights he’s saved, and talk about the characters as if they were our imaginary friends.
I told Devin he had to read Ancillary Justice because I fanbeing/fanperson it as much as he does Dragon Age. I think about the characters and what they say to each other when they’re off stage.
The selfish reason for my love of fandom: I want to learn the internal gesture of being a fan to my own characters, thinking in detail about their obsessions, loves, hates, and paths through life.
Reading as a writer, III: the shape of the story
Some number of readers of Ancillary Justice remarked on its narrative structure, which initially they found confusing. Just a few days ago, quite fortuitously, I just finished reading The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, which has similar narrative structure. Lalami’s novel is a fictional narrative from a real historical character, the Moorish slave Estabanico, named in the official account of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca’s mostly ill-fated expedition to what is now Texas and Florida. Estebanico is a non-person as a slave; Leckie’s narrator is a nonhuman AI in a human body, a captive wiped of previous memories and slaved (I do not use the verb lightly) to a troopship AI serving a far-future galactic empire.
In both novels, chapter 1 begins in media res, at what will come clear later as the pivot point of a story of quest and longing; chapter two is the beginning of things, in flashback. Present and past alternate every other chapter up to some ways past the halfway point (50-60%). Both stories follow the POV of an individual reckoned not-human by the culture in which they have to move, and the flashback follows how they got to the moment of crisis with which the story opens. By the way, reading these novels in e-book format helps immensely in thinking about the balance and proportion of their narratives.
Lalami is as true to history as a modern reader/researcher can be; Leckie is likewise true to the industrial and military cultural roots of artificial intelligence. Both stories follow the evolution of relationships between a nonperson and his/her “betters.” Estebanico (born Mustafa) finds his status changing as he is more or less useful to the lost expedition; Breq (One Esk Nineteen) relates parallel stories, two decades apart, that follow the development of relationships with two different humans who served on the ship.
Fanworks call on us to read for relationship, and this is the correct lens for this brilliant novel; the present-tense relationship between One Esk Nineteen (the last remnant of a warship AI) and Seivarden, a former warship captain (“never one of my favorites,” our narrator tells us within the first scene) and self-centered addict, runs in parallel with the AI’s relationship with her favorite officer. The themes of privilege, power, and who is human come up repeatedly in both relationships.
Thinking about the point of view choice and the conflicts of the narrators chosen by Leckie and Lalami respectively, both present an extremely advantageous angle of view on the themes of empire (including its basic nature as the ultimate pyramid scheme) and slavery. Both narrators negotiate relationships with people who do not consider them fully human, as well as a variety of landscapes brought to life by the storyteller’s art. Interestingly, both narrators are artists on the side: Breq/One Esk Nineteen is a singer and collector of songs; Estebanico is a storyteller.
In the strict sense, Lalami’s historical novel is as much a work of speculative fiction as Leckie’s space opera; both begin from a solid foundation of historical and technological knowledge. Historical novelists often provide references to their nonfictional sources (Salman Rushdie’s Enchantress of Florence features a full bibliography, no doubt to distinguish historical reality from magic-realist hijinks). I wish I had a list of the work that Leckie is bouncing off in her masterful epic, because I can feel its great bones moving under the muscular surface of story, from the role of emotion in cognition to imperial economics to the development of syncretic religion in various historical contexts.
I re-read both stories in chronological order (following the thread through the earliest events, and alternating chapters). This cast some really interesting lights on the creative possibilities of second-pass structural editing. Many of us write our stories beginning to end, but like filmmakers, we have the option of chopping, splicing, and juxtaposing to even greater artistic and emotional impact.
Lastly, I’m fascinated by the structural and thematic similarities in works by two writers in different genres, writing independently. Just what is the relationship between narrative structure and theme? (Some years back, I had the same question about the poets Emily Dickinson and Marina Tsvetaeva, working in 1860s New England and 1920s Europe, respectively.)
Reading as a fan, II: fan fiction, adaptation, and other excursions
I started field-stripping the narrative structure in the spirit of pure industrial espionage, but now I want to hang out with other fans and talk about the sheer wonderfulness of the choices, as well as who thinks what about whom at different parts of the narrative. I’ve now chased down some of the Imperial Radch fan fiction, and am thinking about it in the light of commentary. A fan fiction writer’s imagining of missing scenes, for example, implies a certain take on who the original character is and what she’s likely to do.
Ancillary Justice has been optioned for television, and I’m thinking about what I’d hope for as a fan. At a minimum, I would hope to see a dramatic correspondent to the play with gender assumptions that Leckie’s original narrator achieves through language (the pronoun “she” is used throughout). Thinking about the conceptions of the characters by fan artists (which are entirely consistent with physical descriptions in the novel) I pray that this story is not whitewashed or otherwise Hollywoodified in casting. The overwhelming majority of the cast are people of color, which is to say darker than medium-brown, and many hail from cultures where dark skin is honorific. As well, they’re a stunning variety of body types, from skinny adolescents who haven’t grown into their features to broad and stately adults.
After all, as fan and writer both, I’m not here for the Same Old Thing. I want to go on a Trip.