Ancillary Conversation

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Ann Leckie’s 2013 debut novel Ancillary Justice exploded on the SF scene and, in 2014, won a whole lot of awards and considerable praise for its portrayal of imperialism and depiction of gender. The blurb:

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

Space opera. Corpse soldiers. Artificial intelligence. Space politics. These are things that No Award is here for. And to the surprise of absolutely no one ever, we have some opinions about Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. So many opinions, in fact, that mere Twitter conversations couldn’t do them justice. Accordingly, we are joined here today by Dr Sophie and Dr Jonathan.

Liz

The first thing I should say is that, despite all the criticism that follows, I liked these books enough that, even though I have the ebooks, I was very tempted to buy the paperbacks when I found them in a book store.

HOWEVER.

I should say here that I feel slightly bad about having so many problems with the Imperial Radch books, because so much of No Award’s genre content is essentially, “That media product beloved of progressive fandom? Here’s Liz to tell you how it’s problematic!” But very little media isn’t problematic in some way, and what’s the point of being progressive and nerdy if we can’t talk about that?

So first things first: Ancillary Justice starts off reaaaaaally sloooooooooow. Which I was warned about, and with this much worldbuilding, it makes sense to ease the reader into it.


Stephanie aside:

Reaaaaaally sloooooooooow opening narratives are my jam, though, because so much of Chinese literature is like this. Journey to the West / 西遊記, in both Chinese and in English translation, is so much fun and yet the slowest thing ever. It makes sense in certain contexts! (And is relevant to continuing readers of No Award)


Liz

And sometimes you do need to take time to set everything up before you can blow it all to pieces. It just doesn’t make sense, to my mind, to ease the reader in with loooong conversations about the nature of imperialism and its beneficiaries.

I whinged on Twitter about this all being 101 stuff, but I realised yesterday — it’s 101 stuff to me, because I am a history nerd raised by history nerds, and “how to talk about imperialism” is literally a big part of Roman History 101. It’s basic to me, because it’s what I studied, but for some reason, not everyone chooses to spend three years of their lives studying complex historical concepts that will lead to no employment whatsoever. Weird, right?

So the reader does need to be introduced to this, but we’re still reading through pages and pages of didactic dialogue that is less about the Radch and more about imperialism in general. (I mean, it is about the Radch, but so much of the way it’s framed is generic. Or so it seems if — again — you have a background as an historian.)

Despite the tedious nature of a lot of the set-up, I really loved the flashbacks to Esk One and Lieutenant Awn. AWN IS JUST SO GREAT, YOU GUYS. I’ll take Awn drinking tea and talking about imperialism over Seivarden doing ANYTHING.

And that’s good, because Seivarden’s main contribution to the first third of the book is being unconscious. While Breq spends a lot of time going, “Why am I even helping this stupid person?” I DON’T KNOW, BREQ, BUT IT’S PAINFUL FOR EVERYONE. Unless you’re REALLY into super-generic hurt/comfort, how is this meant to construct an appealing character?

Not that Seivarden is any better when she’s conscious. Here is a text message conversation I had with Stephanie mid-book:

Liz: The most outstanding achievement of Ancillary Justice is that, even in a book about a society without gender, there’s an entitled male-bodied douchebag sucking up oxygen.

Steph: I KNOW RIGHT

I should say that I was more indifferent to Seivarden until I saw a Tumblr post about how she’s the most amazing, well-written precious woobie. A comparison was made to Draco Malfoy. And also Zuko, which made me angry, because HOW DARE YOU COMPARE MY PRECIOUS AWKWARD TURTLEDUCK TO SEIVARDEN EVER. Etc.

(I should maybe also say that anyone who dares mention Draco Malfoy’s name in the same breath as Zuko is already sadly misguided in my eyes. I have some strong feelings here. It’s a thing. A Zuko thing.)

Animated gif: Zuko takes off his shirt, doves fly, it's amazing.
Yes, this gif was necessary.

Sophie

I didn’t mind the “characters sit around for several hundred pages discussing undergraduate level social science” sections, but I am (a) much less well educated in that area and (b) a fan of the kind of science fiction which basically boils down to “characters sit around for several hundred pages discussing undergraduate level hard science”, and always wished there was more for subjects I’m less familiar with. So.

That said, having read both books: while I felt it was 1000% more nuanced and biting in it’s portrayal of empires than 99.9% of speculative fiction, it wasn’t quite saying anything deep/complex enough to justify being that heavy handed. Also, I can’t quite articulate what bothered me about a bit near the end of Ancillary Sword dealing with injustice from the point of view of the well meaning privileged ally, but it felt too easy, maybe?

ALSO I know this is what everyone talks about when they discuss the book and it can overshadow the other interesting aspects, but I think it’s worth mentioning the pronouns thing explicitly. Namely, that Radch language and society makes no distinction between genders (although genders may still exist as a private thing no one really cares about) and the default pronoun is “she”. Since the book is in the first person, everyone is a “she” to the narrator, and you see her pained thought processes trying not to misgender people from other cultures that expect you to just know.

Which was pretty cool. Even if, as Liz points out, Seivarden manages to be entitled-dude-ly regardless. (Though just because we know that people from that one planet would read her as male doesn’t mean I’m not going to think of her as a woman anyway. I think of them all as women and no one can stop me)


Liz

You’re right about the pronouns — what Leckie does is really interesting, and her portrayal of gender is one of the highlights of the books for me. Along with the whole concept of the AIs, and the millennia-old ships who exist both in abstract ship form and in multitudes of (undead) human bodies — that was brilliant.

But yeah, nothing Leckie does with empire etc is meaningful or profound enough to justify the heavyhandedness. She sort of veers towards drawing a parallel between ancillaries and slaves in Ancillary Sword, but skitters away from doing anything with it beyond the terrible tragedy of the “real” Tisarwat. Breq herself is still in a massively privileged position, and while she has empathy and understanding for the marginalised, she’s still part of a saviour narrative.

From a characterisation perspective, I love that she has followed in Awn’s footsteps by seeking out allies first amongst the marginalised and oppressed. But she’s so self-righteous about it that it’s off-putting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I’m just not sure that Leckie means for it to come across that way. The only person who really calls her out for it is quickly revealed to be a traitor and villain, which is disappointing.


Sophie

I didn’t mind Seivarden too much by the end, I think because by that point she mostly spent her time being competent and fangirling Breq. But she is still nothing to Awn, sigh.


Liz

AWN ❤ ❤

I should say, I liked Seivarden a lot better in Ancillary Sword — for one thing, she wasn’t around as much, and when she was, it was to be clever and competent.

(Imperial Radch drinking game: take a shot every time Breq refers to an “antique accent”.)

I also liked that Seivarden still has issues around addiction, which surfaced exactly at the point I was starting to get annoyed that the whole kef addict thing wasn’t being addressed.

But my favourite new characters in Ancillary Sword were Tisarwat, and her complex identity crisis following Mianaai’s brain-swap, and also Mercy of Kalr‘s medic. Medic is so great — she’s cranky and competent, so just the sort of person I adore.

I kind of wish, actually, that Sword had been from Tisarwat’s POV, because she spends the book making interesting mistakes and fixing them, and generally learning.


Jonathan

You’ve both mentioned the gender/pronouns thing, which is what I’m going to focus on for a start. Part of what I absolutely loved in Justice was the identity/POV stuff. I enjoyed having to work moderately hard (personally, other people might be much brainier than me) to understand the narrator’s perspective: as a ship, as ancillaries, as a being in a single body, etc. I loved that it’s stretching the idea of identity beyond the game of “all pronouns are feminine and titles are masculine”. It feels to me like this helped the book incorporate interesting ideas of gender(lessness) without that being the main concern – Breq and the worlds around her tend to be much more caught up by the anxieties of ship-not-in-a-ship’s-body and ancillary-without-a-ship. The gender stuff is secondary.

I think the best thing about that is that it made me realise, as a reader, just how much I don’t need to know the gender/sex of characters. It was nice to be able to relax and not have to think about gender, sex or sexuality in terms of a gender binary. I’m pretty over seeing people gendering/sexing the characters, when we know – at least, Breq tells us – that they don’t consider this an important part of their identity.

Mainly this comes up in the idea that Seivarden is, like Liz said (not without merit), “an entitled male-bodied douchebag” – or alternatively the “well-written woobie” types of fannishness, which unfortunately come across as coming from a “where is the male character we can swoon over?” place. I guess this is because, although there must have been a point that Seivarden=penis-owning cropped up in the book, I didn’t really remember it until people started discussing it. It makes me unrelax to have people pointing it out. And obviously there is a cissexist assumption about penis=male, too.


Liz

The weird thing is that Seivarden is literally the only character whose genital-formation I’m really conscious of. And that’s partially because she’s the only one whom Leckie goes out of her way to describe as male-bodied. There’s a post here where the reader comments that she thought that meant it was going to end with a Breq/Seivarden pairing. And it’s possible she wouldn’t have pinged me so hard as That Type Of Dude Character I Usually Detest if Leckie hadn’t done that.

Otherwise, the gender of various characters didn’t really cross my mind much at all. I was a bit reminded of Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar mysteries, which I had read a couple of times before realising that we never find out the first person narrator’s gender.

But you’re right that the Seivarden = penis = male connection is cissexist, and I will work harder to get past that sort of thinking.


Jonathan

It’s the identity-stretching ideas that really drew me into the books and – possibly unpopular fannish opinion – I preferred Justice to Sword on this count. I felt like without all the crunchy perspective-changing and identity-negotiation, the Breq of Sword is reduced to something resembling a super-cool, super-seeing, super-knowing, super-human-but-still-human ship captain. I think that’s part of what’s offputting about her in the “saviour narrative” – she just can’t really do anything wrong, and she’s a less interesting character because of it. (For me, same goes for Seivarden – I preferred the lulzy dynamic when she was being a loser!)

If I wrote the next book, I’d have Breq overthrowing Anaander Miannaai and in the process becoming the tyrant … maybe attempting to be all benevolent, but failing miserably. Everyone is betrayed and dies horribly, the end. I BET YOU ARE GLAD I’M NOT IN CHARGE HERE!


Sophie

Hahaha yeah no offense but that’s not quite the ending I’m hoping for, interesting as it would be.


Steph

I want it. It would be so great.


Sophie

I really enjoyed the POV of Breq-as-the-ship, I love stuff that plays around with the nature of self and consciousness and tries for a genuinely not-human point of view. I must admit I got pretty confused at some points, especially when I had to try and make some distinction between the single ancillary One Esk 19, the group of ancillaries One Esk, other groups of ancillaries, the ship Justice of Toren, and all of them working as a whole. Which means I still don’t entirely understand how Anaander’s mind works.

But it hadn’t really occurred to me until just now, reading your comments, to link that ambiguity and complexity with the other aspects of the story. Because there is a lot about how we define ourselves, and how we define others. Breq as Radch but also not Radch. The Radch itself has these sub divisions: everyone in the empire is “Radch” the moment they’re conquered. But some are more “properly” Radch than others. And then there’s the huge machine of empire which is bigger and more powerful than any individual within it. Anaander Miannaai is a microcosm of this: she is coloniser, colonised, rebel and ruler all in one, on both the individual level and as a collective (who is also an individual). And the gender thing comes into it too: we’re so used to gender and physical form being integral to who someone is, and here’s this story from the point of view of someone who doesn’t care about gender at all and has had multiple bodies, none of which she thought of as “me”.


Jonathan

Yes, and tying in with that, the overlaps and tensions between ‘Radch’ and ‘citizen’ and ‘human’. Liz, you started by saying that Justice’s worldbuilding was like “Roman Empire History 101” – are there parallels here? (My knowledge of the Roman Empire is limited, which might be one reason I didn’t find the start of the book slow or dull, but I’m also a fan of big worldbuilding sections – to me, that vibe from Justice harked back to feminist sci-fi circa the 1970s, so I loved it!)


Liz

How The Radch Is Based On Rome (And Also Other Imperialist Cultures) By Liz Aged 32-and-a-bit:

The biggest parallel between the Radch and Rome is religious. They both go out and, as part of the colonisation process, sit down and work out how to incorporate the religion of Newly Colonised Planet into the existing pantheon. And this went both ways — when Egypt became a Roman province, Romans started worshipping Isis. (And only Isis, I think? They were really into, you know, the ~sexy gods.)

The result was that there wasn’t much religious conflict within the Roman empire — except when Romans tried to conquer monotheists, which around this time meant mostly Jews (and, after a couple of centuries, Christians). The refusal by Jews and Christians to accept even an appearance of pantheism was a profound threat to Rome.

Anyway, that’s the sort of cultural absorption that characterises both historical Rome and the fictional Radch. And it’s interesting, because it’s not at all like the imperialist model of later centuries, where European countries don’t just go out and conquer a place, they also impose their own religion and take very little from the culture they’re colonising.

And the stuff with citizenship was also very Roman — the Romans had levels of citizenship just like the Radch. There were full citizens (male, Roman-born), then Roman women, then the subjects of client states — colonised nations — who enjoyed some but not all of the rights of full Roman citizens. Then there were freedmen (former slaves), then slaves.

Romans really cherished the idea that anyone could become a citizen, but in reality, it probably happened on an individual level only slightly more often than a poor person becomes president of the United States. But the knowledge that the future sons of a conquered nation could one day be Roman citizens was very powerful. It gave conquered people a stake in the system. And as Rome’s birthrate declined, it also meant that the empire’s population nevertheless kept growing and becoming more diverse. You might be a disenfranchised Gaul now, but your grandson could be a citizen, and your great-grandson a senator.

(The Romans also didn’t see slaves as sub-human, the way their white European descendants would. This is not to say that slaves were necessarily treated well, but selling oneself into slavery was, for example, an acceptable way to pay off debt, and if you were lucky, you wouldn’t be a slave for life. Or so the Romans believed — again, that’s not necessarily the case in real life.)

In contrast, what we see in Ancillary Sword is more of a British style colonisation. I don’t think it’s coincidence that “Radch” sounds like “Raj”, or that the Radchaai are addicted to tea, the Chinese drink that Britain claimed for its own. (Also: “chaai”, “chai”. I see what you did there, Leckie. Also, I suddenly need a cuppa.)

And the plantation stuff is straight out of US history, almost to the point where I was like, “Okay, Leckie, I’ve read Barbara Hambly’s Sold Down the River, you’re not saying anything here that hasn’t already been said by nice white authors.” Different cash crop, that’s all.

(I wouldn’t be surprised if tea plantations in British India were also run like American coffee and tobacco plantations, but I don’t know much Indian history at all.)

I should say, too, the god Amaat is lifted directly from the Egyptian concept of maat. Maat was not a god, but more of a … state of being. Maat was the status quo, the divine order of the universe. The river floods, the fields are fertilised, the crops grow, the people are fed, and everyone is in their pre-ordained place. That is maat. Maat is justice, but also power. (And benefit and propriety.) It’s a very complicated idea that doesn’t translate well.

And just as Anaander Mianaai can direct a cultural shift, and it will still be the will of Amaat, so too could a pharaoh subvert expectations. Haptshetsut, the famous “female king”, was considered a perfectly good pharaoh in her lifetime, because the country continued to function and thrive. With everything as it should be, the minor detail of the pharaoh being a woman didn’t really matter. Whereas, a few generations earlier, a woman had tried to rule as pharaoh, and failed miserably because the country was in disarray.


Stephanie

Whilst I’m not positive about the Indian-analogy, I am confident about the British one, and the way imperialist narratives are always based off the British experience. Which was not the only colonialist and/or imperialist narrative, but certainly is now the dominant one in terms of referencing to and debating about. Colonial narratives we never talk about: Dutch; Spanish; Chinese; Japanese.

There’s something about these British colonial narratives that attracts people (writers) to them, but there’s also something icky about them. Is it really necessary to keep writing stories about the British coming to dominate and how, no matter whose story it is, the colonisers are not entirely wrong? Breq here is given the power as a coloniser to repair the damage done by colonisers/fix society so it’s all good.


Liz

No, that’s a good point. All I know about Spanish and French colonial practices is that British-descended cultures are all, “Hoo boy, indigenous people should just be grateful it wasn’t the French who invaded!”

(Slight paraphrase of things my parents actually said when I first got upset about Australia’s history of indigenous genocide.)

And my understanding of Japanese imperialism is that they basically went, “Hey, you know what the Americans did to us? Let’s do that to everyone else.” The truth is probably more complicated.

So, yes, I agree, British colonialism is the dominant discourse, and telling that story again now is really just giving it more oxygen. Likewise with Rome — Roman-inspired space opera is pretty much an SF cliche, albeit one that’s been out of fashion for a few years.

And given the maat/Amaat parallels, Egyptian imperialism would have been a really apt parallel for the Radch. Although, come to think of it, a lot of Egypt’s imperialism basically involved going into Africa and being really racist. (Google “queen of Punt” sometime.) Maybe the result wouldn’t actually look that different from the British-inspired version we have now.


Stephanie

HELLO

Here is my face when I read the bit about Seivarden offering to “service” Breq:

...
hugh-laurie

Here is a text conversation between myself and Liz:

Steph: Oh my god this convo bw Sevairdan and Breq about servicing her sexually is so

So

Liz: So

Steph: It sure is a scene


Liz

It really was … something. I’m still not sure how to react to it. Except that it’s a shame I don’t like Seivarden, because I’d probably ship it otherwise.

Animated gif from Community with the caption,


Stephanie

Well, and then I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel about Seivarden hanging out with [spoiler]. Not that anyone should be jealous or anything, but that I had no emotional entanglements with anyone or really cared.

And that was how I felt about the entirety of Ancillary Sword. I definitely didn’t care about Breq, because she was two things I hate all in one: the nice white lady doing nice white social justice amongst the natives because she is the only one who can be trusted to do it properly, and the nice white colonialist come to do some nice white colonisation (NB: I can’t remember what colour Breq actually is in this body, but that doesn’t matter. You know what I mean). And often her nice white lady social justice was wrong.

An aside: It’s hard to believe that [name of the native person who betrayed Breq to the other Captain], after Breq brings [colonised person] to the magistrate, honestly thinks that it’s possible for [colonised person] to get a fair trial. She’s a marginalised minority and a colonised body who was punished for rebelling. That seems…inaccurate.


Liz

It was rather woefully naive, yes, and not in a believable way for that context and character.

I believe Breq is brown, but she fulfills the narrative role of the well-intentioned white lady, just as Seivarden (to me, not Jonathan!) fills the role of woobified male douchebag.


Jonathan aside:

I do understand what you mean, in that respect.


Liz

And you can certainly take that kind of “this character is TECHNICALLY this group, but really they’re that group” attitude too far — please hold while I have a rage flashback to Legend of Korra fandom and “Tenzin is really a white dude” and “Lin Beifong doesn’t count as a female character” — but when you’re dealing with characters created by white people, there’s a level of ambiguity. Try as I might to write a really good Chinese-Australian character, I’m still going to get whiteness all over her (until I send the draft to Steph for comment, OBVIOUSLY).


Stephanie

I am a handy resource, it’s true.

I love a brown narrator/main character, but that character has to be more than a mouthpiece for currently frequently associated with Western memes. Given the current history of colonialism in the world, it’s difficult for me (as a colonised person from a colonised country) to relate to Breq as anything other than a white coloniser, no matter the colour of her skin in the text.


Liz

And there is something very memetic about some of the social justice issues in these books. I was a bit reminded of Karen Healey, an author whom I like and admire very much, but at the same time, I find I know exactly which Tumblr posts she was reading as she wrote.


Sophie

I’ve been trying to figure out what bugged me about the end of Ancillary Sword since I read it, and I think it is that Breq is always the Most Right. The other colonisers are the most wrong, but the colonised characters have a bunch of internalised baggage, hierarchies, bitterness etc. Which in and of itself is understandable, but with Perfect Saviour Breq as contrast, it feels icky.

Like, it makes sense that the union leader from the slightly-less-oppressed ethnicity would have some prejudice against people from the more-oppressed ethnicity, but if she is unable to see the situation objectively, then how is it that Breq can? And by undermining the local agitators for social justice, the narrative creates a space for Breq to come in and Fix Things.

This gets into my long running frustration with “anti oppression” narratives which boil down to a privileged saviour coming in and organising the otherwise helpless masses. This series wasn’t as bad as some (I am looking at you, Legend of Korra) but still did it more than I like.


Liz

I think part of the difference, for me, is that no one is recommending Legend of Korra as having a nuanced or original take on oppression narratives. (And if they are, they are very wrong.)

But yes, I completely agree with that you’re saying about Ancillary Sword. My issue with Ancillary Justice was mostly about infodumps and heavy handed worldbuilding — aside from a few quibbles (like, seriously, we had all this narrative build-up and then the doctor just hands over the magical MacGuffin gun after a few chats?) I didn’t really have issues with the storytelling itself.

None of this is to say that the Imperial Radch books are offensive, or irredeemably problematic, but they’re tough reads in many ways, and the hard work isn’t necessarily rewarded.

On the other hand, we’ve managed to talk about them for 4000 words, and that’s not nothing. I’m interested to see what Leckie does next.


Steph

Are they tough reads? I thought they were like candy.


Liz

I really don’t care for didacticism. It wasn’t so much that it was challenging to read, but whenever I put it down, I had to force myself to pick it up again.


Steph

I cannot wait until you try to read a Chinese classic, Liz. Or we tackle The Three-Body Problem.


Liz

Yeah, look, I’m bracing myself. Stay tuned.

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6 thoughts on “Ancillary Conversation

  1. Great conversation! I just wrote a review of the two books and realized that I’d talked more about the first one; you clarified some reasons why. I was definitely on board for the Trip of multi-bodied consciousness (the Trip is my main reason for reading and writing SF/F) but the imperial politics were depressing–I think because I already knew the story.

    Now you have me thinking about the second book POV Tisarwat (who was my favorite character in that volume). That would have been a trip worth taking, and would have given us more scenes with cranky-but-competent Medic.

    You’ve also cast light on the unease I felt about the plantation chapters in Ancillary Sword, as well as Breq’s role generally. She felt like an instrument of the empire, just as in the first book, but nowhere near as conscious about it this go-round.

  2. I should mention, incidentally, that my favourite parts were all the discussion about politeness via crockery, etc. Give me all of that. All of it.

    1. Yes, I loved that. I really enjoyed the nuances — which tea is served in which crockery, gloves, clothing as class indicators. That was really fantastic worldbuilding, and while there were clear real life inspirations, it didn’t feel like a regurgitation of facts.

  3. Liz said:

    (I wouldn’t be surprised if tea plantations in British India were also run like American coffee and tobacco plantations, but I don’t know much Indian history at all.)

    Purely by coincidence, I was reading through some stuff about tea on Wikipedia last week (they have a whole heap of stuff about it; take a gander!) and some of it went into current plantation practices in Sri Lanka and their historical antecedents. Let’s put it this way: if it weren’t for tea plantations, the recent(ish) multi-decade Sri Lankan civil war wouldn’t have happened, because there wouldn’t have been conflicting Tamil and Sinhalese populations to begin with – the Tamils were brought to Sri Lanka from the Indian mainland in order to work the tea plantations, because the native Sinhalese weren’t industrious enough for their British overlords.

    The conditions of the (female) workers on tea plantations aren’t particularly good even now – I doubt they were any better prior to the end of direct colonial oversight by the British.

    1. Thanks! That’s good to know.

      (And not entirely surprising, that modern conditions are still terrible — my mother will only drink Indian tea if it’s from a particular brand that shares profits with its workers and generally treats them well.)

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