Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Random Thought - Eight Things About Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword That Have Nothing to Do With Gender

Among a certain group of tearful canines, it is an article of faith that Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (read review) was only regarded as notable, and only won the bucket-load of awards that it won, because of what they call the "pronoun gimmick", even though many seem to have not actually read the book (and some, like John C. Wright, have advanced this notion even after explicitly stating they have not read the book). The fact that many of Leckie's detractors hold this opinion despite not reading her books is especially interesting given that the Sad Puppies have been extremely insistent that it would be terribly unfair of anyone to render an opinion about their work if they had not read it. This self-contradiction on the part of the Puppies does not surprise me: After all, they are by and large hypocrites and liars. The Sad Puppies are also reliably wrong about pretty much everything.

Some have also called the story derivative, although they never seem to be willing to specify exactly what Ancillary Justice is derivative of. This is also somewhat amusing given that one of the Sad Puppy arguments has been that the Hugo voters have not given enough attention to licensed fiction, and if licensed fiction isn't extraordinarily derivative, then nothing is. Not only that, one of the leading Sad Puppies wrote an impassioned argument claiming that the fact that science fiction wasn't derivative enough was ruining the genre. Of course, claiming that a work is "derivative" is almost always silly - there are very few truly original works of any kind. If one judged the worth of a work by its originality, there would be precious few worthwhile books in the science fiction field. Even classics of the genre such as Foundation, Starship Troopers, and Ender's Game would be considered "derivative" under a strict standard of originality. The real question is not whether one's book contains a strictly original idea, but rather what the author does with the ideas presented. The brilliance of a work of art is in the execution, not in the originality. "Ideas" are a dime a dozen. Taking an idea and doing the hard work of turning it into a finished story is the difficult part.

The salient point here is that Leckie's Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword (read review) have so much more going on in them than a gender "gimmick" (as the books' detractors are wont to call the use of female pronouns throughout). So here are eight things contained in the two Ancillary books that have nothing to do with gender:

1. Language: A lot of people noticed that the Radch language doesn't have pronouns that differentiate by gender. But the Radch language also doesn't have a word for "tyrant". Nor does it have a way to express the concept of a human civilization that is not part of the Radch Empire. Where did these holes in the Radch language come from? Were they intentionally edited out of the lexicon? Were they never present? The lack of such words obviously says something very interesting about the Radchaai, and has some interesting implications that have not yet been explored in the series.

2. Breq: Breq used to be a collective consciousness made up of the Justice of Toren and its ancillaries. Now she is a single ancillary left with what she believes are the memories of the whole. Imagine that you were mostly destroyed and the only thing left was your pinky finger, which carried on without the rest of you. That's Breq. What does it mean for a collective intelligence to collapse into a single unit? We've seen some of the issues come up in Breq's difficulty with individual genders - which probably stems from the fact that she was comprised of ancillaries of both genders before the rest of her was destroyed.

3. Ancillaries and Crewmen: Ancillaries are former humans brainwiped, implanted with various pieces of equipment, and then made part of a starship. As far as the Radchaai are concerned, they are equipment and not people. But Anaander Mianaai has decreed (under pressure from the alien Presger) that there will be no new ancillaries, meaning that ships must be crewed with humans as they run out of potential ancillaries stored in coldsleep. These human crew insist that they be treated like ancillaries - Breq tells us that they would be very offended if she did not do so. But ancillaries are non-persons in the Radch system. They aren't even on the social totem pole. Why would humans want to be treated like ancillaries? In Ancillary Sword, Breq's human crew is referred to by the same names that would be used if they were ancillaries - Kalr Five, One Var, and so on. Are their names permanently gone? If they are promoted to become officers, will their ancillary service count?

4. An Ancillary Emperor: Despite the fact that ancillaries are non-persons in Radch society, the entire empire is ruled over by what is essentially an ancillary. Anaander Mianaai is a collective entity comprised of a single intelligence controlling hundreds or even thousands of bodies. How is it that a society that regards ancillaries as nothing more than equipment could so easily accept being ruled by an immortal version of the same thing? Why is Anaander a person, but ships made of ancillaries are not?

5. The Radch: The Radch itself has not appeared in the books yet. It is a Dyson Sphere that no one who has appeared in the books has even been to. Given the vast resources needed to make a Dyson Sphere, and the enormous amounts of energy that would be available to such a civilization, what need does the Radch have for their outside empire? What is the inside of the Dyson Sphere like?

6. A Certain Humanocentrism: When Breq reveals herself to Anaander Mianaai and takes the side of one of the warring factions within the emperor, Anaander makes Breq into a citizen of the Radch. Anaander does not ask if Breq wants to be returned to a position as a ship made up of ancillaries, and Breq does not suggest it. Given that Breq was a ship for centuries, or even millennia, why was this not presented as an option? It certainly seems like it would have been within the technical capabilities of the Radch, but it isn't even momentarily considered. If you lost 99.9% of yourself, would you be happy being told that this is the way you are going to be from now on, and by the way, here's a status that probably doesn't mean very much to console you?

7. Technological Stagnation: Breq finds Seivarden near the beginning of Ancillary Justice. Seivarden had been one of Breq's officers when she had been Justice of Toren. But Seivarden was an officer for Justice of Toren more than a thousand years ago. Seivarden was out of circulation for so long that her entire family died out and no one remembers them. Despite this, Seivarden is able to take her place as one of the officers aboard Mercy of Kalr when Breq is made its captain. Could one imagine an officer transported from 1000 A.D. serving aboard a modern warship? Or one from 1900? Or even 1950? The clear implication here is that the Radch has not seen any substantial technological development in thousands of years. Why is that? Is this an intentional limitation imposed by Mianaai? Is Leckie implying that there some hard limit to how far technology can develop?

8. Imperial Expansion Foiled: We are told that the Radch was originally built upon an aggressively expansionist policy. The Radch would conquer worlds, kill most people who resisted, transform others into ancillaries, and rule over the rest, with citizens of the Radch taking over running the place to become wealthy. This expansion was halted long before the events of the books, at least in part because the alien Presger forced Mianaai to do so. In an empire built on acquiring wealth by conquering others, what happens when that empire is forced to stop expanding? Is the stagnation of the empire related to the stagnation of technology? If Mianaai wanted to return to expanding the empire, could better technology be developed that would allow the Radch to take on the Presger? Why do the Presger care about the state of human politics anyway?

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