Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

First up, have you read Ancillary Justice? No? Well, go on then. I’ll wait.

…Well, no, obviously I won’t. But still: I don’t need to talk up the first novel in Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy – the six award wins, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C Clarke Awards, speak for themselves. Ancillary Justice is the undeniable hit of 2013, and deserved all the praise it got. And now it’s time to talk about the sequel.

I won’t waste time getting to the key point: I think Ancillary Sword is every bit as good as Ancillary Justice, and in some areas even better. This is a more focused story, one that centres upon the politics in and around a space station and one part of a planet in a single system, unlike the multi-threaded story bridging 20 years in the first book. It’s also a deeper exploration of the culture and social structures within the systems of the Imperial Radch.

There are so many things the book touches on I couldn’t possibly go over them all in detail without writing a novel’s worth myself. In fact it feels like already have in the many drafts I’ve started writing where I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of one topic or another. I have tried to restrain myself below.

As with Ancillary Justice, the book is in many areas a strong criticism of the structures of imperialism. We see the ways in which social inequalities are created and maintained; the way privilege begets abuse of privilege; the way the casting of the conquering force as “civilised” and the conquered as “savage” leads to the treatment of the latter as subhuman. One story thread concerns the abusive behaviour of a plantation owner’s daughter, dealing well with issues of privilege and the attitudes of a people living under a system that sustains such mistreatment.

The resistance of these systems to change is a major source of conflict for the novel. Breq, promoted to Fleet Captain by Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, enters the Athoek system as an outsider in a position of power, and immediately begins to challenge the status quo. The Radchaai base their cultural philosophy on the ideas of Justice, Propriety, and Benefit, but this has become perverted: they believe all that is beneficial must perforce be just and proper. As is always the case, it is in the best interest of those who benefit from inequality to maintain the inequality while pretending that it does not exist; from the beginning Breq sets out to make both impossible.

Running under these larger themes is the issue of Breq’s own identity, and the related issues of the Radchaai use of ancillaries. As a former ancillary herself, one part of an entire ship’s mind, not only must Breq live now as an individual human, but she must do so as captain of another ship, Mercy of Kalr. Mercy of Kalr has been stripped of its own ancillaries, while its human crew strive to recreate ancillary behaviour as faithfully as they can, which can even go so far as acting as cyrenoids for the Ship. And there’s a further element I will not spoil here which brings up the abominable ethics behind the creation of ancillaries. Breq is not the only character here having to learn to function as a fraction of her former self.

One issue which is omnipresent in the book but not addressed much is privacy. Aboard Radchaai ships and stations, nothing is private. The ship and station AIs are always watching, wherever you are. Personnel serving aboard a Radchaai vessel are directly linked to the ship; this connection allows the ship to view through their eyes, and to register the tiniest of physiological details in a way that allows her to read their emotions. The Radchaai do not seem to question this lack of privacy where AI are concerned, but in Ancillary Sword, Breq is able to use her ancillary implants to view the same things the ship sees. Throughout the book, Mercy of Kalr shows Breq conversations and actions that occur outside of her view, down to the most personal of situations. Nobody in the crew is aware that she can do this. It is a violation of privacy on the deepest possible level, and to Breq it is nothing – she is a former AI herself, and she is accustomed to seeing much more than what Ship shows her.

Also emerging from Breq’s past as the Justice of Toren is her attitude toward the people she interacts with. Accustomed to watching over and caring for her passengers and crew, she has a tendency to think of them in a way that renders them childlike. She is constantly reading the emotions of her crew members, and often her interpretations of those readings come across as somewhat patronising. I do not bring this up as a flaw: This element of Breq’s attitude exists subtly in the text, a decision of narrative voice that very much fits the person Breq used to be, a part of her personality rekindled by her now being connected – however incompletely – with a ship’s sensors.

Both of these issues of Breq’s perspective, her casual invasion of privacy and her condescension, are things I’d like to see explored – and, perhaps, challenged – in the next book of the series, as she adjusts further to no longer being Justice of Toren.

Finally, I want to touch on the issue of gender. The novel continues the practise of keeping the majority of the characters ungendered, by use of female pronouns for everyone. For the most part this does not affect the novel at all – their gender is really irrelevant. What it does do, though, is bring a subtext to the parts of the novel that concern interpersonal relationships, particularly the abusive relationships I mentioned above. By not gendering the characters involved (or, in one instance, by gendering a character in a way that defies cliché), Leckie invites the reader to evaluate their assumptions about sex and gender in these subjects. An abuser might default male in many minds; this book simultaneously genders the character female and renders her gender unknowable, counteracting this default bias and making the story not about gender at all, but about behaviour and privilege. It’s turning out to be a very effective technique.

Ancillary Sword is a very, very good book. It’s a book that tells us Leckie’s debut was not a fluke: she can and will continue to produce fiction with exceptional worldbuilding, politics, and characterisation. In this second book, she’s given us a story on an intimate scale with a limited setting; I wonder if in the third, she’ll show us something big. Whatever it turns out to be, I will be looking forward to Ancillary Mercy with great eagerness.

Cyranoids – Who Are You Really Talking To?

This fascinating article on Wired has been bouncing around Twitter today – about an experiment into “cyranoids”, a term coined by psychologist Stanley Milgram for “people who do not speak thoughts originating in their own central nervous system: Rather, the words that they speak originate in the mind of another person who transmits these words to the cyranoid by means of a radio transmitter.”

As it turns out, people aren’t really primed to question the source of the words being spoken by someone they’re interacting with. Even when it seems incongruous – or impossible, as in a case described in the article where a group of 10 people answered questions simultaneously – you just don’t expect that a person is only repeating words whispered in their ear.

It’s a concept that sets my mind racing on all kinds of ideas. What happens to a society that knows you can never be certain who you’re talking to, even face-to-face? John Scalzi’s recent novel Lock In has a concept that can play off this idea: in it there are individuals called Integrators, who loan out their bodies to be controlled by others suffering from lock-in, who cannot use their own. When speaking to an Integrator, you might actually be speaking to one of their clients.

There are all sorts of interesting storytelling dilemmas you could create from the idea that you might not really know who the person standing in front of you is. Really very interesting to consider.

Book Posts I Want to Write But Can’t Seem to Finish

It has been a long time since I’ve written full length posts about books I’m reading. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to say anything – it’s that the times I’ve tried to write, nothing has worked. There are several posts I’ve started since, oh, April or May last year that wound up languishing in my Drafts folder, forever unfinished, some of which are still there now. Here’s what I tried to talk about but couldn’t, for whatever reason:

Tehanu, by Ursula Le Guin – This was the big one, the one I actually finished. I wrote 2000 words on Tehanu, the fourth book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series, and in particular on its strong feminist themes in contrast with the lack of women with agency in the three books that preceded it. I passed it to a couple of other readers to look it over before posting, and one of them came back and let me know that the premise of my post was fatally flawed. My option then was to completely rewrite the post with the new information in mind, which probably could be done. Turns out I’m terrified of revising. No idea where to start. The unaltered, incorrect post has been in my drafts for well over a year.

Women in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – Until I sat down to write this bit right now, I could have sworn that last year I talked here on the blog about The Last Dark, the final book in Stephen R Donaldson’s ten-book, four-decade series, and mentioned that I wanted to write about the series’ issues with women. Looking back, I can’t find anything about it. Maybe I only tweeted it. In any case, I made a few attempts to write a big blog post, about the problems the series has in its depiction of women, and also the problems with fan response to the series’ female lead. I could never work out how to say it well, though, and found myself too often just describing plot points. Eventually I gave up trying.

Quick Book Thoughts on RupettaRupetta by N. A. Sulway was one of my favourite novels published in 2013, and was on my nomination ballot for the Hugo awards. Back when I was reading all those 2013 books for nomination ideas, I intended to do a quick thoughts post on each of them, but only got around to posting one – about Ancillary Justice, the eventual Hugo winner. I did make a couple of attempts to write about Rupetta, but could never quite order my thoughts in a way that formed a good post. I recommend the book highly, but still can’t work out how to write a full post about it.

The Eternal Sky Trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear – I’ve mentioned this one before, recently. I read the full trilogy in August this year, and it is really great. There are so many things I want to talk about regarding this series… but when I try to write them down, I can’t get it right. I have half a post written, but I can’t work out how to structure my thoughts in a way that works.

The problem I’ve been having for most of these, clearly, is “how do I put all these thoughts into the shape of a blog post”? When I try, I find myself very unsatisfied with the way my words are coming out. I’m much the same with fiction writing for the last nine months or so: nothing comes out right. I can’t say I’ve been all that good at book blogging in the past, but I’ve written some posts I still feel fairly happy about. I just can’t seem to hit that any more.

Labelling My Books by Genre

Amanda Nelson of Book Riot recently shared this spreadsheet for tracking her reading, and since I’m one who likes to occasionally analyse what I’ve been reading (see my annual book stats posts), I decided to grab the spreadsheet and use it to make my tracking a little more robust. It’s already shown its usefulness by making me aware that I’m reading very heavily of white Americans this year, although I’ve been doing much better at reading books by women.

But there was one part of the spreadsheet I was surprised to find I had a lot of trouble filling in: Genre.

For someone who reads almost entirely in the speculative fiction genres, labelling books as “Sci Fi” or “Fantasy” was never going to be good enough. I had to get a little more specific than that. But it turns out some books are harder to define.

Take, for example, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince. On the simplest level, it’s a science fiction novel. But for a more accurate label, what do you call a book about teenage artists engaging with class conflict in a post-apocalyptic Brazilian matriarchy which has nanotechnology and ritual human sacrifice, all taking place within an enormous pyramid?

What of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon? Science fiction also, this is a weird alien invasion novel which includes elements of Nigerian folklore that would edge it into fantasy territory in some minds. What one label can you put on that?

It’s tempting to just drop the “genre” column from this spreadsheet entirely. In many ways genre is only a marketing tool, not of as much relevance once you’ve picked up and read the book. And past a certain level of specificity, these labels can lose their usefulness as a way of analysing reading habits. But on the other hand, genre labels can be a way of beginning discussion of a work; of identifying books to recommend to others; of saying what it is you like when “science fiction” is far too broad a category.

So no, I can’t bring myself to think that such labels are totally unnecessary. I want that easy shorthand option when talking about good books. I just wish I had some idea what labels to use more often. (Though not at the expense of missing out on such complex and interesting stories, of course!)

Listening to Podcasts

I’ve started listening to some podcasts lately, which is something I haven’t really done before, other than Night Vale. It started with the Hugos – I listened to a bunch of Writing Excuses episodes when deciding the Related Work category, and decided to keep up with that one. Since then I’ve added Tor.com’s Rocket Talk, and I’ve thrown in a few single episodes of others as and when I see them linked.

They’re interesting, and I’m enjoying them, but I’m running into a problem: I have no idea what to do while I’m listening to a podcast. I’ve been playing a lot of computer Solitaire while I listen, because I can easily do that while still paying full attention to the audio, but Solitaire gets mind numbing and boring as hell when a podcast is an hour or more.

So I need to work out what to do while I’m listening. I can’t just sit and listen and do nothing, and I can’t do anything like read or write at the same time.

If anyone reading this likes to listen to podcasts or audio fiction at home (rather than while travelling): What do you do with yourself while you’re listening?

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

I haven’t blogged about books since April(!) and that was about a book I read in January, so I think I need to get back on top of that. Long gone are my days of Book-A-Week, which I was never going to manage to sustain. Anyway, there are a lot of things I’ve been wanting to talk about and not getting round to, so I thought I’d throw up a shorter post about them here before the tumbleweeds start rolling through.

These are the books I’ve been reading since early August:

The Eternal Sky Trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear
I have tried to write a longer post about these books, but keep getting stuck. An epic fantasy trilogy set in a world inspired by central Asia, these three books – Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky – are very much worth picking up. Great, complex characters; a setting that contains a wide diversity of cultures and peoples; interesting mythology and magic (each culture has an entirely different sky, different gods, different magic, and all of it is real and true simultaneously); and an excellently written and plotted story. The trilogy, as a complete work, will probably take a slot on my Hugo ballot next year.

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
The final volume of his Southern Reach trilogy (after Annihilation and Authority, which I also hadn’t written about), probably VanderMeer’s strongest work to date. A work of weird science fiction with something of an environmentalist theme, these books about the mysterious Area X, and the Southern Reach organisation that studies it, are difficult for me to describe, except to say that they are strange, beautifully written, and full of mysteries that will keep you guessing at the true nature of everything that is depicted inside. Acceptance provides a very satisfactory closing chapter to that tale, with just enough answers and just enough mystery remaining. This trilogy will also probably make it onto my Hugo ballot.

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor
A science fiction novel about an alien invasion that is really a book about the Nigerian city of Lagos and its people – their different lives, their beliefs, their language, and all that makes Lagos what it is. A lot of dialogue in Lagoon is in Pidgin English, which I found a little tricky to follow at times (I did not notice the glossary in the back until I was done), but don’t take that as a criticism of the book – I’m only a monolingual Brit, and I still found a little confusion worth it for the feel the use of these characters’ natural speech gave the book. An enjoyable read, and a little weirder than I had anticipated. Worth checking out.

The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley
I started talking up this book and recommending it around before I even read it. Luckily I was right to do so: This is a really excellent beginning to an epic fantasy series, and it has some of the most original and complex worldbuilding I’ve come across. A world filled with hostile, flesh-eating plant life, where bears and dogs are huge creatures used as mounts, where magic is granted by strange satellites in the sky, and where every 2000 years, one particular satellite appears and brings with it invaders from other worlds. Not only that, but Hurley has created unfamiliar new cultures for each of the nations on this world, from a pacifist, consent-based society with five genders, to a violent matriarchy where men are little more than breeding stock. The strangeness of all of this at once (and more besides) at the beginning of the book can feel a little daunting, but after a few chapters it becomes a fast, compelling read. It is also a pretty violent book, and Hurley seems to like to put her characters through the wringer. Highly recommended – another candidate for my Hugo ballot.

“Scale-Bright”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
I’ve mentioned it before: Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes really excellent short fiction. “Scale-Bright” is her first novella, and it confirms that she is just as good in a longer format. Gods and demons, romance, family – Sriduangkaew gives us all this in a beautifully written package, one that I very much enjoyed reading. You can guess what I’m going to say: Hugo ballot.

Anyway, those are the books I’ve read since the start of August. I’m not sure what is next – I have big stacks of unread books, and a few of those are brand new releases I want to get to. I will try to write about the things I’m reading here more often.

Quick Thoughts On What Was Wrong With “Deep Breath”

Now, I’m mostly going to be echoing what a lot of other people have been saying about last night’s new episode of Doctor Who, and many of those people will have said it better than I do.

Before I get started, let’s get this out of the way: I enjoyed the episode, and I think Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has potential. I do criticise Doctor Who fairly often, but once again: I like the show, as the fact I’m still watching it shows. I do think it’s worth looking at why Doctor Who attracts the criticism it does, though.

I’m skipping over the boring, trivial issues – yes, the episode has some really dumb plot points, but it’s a rare episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t, and in fact the rare TV show these days where dumb things don’t show up now and then (Orphan Black, I’m looking at you…). The issues worth noting concern the way the episode treats women.

It’s not so much about what Steven Moffat put in the script, but about asking why it was included.

A big deal was made in “Deep Breath” about Clara having difficulty adjusting to the new Doctor – and Madam Vastra outright accuses her of only being with the Doctor because he was young and good looking. This means that a significant part of the episode is spent on Clara having to explain that she isn’t and never has been interested in young, pretty men; the implication being that it would be wrong if she was with the Doctor partly because she found him attractive. The question is, why would that matter at all, and why is it relevant to the episode, to the point that they put this much emphasis on it? Why did Moffat feel the need to have Clara challenged on the issue of being attracted to the young Doctor, and have her accused of rejecting the new one because of his age?

The thing is, Vastra’s reaction to Clara and the subsequent interrogation seems entirely unwarranted. Yes, Clara is confused and upset by what has happened to the Doctor – she doesn’t know how his regeneration works, and he’s suddenly turned into a very confused old man. Vastra’s hostility to Clara comes when she asks the perfectly valid question – for someone in her situation – of how do we fix him?

Later, we have the scene where Strax, where he gives Clara a physical examination with some kind of alien device. The question again is why this scene was necessary. It’s another excuse to get some jokes out of Strax’s complete ignorance of human biology and lack of social graces, but beyond that it serves no purpose other than to make some jokes about Clara’s body, and one about female aging in particular. There’s also a bit about Clara’s subconscious being full of images of muscled young men doing things that may or may not be sports. While I do not object to the depiction of Clara as someone with a sexual side in itself, in the context of the rest of the episode it comes out as another attempt to belittle her for her sexual attractions. I’m only glad the scene managed not to have her react as if she were ashamed herself of those thoughts.

And finally there is the way Madam Vastra was depicted in the episode. Vastra is a lesbian, married to her “maid”, Jenny, and the episode takes every opportunity to use her to objectify the other two women in the cast. In the middle of a murder investigation, we see her having Jenny pose in a revealing outfit for what seems to be a portrait – but oh ho ho, she’s really tricked her wife into posting in her underwear for no reason, isn’t that hilarious. (Not really, no.) There are also repeated references to Vastra, a happily married woman, being attracted to Clara – including Clara accusing Vastra of thinking she is shallow just because she is attractive. Immediately after Vastra’s abuse of Jenny’s trust to get her to pose barely dressed is revealed, Clara walks into the room, and Vastra attempts to get her to take her clothes off also.

The scene’s only purpose in the episode is to laugh at Jenny’s expense and depict Vastra as a woman who eagerly objectifies other women. Anything relevant to the larger plot happens after this part is over.

Now, I think the key point to make here is that these latter two scenes are both played for laughs, and it’s very easy for people to just let those things slide when you do so. If something is portrayed as a harmless joke, a lot of people will gloss over it, and not realise the issues at play. Even minor things like these, though, are problematic because of how they normalise certain jokes and behaviours. Objectifying women is funny, women having water retention is funny, oh, ha ha, this young woman can’t stop thinking about young, attractive men, isn’t she silly. Funny how the show doesn’t do any of this stuff with male characters.

And the former scene I mentioned has its own whole host of issues, for the way it implicitly criticises women for liking the Doctor – which would probably include Doctors Smith, Tennant, and Eccleston – in part for being good looking. Given the large female fanbase of the show, this has not been well received.

Once again, I am not condemning Doctor Who. I just think the people making the show, particularly writer/showrunner Steven Moffat, need to ask themselves questions like why they’re including these jokes, and at whose expense they are being made.

(These quick thoughts have not been as quick as I intended.)