Blog, blog, what is blog? I have been neglectful, poor thing. It’s been a difficult month and more, but not very interesting to write about, so I’ve fallen behind. I don't really have any new or fun information regarding my own writing to impart to you, other than that things are still, er, fluid, and evolving, and I will tell you what I can when I can. In the meantime, should anyone like to buy my book, please do contact me at Lindsey@lindseysjohnson.com, and we can work something out.
To make up for not blogging lately, I’ve decided I should write sort-of reviews of books I’ve been reading and enjoying. It seems only fair, to anyone who bothers to check in on this space, to have something going on in it. Hi blog, how ya doin?
Today I’m going to start with “Ancillary Justice” and “Ancillary Sword”, by Ann Leckie. I’m doing them both at once, because since I’ve read them both I think it starts to get tangled up in my head what happened when, and what’s revealed at what time. So, uh, spoilers, is what I’m saying. If you haven’t read them and you’re interested in just my vague, non-spoilery general opinion, here it is: I like these books a lot, and I can highly recommend the series as a sweeping space opera that explores some issues of colonialism and oppression, and also, sort of just by the way, gender. I think it’s the gender part that makes some people angry these books exist, but while the gender part is kind of constant and makes you think, it’s almost by-the-way. Or so it feels to me.
AHOY, SPOILERS BELOW MATEY, READ AT YER OWN RISK, SAYS I.
I will try to keep the spoilers more general than specific, but some things I feel I can’t help but spoil, if I want to mention the books at all. So here goes.
I heard about “Ancillary Sword” from all the buzz of all the awards it was winning. It took me awhile to pick it up, because my TBR pile is ginormous and I just wasn’t in the mood for space opera for awhile. I still managed to keep spoiler-free, so I knew only that it generated a lot of talk, and that some people were mad because, and I think I’m quoting here, “Ew, girls.” So I thought, well, I’ll have to check that out at some point, won’t I? But I have to admit that when I started reading it, although I found it interesting and well written, it wasn’t grabbing me right away. It wasn’t until the third or fourth chapter that I started to get hooked. And then more hooked. And soon after that, I couldn’t put it down.
This is a small spoiler, but it's set out pretty early in "Justice." The protagonist, Breq, used to be a spaceship. And the way she used to be a spaceship, is that this space colonial society called the Radch takes people from planets they enslave (that they don't just flat out murder) and erases their personality and memories and hooks their consciousness’ together into a whole and hooks them up to the AI of a spaceship. So they aren’t single people. They are units, or ancillaries, of a spaceship. Breq is the only remaining unit of an entire ship when the ship was destroyed. The why we find out later, through flashbacks. But she can’t remember her life before she became ship, which was thousands of years ago. She’s only had 19 years of being a single person, although she does not think of herself as human. And she doesn’t really know how to behave as one, even as she has to pretend.
Bigger spoiler: The driving reasons for what Breq does is because of a sprawling conspiracy by the ultimate ruler of the Radch against what turns out to be another cloned copy (multiple copies?) of herself (the ruler), on how Radchaai society should continue. To continue to colonize, or not. To continue the horrific practice of making ancillaries, to continue to spread and conquer and fight, or to change as a society. The ruler of the Radch is also, through use of cloning and ancillaries, thousands of years old. And as a consequence, not entirely sane.
This is all revealed slowly through the first half of the book. I think it didn’t really start to feel unputdownable until I started to understand the full horror of the situation - both the worlds-wide situation as well as Breq's personal one. I'm not sure if the flashback-forward approach worked in the beginning, because I definitely felt put at a distance from our protagonist. But once I understood some of the full disaster that brought about Breq's current plan (or vague lack thereof), I was hooked, and I connected fully with the character. Breq is not a usual protagonist, she’s not a usual hero, and she was kind of hard to connect to when I was reading her as this mystery cipher who seemed detached. But as I started to get why she acted and seemed detached, all the while underneath all that detachment is a seething mass of unexpressed pain and rage, I started to identify with her, to love her, and to love her evolving if unclear plans to try to make a wrong right. And her sometimes frustrated attempts to right wrongs she just stumbled across, as well.
I know some people who are not of the “Ew, girls” type who didn’t care for this book, just because it didn’t interest them. To each their own taste, after all. But now I absolutely love Breq. I love how she’s broken, I love how she knows she’s broken, she was made broken, the process that made her broke her and the disaster that caused her to be alone broke her more, and she’s decided the only thing to do is to try to right wrongs. I love her unexplored moral center, that just exists and she doesn’t question it too much. I love how she knows her society is horrible but she also sees the good in people who exist within it, and the rotten core, and tries to do what she can to help the rebellion/conspiracy on the side she thinks is in the right. I love how she acknowledges her brokenness is a mirror of the brokenness of the empire, even though she doesn’t really talk to anyone about it.
Man, I love these books. Because I always love protagonists who keep going even when it all seems futile, and whose moral centers, even when they are lost and confused, land on “help people and make wrongs right”. Also I love a seething mass of undeclared and unacknowledged rage. I just do. I love how it builds tension, and I love when it breaks free.
The gender part that has some people very upset, is the use of “she” as the default pronoun. Which is the one area of Radch society I can completely get behind. Gender makes no difference to them, and the default pronoun is “she.” So everyone is referred to with the “she” pronoun, no matter their gender. Which can get Breq into trouble with societies that aren’t Radchaai, where gender does matter. And it can make for confusing moments for readers – one of the first characters we meet, we’re told offhand is a male, but Breq uses the “she/her” pronoun to refer to … him. See, it’s hard to discuss. Because I feel like I should use the she/her pronoun, too. But English does make distinctions, and this character is male. And of course, that means that you don’t know whether or not a character we meet, whose gender is not specified to us, is male or female. And since the default pronoun is “she” then I just decided to go ahead and make the assumption that pretty much all the characters were female unless told otherwise. And I have to tell you, that is a pretty revolutionary way to read. So many space operas I’ve read – even those written by women – have the default character assumption as male for anyone who isn't specifically spelled out as a woman. So all those space opera extras, just walking around doing odd jobs and not really discussed in specific terms, read as male. How many space opera societies are almost entirely peopled by men this way? Most of them. Hell, most books in general that I've read are written that way. To have it be the opposite blew my mind regularly. It did push me out of the narrative from time to time, but in a good way. In a “Holy cats this is weird and awesome” way.
Of course, that is why those whose response to feminism is “Ew, girls” are so angry. How dare we consider the default pronoun to be female, instead of male? How dare anyone change these understood (but arbitrary) rules we have imposed on our world? How dare we explore what it means to define gender as beside the point? Because that’s what the narrative does – gender is meaningless, only the mind matters. I think if this book had been written with a protagonist whose body was male, or if the default pronoun was “they” or “It”, or if the book had been written by a man, I think those who so railed against it would not have been very upset. Which I think proves a point, really. The point it proves is the default male that we live and read by is sexist, and it does change how we think about the world, and that representation really, truly matters. If it didn’t, then this series existing, and winning awards, would not have set people off.
Another thing that is just kind of by the way, is that most of the Radch have dark skin, and dark skin is "fashionable" for the upper classes. So your default well-off character is female, dark skinned, with no obvious (to the reader) gender expression. It's pretty revolutionary, and I had to recalibrate to read it the way it was written.
Something else this series explores is oppression by colonial powers, and the ramifications for the societies that have to live under it, as well as the colonial society itself. The reach of Radch controlled space is pretty vast, and the way they take over worlds is called “annexation,” and there is no resistance allowed, of course, which seems entirely reasonable to the Radchaai. To anyone outside of their society, the constant expansion and death, the idea that these ancillaries exist is horrific – they’ve taken people and basically killed them without killing their bodies, making undead slaves to the Radch who will do what is ordered.
Probably. (uh, spoiler)
But what is pointed out early on in the first book, is that the fully human, non-ancillary humans who are Radch are somehow even more horrifying - in that they look at the annexation of worlds as their right. They don’t see anything wrong with creating ancillaries. Or rather, they didn’t used to - now making them is supposed to be illegal and they don't do it anymore. But since all of these ancillaries are just leftover, we may as well use them as long as they exist, right? The ancillaries work with their AIs and obey orders and are horrifying, undead tools who (probably) can't think for themselves. But the humans are still human, in that they act in horrible, inhumane ways to one another due to desire for power, or a thrill, or money, or some combination of all three. The Radch do not consider anyone who is not a citizen to have rights. And they control who is a citizen and who isn’t. And of course, being these people who think their rules and wars and ways of life are entirely reasonable, they see nothing wrong with any of this.
And it is truly, awfully, horrifying. And it is us. Or a certain funhouse mirror of us, but here we are. We are so reasonable. And so horrifying. Those awful things we used to do don’t count, do they? We’re super sorry we did them, but that was a long time ago. And now it’s all better, see? What? It’s not better? How dare you! We are the reasonable people.
It’s so easy to be reasonable when you get to define what reasonable means.
And THAT’S why I love these books, and I think why they’re up for, and keep winning, awards. I've heard some people don’t think the second book is as strong as the first, but I disagree. I think it’s dealing with consequences set up in the first book, and the consequences of Breq getting some of her questions answered, and some of her quest finished, and what does she do now? And of course, the ever-present, justified if not dealt-with, seething mass of unimaginable grief and rage. There’s that, too. And I think “Sword” makes its case that while others have to start to face the horror that is their society, Breq has to face the rage and grief she suppresses and ignores and doesn’t know how to process. She doesn’t know how to process it because she doesn’t know how to be just one person, and she keeps having to learn that lesson. I think going on this journey is fascinating and heartbreaking, and I can’t wait to see how the next book goes.
All opinions are purely my own, and may or may not be what the author was going for anyway. But I get to have my opinion as a reader, and these are mine.
Title is from "Simple Joys" from the musical "Pippin," which I GET TO SEE ON SUNDAY BECAUSE MY PARENTS LOVE ME SO THERE. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME.