Ann Leckie is the author of Ancillary Justice, one of last year’s most popular books. It won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Nebula, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. A sequel, Ancillary Sword, is out now.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.
To start out with, how did you first get interested in reading fantasy and science fiction?
I honestly do not know the answer to that question. I’ve been reading fantasy and science fiction since I was pretty little, so it’s one of those things that has always been there. I’m not sure how I got interested in it.
I heard you say that your parents were not big science fiction fans?
They were not. They were big mystery novel fans, but they were not into science fiction. They felt like science fiction was just about gadgets and stuff, and couldn’t really be real literature. They really hoped I would grow out of it.
So it wasn’t around the house, I assume, but somehow you found it in a library or school or something?
Probably in the library. I lived walking distance from the local library branch when I was a kid and would go down there almost every Saturday and just hang. That’s probably where I found it.
What were some of the authors that you were reading at that time?
I’ve read almost everything that was on the shelves there, but that was when I discovered Andre Norton. Big favorite of mine for a very long time. I read a bunch of John Christopher, I remember. There were just tons of things. In a lot of cases, I wouldn’t remember who it was, but Andre Norton was a definite big one.
Were you writing any science fiction as a kid, or when did you actually start writing your own science fiction?
I did write stuff as a kid, and I think most of it I’ve sort of repressed. There was some fantasy and science fiction, but also parodies. The kind of stuff that you write when you’re a kid — stuff to amuse my friends at school, particularly in high school. I’m not a hundred percent sure, to be honest, but I was writing stuff. I did think it would be cool to be a writer, and interestingly, although my parents did not approve of my reading choices, they firmly believed that I was going to be a writer and really encouraged me to do that.
What kind of encouragement did they give you? I know you went to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. How did you go from reading stuff as a kid or teenager to attending Clarion?
That was a long process because I was at Clarion West in 2005, so that was pretty recent. What happened was, as a kid and particularly in high school and college, I thought, “Gee, wouldn’t it be cool to write, but I don’t have any really good ideas.” I’d sit down and write something, and it would just seem stupid. I didn’t realize at the time — and I think this is one of the big blessings of the internet — that a lot of people feel that way. Even some of my favorite writers feel that way when they sit down to write something. At the time, I felt like it was a sign that really I wasn’t as talented as, say, my parents kept telling me they thought I was, and it was, “No, obviously, I can’t do this, because if I could do this, I could just sit down and do it.”
So that persisted for a long time, and then when I had my kids, I was at home. I had discovered very quickly that if I went back to work, I would be spending money to work, which is defeating the purpose of doing it when it’s a job that you don’t really love. I stayed home, and my kids are wonderful. I think any parent will tell you their kids are wonderful, and it’s really marvelous to be able to spend a lot of time with them when they’re little, but it’s not very intellectually stimulating. After a while, I stared to feel like my brains were leaking out my ears.
That was when I said, “I have to do something.” We finally got an internet connection, and I started reading up on just stuff. I said, “No, wait a minute. Actually, all these other writers feel that way when they sit down to do it, and so maybe that’s not a sign that I can’t be a writer. Maybe I can’t, but that’s not a sign that I can’t. Maybe that’d be something to do, something to think about that would be helpful to me psychologically.” That was when I seriously sat down and said, “No, I’m going to do this even if I feel like it’s stupid.”
NaNoWriMo was a really big help there too. I love NaNoWriMo. One of the things I learned was, even with that little voice in the back of my mind telling me that my ideas just weren’t worth it and nobody would want to read them, I could still write through that. I can continue. And when the month was done, I had a manuscript that was an important step in my beginning to feel confident as a writer. It wasn’t long after that that some friends in a crit group said, “You know, you really ought to apply to Clarion or Clarion West.” I thought about it, and I worked it all out and said, “I can make it work out.” I did apply and I went. That was pretty cool.
Was that NaNoWriMo novel Ancillary Justice?
It was not. I already had the basic plot for Ancillary Justice, but I was afraid to write it because I knew that I wanted it to be first person from that character’s perspective, but the idea of writing that, I couldn’t even figure out how to begin to write that character. How do you write from the first person perspective of somebody with thousands of bodies? It’s like, “I can’t do that.” Actually, that first NaNo novel is over to the side of Ancillary Justice.
It’s in the same continuity though?
It is in the same continuity, yeah. In fact, it deals with events that are mentioned in Ancillary Justice and are actually dealt with specifically in that first NaNo novel.
I know that you wrote a bunch of short stories before your first novel came out. Where in the chronology were you doing the short stories?
It was in 2002 that I did my first NaNoWriMo, and then I did another year of NaNoWriMo. When I looked at those two manuscripts, I said, “You know, maybe I need to start writing some short stories,” partly because that’s the advice that they often give you, which is if you know you want to sell a novel, you should sell some short stories first. I want to say that is not necessarily true, and if you really don’t like short stories, there’s no reason to spend a lot of time trying to write them because you’ll just make yourself unhappy. You won’t necessarily make any readers happy, so I just want to put that out there. But at the time, I thought, “Well maybe I should do that.” Also, it takes a very long time to write a novel and then it can be on submission for ages. A short story? It takes much less time. The turnaround’s faster. You get rejected a lot faster. So I said, “Well, I’ll spend some time on short stories,” and I had only written a few short stories when I went to Clarion West (enough to apply). Of course, I spent that time writing short stories. Then I spent a fair amount of time after that putting a lot of work into writing short stories, which I enjoyed a lot, actually. There’s some really neat stuff you can do at that scale. It’s a very different form, which is part of why I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to tell aspiring novelists that they should learn to write short stories if they want to learn to write novels, because that’s not what they’re going to learn. Although you can learn some cool stuff that way, I think.
Tell us a bit more about Clarion. It says in your Wikipedia page that you studied with Octavia Butler. Could you tell us a little bit about what sort of interactions you had with her while you were there?
She was our Week One teacher, Octavia Butler. She was awesome, of course. She was also very, very introverted, and so we would interact in class. One of the cool things about Clarion, probably with Clarion San Diego as well, is you get that one-on-one session with the instructor that week. It was awesome to be able to talk to her personally. She’d only seen my submission story. She’d chosen my submission story for the first week so that I didn’t have to write a story that first week, so she was only really looking at that work. She looked at that story in our one-on-one, and she said, “So you’re not really under the impression that this is a short story, are you?” and I said no. She says, “Because you’re really a novelist, right?” and I said, “Yeah, I kind of am.” That was really cool; that was amazing. It was amazing to be able to meet her and hear her talk about fiction. It was fabulous.
Then you had a bunch of short stories you had written. What was your process for selling some of those to get your first fiction publications?
The first science fiction publication I actually wrote at Clarion West. Just before I went to Clarion West, John Scalzi had said on his blog that he was going to be guest editing an issue of Subterranean Magazine and that the theme was going to be science fiction clichés. I said, “Well, that would be really cool,” and went into Clarion West and actually told some of my classmates about it too. I ended up turning in a first draft of a story for Week Six with Michael Swanwick, in fact, that I actually ended up then revising and selling to John Scalzi for that issue. That was my first sale.
What was the cliché?
The cliché was kind of an Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiche. It was called “Hesperia and Glory,” and it was very much a Martian prince thing, very much like the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars things.
So you said that you’re really a novelist by nature? Could you say a bit more about why the novel is the form you naturally fall into?
One of the things that I really enjoy (and I think a lot of readers and writers enjoy) about science fiction and fantasy is the way that you can really delve into the setting and the anthropology or the history or the geography or whatever. You can pull in a lot of really cool things and put them down on the page, and go, “Wow, isn’t this cool?” But a short story doesn’t really give you a lot of room for that. In a short story, absolutely everything has to be doing like five things, otherwise you have to cut it. The things that, in a novel, there’s room to add a sentence to say this really cool thing that adds a really cool effect that’s worth doing, there’s just no space for in a short story. You have to be much more efficient, and that’s one of the things that I really enjoy about writing.
I can do the short stories obviously, and they are fun to do, but I’ve found when I went back to doing the novels that it was almost a physical relief that I could stretch out and not have to slice off things that I really thought were important. When I would do a short story, I would write and it would be really long, and then I would have to keep cutting things off. I felt every now and then like, you know, Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting their toes off to fit their feet in the shoe? I felt like that sometimes. I’m a lot more comfortable when I have a lot of elbow room to work in.
I can definitely see that with Ancillary Justice, because the world you present in this novel is just so full of different ideas and all these different things all stuck together. Why don’t you tell us a bit about the world of that novel and tell us a little about, say, the Radch Empire?
Essentially its origin is actually a Dyson sphere, but in fact, the empire that’s grown up around it has almost no contact with its original place of origin. It’s just this huge expansive empire that’s always moving outward and appropriating any systems that it comes across that have resources. They think of themselves as representing civilization and humanity, and they think of people who maybe don’t match their definition of humanity as being not entirely human and not worth paying much attention to, but they really see themselves as being a force for good and for civilization. They’re bringing light to the world, which the people who get annexed would argue with. So that’s the basic set-up of it, and of course, they use the warships that essentially take prisoners from these annexations and slave them to the ship’s A.I.s and use those as soldiers, as cannon fodder, as servants to work for the armies. That’s basically what the set-up is.
Historically, what were some of the inspirations for the Radch Empire? What bits and pieces did you take from different real life events?
It’s mostly bits and pieces, and it isn’t necessarily inspired in particular by any set of historic events or historic empires — although once I got started, I went looking for real life empires. The most prominent example in Western history would be Rome. Of course, a lot of science fiction writers have used the Roman Empire more or less simplistically, sometimes more complicatedly. Rome, in a lot of ways, was a big influence. But I drew from different historical periods and different areas, generally anything that interested me. I would be fascinated for a while with the ancient Near East, and I would grab things from there. Or I would be fascinated with Egypt and grab stuff from there. A number of people have remarked, and I’ve said it before in the past, too, Rome has been a big influence.
How about the centrality of tea to the Radch Empire? Where did that idea come from?
Initially, it came from the fact that I am a huge, huge fan of C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner books. Tea, although I don’t think it really is the same kind of thing we call tea, is really important to the Atevi in the Foreigner books, and I had just come off a time when I was reading and rereading the first several books of those when I started into the first NaNoWriMo novel. Also, I like tea, and so I said, “Well, that’s a win, right? That’s a cool thing about these novels that I can use and it’s a thing that I like. I’ll plug it in there and see what happens.” I plugged it in there and it just became really important. I was like, “Okay, I’ll run with that.”
It’s interesting you mention C.J. Cherryh, because this copy has a blurb from Elizabeth Bear who says that this book “establishes Leckie as an heir to Banks and Cherryh.” This reminded me a lot of Iain Banks and also Lois McMaster Bujold. Would you say that those were influences on you?
I hear the Banks thing a lot and I guess I can see where people are coming from. I had read Consider Phlebas at some point, quite some time ago. Other than that, I had not read a lot of Banks. After Ancillary Justice came out, then I read The Hydrogen Sonata, and that is all the Banks that I’ve read, so he wasn’t a big influence on my work. I can see where folks are coming from with the sentient ship angle, although I think his project was a little bit different. Bujold is somebody who may have been an influence — I think I’ve read all the Miles Vorkosigan books — but if so, it wasn’t a conscious one. I’m definitely much more familiar with her work than with Banks.
Speaking of the sentient ships, when I think of sentient ships in science fiction, the first example that comes to mind for me is The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey. I don’t know if that was an influence on you, but I thought it was interesting because you have a female sentient ship, or at least I took it as a female sentient ship, in Ancillary Justice who likes to sing. I don’t know if there is any connection there, but it made me think of that: The Ship Who Sang.
I have actually never read The Ship Who Sang. I ordered a copy recently. I found a used copy because I was like, “Maybe I should read it at this point.” One of the reasons Justice of Toren sings is because I was thinking about the character. I was thinking, “Well, if I had that many bodies, what would I do?” Almost the first thing that came to my mind was “Holy cow, I could sing choral music all by myself!” That would be completely awesome. Once having had that idea, even just the title of The Ship Who Sang is so famous that it’s hard to escape that being there in the background. It wasn’t something that I had ever read. One of these days I’ll read it.
In an interview, I saw that you said that music is often handled badly in fiction so you resisted putting that in for a while. Could you talk about why you think music is handled badly in fiction a lot of the time?
There are at least two main reasons. One of them is it can be fetishized in a way that I don’t really enjoy. I think a lot of times, our culture has an attitude towards art and the production of art that separates artists from the rest of us. Like making art, music, painting, or whatever as some magical thing that you have to be inspired to do and special people do it. Sometimes when somebody will write a character who’s musical, there will be touches of that. They’ll be that almost Mary Sue-ish — they play and sing beautifully, and all the animals stop and listen. I’m exaggerating, but that kind of fetishization of music and musical talent and singing, I’m not comfortable with. This is not necessarily because there’s a problem with that, but because I feel very strongly that art, and music in particular, is something that really everybody has some kind of ability to do. When you separate that out as something only special people can do, people who are specially talented, you cut off that avenue of artistic expression for tons of people who would otherwise be able to enjoy it but who think of it as something they can’t do. I feel strongly about that.
The other way that I find that music is often handled badly in fiction is when the writer is thinking of the music as a soundtrack and wants it there. They’ll put in the lyrics to the song, for instance, expecting it to have the same effect as a soundtrack — except it doesn’t work that way. When you’re reading the lyrics flat on the page, it doesn’t evoke the music in the same way that the music actually does. Even worse in my opinion: when there are made-up songs. I even stepped into this. When there are made-up songs and they want to evoke a particular mood or a particular emotional response with the made-up song, but of course it can’t, because it’s not an existing song. The writer may feel it for what they’re writing down, but the reader doesn’t have the context that lets them do that. Those are the most common ways that I personally find music to be not particularly well handled when it’s used in fiction.
Let’s talk a little bit more about Breq, the character. You mention she’s kind of this starship, where the starship and the crew are networked together so it’s this group mind, and you said that you were hesitant to do the book at first because that seemed like a really ambitious project. How did you work through that reluctance and actually write the book? What sort of approaches did you take to that?
Essentially, I came back from Clarion West, which — that’s come up several times at this point. That was actually a very pivotal six weeks for me. One of the things about being at something like Clarion West is you spend all this time with people who take you really seriously. They don’t know you as the lunch lady or the person down the street who’s just a regular person who couldn’t possibly be a writer or whatever. They are there meeting other writers, and they take your work really seriously. It’s much easier coming away from that to say, “All right, I am a writer. I actually can do this, I just spent all this time with all this support and all these people taking it seriously and talking to me as though of course I’m a writer.” So I came away from that a lot more confident, not necessarily about my abilities, but about my being able to try to be a writer. That’s an odd way of putting it.
When November came around that year, which would have been the next NaNoWriMo, I said, “Well, maybe what I need to do is just stop doubting myself and hold my nose and jump. Just start writing.” I did, and it was horrendous. I made all kinds of horrible structural things, but I said, “I’m just going to write and write and come up with something.” After having thought about it for a while — well, how do I do this; this is really complicated; I could come up with a lot of complicated ways to do it — and I said, “No, the way to do it, since this is the only way I can see that I can do it, is to actually do it very simply and just make sure that I ground the setting really firmly so that every time there’s a switch to a different body, I’m very specific about ‘in this place, this is happening’ and ‘in this place, this is happening’ and making sure that the information is very clear and right up front. Just try and pace it so that it’s working, which is a thing you do by feel.” That was what I did, although that was a lot of work. That took a lot of trial and error, a lot of backing up, and a lot of banging my head on the desk. In the end, I decided to take a very straightforward approach to it.
One of the things I really like about Breq as a character is how she’s not human and so she has to really try hard to pretend to be human, and smile when she thinks people would be expecting her to smile, and so on. Doing this podcast, a lot of people complain that my voice is too monotone or that I’m not enthusiastic enough, so I really identified with Breq in that sense, because I have to try to pretend to be more animated for this podcast. Is that something that you yourself have experienced, knowing people want you to be more animated, or are you just using your imagination to picture what this robotic kind of character would be like?
I absolutely experience that. You bet. Like a lot of writers, I’m a serious introvert and talking to strangers, going out into a place, like the grocery store, and talking to somebody I don’t know is very difficult. Actually my very first job was as a busgirl, but in college, I got a job as a waitress. In a lot of ways, it was not a fun job. But in a lot of ways, it was beneficial, because where I wasn’t sure how those interactions were supposed to go with people I didn’t know well, but working for several years as a waitress, you learn really quickly a couple of default scripts. You know exactly what the interaction is going to be when the person sits down at the table, and after a few months of that, I’m like, “Oh, I can switch it up a little bit. I can say ‘Hey, it’s pretty rainy outside,’” and get a particular response and know how to respond to that. That was a big learning thing for me when I was in high school and college. That’s something that I found very useful. What it means is that I’m not a person who those kind of interactions come naturally to me, so when I’m thinking about Breq, I’m thinking about my own experience of here I am talking to a person, now I need to pick a script, how is this going to go?
That’s really interesting. Maybe I should get a job as a waiter. It might help me with my podcast.
I found it beneficial. There are some cool things about waiting tables. You meet a lot of really interesting people, and most people who come into a place and eat are cool and fine. There are one or two who just make you despair for humanity, and then there are a few who are just a joy. It is really neat to be exposed to all those people, and it’s really neat to be able to have them have a nice time and you help them have a nice time. At the same time, there’s a reason that I haven’t gone out and gotten another table-waiting job even though my kids are back in school.
That’s interesting, because I saw in your bio that you worked as a waitress, and there’s such a focus in both these books, it seems to me, on social status and “is this person above me or below me in the social status, and what do I have to say to them to be polite?” I was wondering if that kind of stuff came out of your experiences doing jobs like waitressing?
It may well have. There’s nothing for showing you what people think their status is than being in a position like a waitress or a busgirl. After I had been waiting tables for the first few years — and I discovered that this is not original to me, other people have had this thought — I came to the conclusion that you could tell a lot about a person by how they treated someone they thought had no power over them. Very frequently, that someone is a waiter or a dishwasher or a garbage collector. It’s interesting. I actually worked in the faculty club of the university where I went to school, and so it was extraordinarily interesting to see the way that members, some of whom were professors, some of whom were big donors of the university, to see the way they would treat the other people who they would come into lunch with or the other people that they would encounter in the building versus the way they would speak to the waiters. It was interesting to me. I don’t think it consciously played in to the books, but at the same time, I can’t imagine that that experience wasn’t there in the background.
Speaking of how people speak, one thing I thought that these books do really well is that it constantly reminds you that these characters are speaking a language other than English, and it’s constantly saying she used a word that could mean this or that or in this particular language, this word meant that. And also, I don’t think you ever say the character nodded or shrugged or something like that. It’s always, “She made a gesture indicating confusion” or a gesture indicating something.
I hope I didn’t. I tried very hard to stay away from shrugging and nodding for exactly that reason.
It’s really well thought through, the alien nature of the society and the manners.
That’s something that I think a lot of science fiction tries really hard to convey: sort of an alien, different future society. It’s one of the things I love about science fiction. But at least in the past several years, I’ve become really interested in the things that writers, including myself, don’t notice because they assume that it’s default. So the shrugging and the nodding is one of those things. I think in my very first draft, people were shrugging and nodding left and right. I realized at one point that these gestures are very culture specific, and if you’re making a completely alien society, there’s no reason they’re going to shrug. There’s no reason that a nod is going to mean what it means to us. They are going to have a completely different vocabulary of bodily movement that’s going to communicate the same way ours does, but it’s not going to be shrugs and nods. That was a revelatory thought for me. It had not occurred to me, but it’s really made me notice. It’s more easily noticeable in older science fiction where we’ve got this future society, and the technology is all very different, but people are smoking cigarettes and using slide rules. The social relationships are exactly like they would have been in the fifties. The wife is bringing in coffee. It’s like those are blind spots because the writer saw those things as being constant. Why would those change because those are completely human nature — smoking a cigarette and having your wife bring you a coffee. I don’t mean that to be critical in any particular way of any particular writer. I think we’ve all got those blind spots, and I find it fascinating to look and see where they turn up in the places that I can see them. I’m sure there are tons of them that I can’t see because they’re my own blind spots.
Speaking of the wife bringing in coffee, of course, that brings us to another really striking aspect of the book, which is that the Radchaai society doesn’t think gender is all that important, and the Radchaai language makes no distinction the way English does between male and female people. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that and how you chose to communicate that in the book?
I had wanted to, as you said, create a society that genuinely did not care about gender. But what I found was, writing in English, using he and she for everybody, I couldn’t escape my own associations with that. It wasn’t giving the impression of a society that didn’t care about gender. It was inadequate to me. I thought about various ways to do what I was trying to do. At one point, I wrote a short story where everybody was “he” and I was really unhappy with it. Then I said, “What if I just said ‘she’ for everybody?” You wouldn’t end up with a society that truly seemed gender neutral because “she” is not gender neutral. You would end up with the impression of a society that was completely populated by women, but on the other hand, while it’s fairly common to read books that seem like they’re completely populated by men except for the wives bringing in the coffee, it’s not quite as common to run across that where it’s all women. Also, just noticing that it was all women, I found it sort of undercut that assumption of masculine default in a way that just using “he” wouldn’t have worked, and in a way that I personally felt using one of the various proposed gender neutral pronouns wouldn’t have had quite as large an impact, although it would have had some interesting effects. Actually, I think it would be cool if people would use those more often.
So that was what I ended up doing — I ended up calling everyone “she,” and then I said to myself, “But if the main character’s talking to somebody else in a language that isn’t Radchaai, now I’ve got another problem.” That ended up with the things that happened in the beginning of the novel, which is where Breq is talking to people who do speak languages that use genders, and she’s not used to making that assignment. She messes up sometimes, but her internal monologue is all using the pronoun that she’s used to as though I’m translating always with “she” for the Radchaai pronoun.
As it happens, actually there are a number of real life Earth languages that don’t gender people. Hungarian doesn’t. I believe Finnish doesn’t. There are quite a few of them, but actually that doesn’t end up with a society that doesn’t care about gender. I had to add another layer to it. One of the things I think is interesting is that — and I found this out after I wrote the book — people whose first languages are those languages like Hungarian or Chinese that don’t gender people, when they’re speaking say, English, they very frequently misgender not because they don’t know the difference but because they’re not used to grabbing the right one automatically, which is something that we have a lot of practice at. It’s part of our mental furniture. If I understand correctly, and I may be wrong about this, but in spoken Chinese, there’s not a distinction, but there is a distinction in written Chinese. I say Chinese, but there’s a bunch of different languages. This tells you how little I know about that particular group of languages. I found that very interesting. That’s something that, even when gender is something that’s important to you, it’s actually not easy to do unless you’ve had a lot of practice.
Is there any association at all between whether you grew up with one of those languages and how you view gender?
I don’t know of any studies, but I’m not sure it’s particularly different. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that, say, in Finland or Hungary, attitudes towards gender are radically different, although they may be different. Once again, I’m stepping into an area where I know very little about Hungary, Finland, or China, so I couldn’t tell you, but I haven’t seen any. I know I’ve seen studies that have been disputed about other languages that gender nouns. Supposedly, people have different attitudes towards objects depending on the gender in their language, but that’s been disputed as maybe not being a necessarily useful study. I haven’t heard anything about people having different attitudes towards gender if their language doesn’t gender people.
It does sort of seem to me that it might be a good thing if we tried to move toward a less gendered language, because it seems like when English makes such a big distinction, it emphasizes this idea that gender is this really important thing that you have to keep in mind one hundred percent of the time, and also that there are only two genders, and everyone falls into one or the other.
Exactly. It’s very hard to talk about somebody without calling out their gender — at least, the gender that culture has assigned to them. As you point out, the idea that there are only two is not necessarily the case. When you’re used to only speaking one language or maybe a couple of languages that tend to do the same kinds of things — maybe you speak a few Indo-European languages; many of us learn some Spanish or some French — it’s difficult to even look at the idea that maybe that assignment of gender isn’t something that arises naturally out of the world but is an artifact of the language. Sometimes that can be a weird thought for folks who haven’t thought of it that way. I think there are some things that certain things about the language makes it hard to talk about, and that’s one of them. That the way that English is gendered with its pronouns makes it hard to talk about.
I heard you say that not all readers are perfectly clear when they start reading this book what’s going on with the pronouns. What are some of the more interesting interpretations that people have had of it that isn’t what you intended?
One of the few that I expected was the folks who would read right through and say, “Oh, well, this is a book entirely populated by women,” and there have been several of those. A few people have gotten all the way to the end and gone to read a review or something, and said, “Wait, what? I didn’t catch that.” Another one that I did expect, but I expected more of it, were the folks who would read it and say, “Well, this is stupid. How could you not tell what gender somebody is? How could it not be important what gender somebody is? That’s dumb.” There is some of that. I’ve seen some of that, and readers have the reaction they’re going to have. Once the book is out there, we read from a very personal place. We read from where we’re at and what our history is, and who we are. I don’t ever want to say that a reader’s reaction to the work is not valid. But that, of course, was not what I was trying to convey.
This is a criticism that actually, in some ways, I’ve been glad to see — I’ve been surprised at the number of people who are really angry that I tried to convey gender neutrality by using a gendered pronoun. Even if it was “she,” which undercuts a masculine default, they feel as though it would have been much better if I had used an honest to goodness gender neutral pronoun, and that would have conveyed it better. People are also feeling kind of angry that the male characters in this story are persistently misgendered because they’re continually referred to as she. I understand where that’s coming from, and it certainly wasn’t my intention to make people feel like anybody was being maliciously misgendered, and I, in some ways, share the frustration with folks about the third person neutral pronouns. I wish they were used more, as I said, and I totally understand where that’s coming from. At the same time, I made the choice I did for the reasons I made it, and while I might have finessed some things a little bit differently, I think at the time, I was working very strongly from an assumption, maybe not an overt assumption. If you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have said this, but the assumption’s buried there, that in fact gender is a binary, and the implications of that do turn up in the text. I know some people have pointed it out, and they’re right, it’s there. Had I been writing it now, I probably would have handled those moments a little bit differently, but I think I would still have gone with “she” because I think it has a much stronger, more visceral effect. “She” is so much more familiar than the third-person neutral pronouns. That said, like I said, I really wish people would use them more so that they would become more familiar.
I saw you tweeted, “Oh, fan artists on Tumblr, I heart you.”
Oh, I do!
It just made me curious because most of the characters in this book, you’re not sure what gender they are. How have people gone about depicting them visually given that?
It’s really interesting. The fan art that I’ve seen on Tumblr, which is all wonderful, the people will draw a character, and the character will look nothing like what I imagined the character. They’re all very different from each other. It’s clear that each of these artists who’ve done this have a very definite vision in their mind of what the characters look like, and they’re all very different from each other. They’re all very different from my internal vision of the characters, and yet, at the same time, they all work. They all feel right. I think that’s fabulous.
That was something I did not expect ever to see and that has been a really amazing experience to me to see how these fan artists do it. In some cases, they’re drawing figures that are somewhat androgynous. In the case of Seivarden — who Breq knows to use a masculine pronoun for — the characters, the figures that they draw, tend to be sort of masculine, but they also tend to be maybe . . . feminized. There is one artist who loves to draw Seivarden with very long, tangled curly hair. It’s really fabulous. I just love the fan art on Tumblr. I think it’s wonderful.
Other than Seivarden, is there a statistical correlation between which characters readers think are male and which are female?
There isn’t and I think it’s really interesting. I’ve run across a couple of reviews where the reviewers were very clear that they have assigned genders to the characters. They seem to believe that there’s evidence for it in the text. There was one review, it might have been a podcast, I’m not sure, where somebody was saying that they really liked using “she,” but it would have seemed like a gimmick if everybody would have turned out to be gay, for instance, but no, the characters are straight who are involved in sexual relationships. I was like, “Really? How do they know that?” It became clear that the reviewer was thinking very much of Lieutenant Awn and Lieutenant Skaaiat, who of course are romantically and sexually involved. The reviewer had assigned genders to those characters. I thought that was really fascinating. And there was another case where a reviewer, in summarizing the plot, said of Lieutenant Awn — in the book, I say of Lieutenant Awn’s family that her parents were cooks. That’s all that’s said about that. And this reviewer said, “Her father owned a restaurant and her mother was a cook.” I thought that was interesting, how strongly that gendering is there and those expectations are there.
But I also have seen a few people say that they were really fascinated with that relationship in particular, that they began to question the assumptions they would assign as a reader, one or the other gender to the characters and then realize that maybe they’d assigned wrongly because, of course, they’re both referred to as “she.” There is nothing in the text to say what gender they would be or what the shape of their genitals would be, because that doesn’t matter. I’ve seen a few folks say, “Yeah, it’s interesting I assumed they were both women, or I assumed one was male and the other was female, but then I realized that if I switched it or changed that, my view of the relationship would change.” So for instance, one person thought of Skaaiat as male and Awn as female because of the power dynamic in that relationship, but if they imagined it the other way around, that changed the implied power dynamic because of our cultural assumptions. That discussion I found really fascinating. I’ve enjoyed seeing the way that different readers respond to that.
I did also want to talk to you about religion in Ancillary Justice. If I’m remembering this right, there was this line in the book where it talks about how these people saw living on a space station as the real world and descending to the planet surface was like a trip to hell and going further out into space was like ascending to the heavens. Could you talk about that idea?
A lot of times when we sort of make up different cultures, it’s really easy, and in fact, that’s a situation where I took an oversimplified idea of a real world cultural idea and said, “But if we were living in space, it would be different, right, because your environment has a lot to do with what’s important to you culturally.” There are quite a lot of religious systems that basically say, “Here’s the earth and then there’s heaven above, then there’s the underworld below.” I thought, “Well yeah, but if you had lived for thousands of years in space, that would be different. How would that be different? What would the implications of that be?” It was just kind of a throwaway because I thought it was cool to think about the idea of a space station being the natural habitat of human beings, and the Earth that we think of as being where you live and everything is good as being the underworld. Both just shifted out. What would that do? That would be fun.
It says in the books that the Radchaai consider monotheism almost inconceivable. Could you talk about why you decided to create a culture in which monotheism is so marginalized?
Because we live, at least in the U.S., in a very Christian-dominated culture and our idea of religion is strongly influenced by Christianity. There are a lot of different kinds of Christianity, but that base, exclusive monotheism, and that particular approach to it is considered sort of the default definition of religion. I wanted to get away from that, not because I think there’s necessarily anything wrong with Christianity, but because I’m a science fiction reader. I like things to be different. I like to question that.
Of course, I went looking in history, which I do very frequently. One of the narratives that is common in our culture, for historical reasons, but that is massively oversimplified, is the Roman pagan relationship to Christianity and to Judaism. To a lot of ancient European pagans, they considered them — Christians in particular — to be atheists. If you think about it, if you’re a polytheist, the idea that one god exists and the rest don’t just doesn’t make sense. Particularly if you’re the sort of polytheist who, as has been the case for the majority of human religious history, if it’s obvious to you that you have your gods in your place and if you go to someplace else, well, your gods are real, their gods are real. It’s pretty obvious that your god of war is basically their god of war under a different name. That only makes sense. So it becomes really easy to accept a lot of different models for what god is. I think in the ancient world, the idea that there was one overarching god was pretty uncontroversial. At the same time, all the other gods were considered to be part of that, aspects of that, so the idea that our god exists and your gods don’t exist was just weird and strange. It was tantamount to saying that God did not exist because that’s as if you’re saying, “Okay, God, yes, and all these other gods are part of God,” and then these other people say, “No, your god doesn’t exist,” basically they’re saying there are no gods. It’s essentially a kind of atheism from that point of view. That was actually a real, historical situation. I was looking into Rome and I wanted to play with that. I wanted to get away from the exclusive monotheist default. I wanted to get away from preconceptions about what religion is, what faith is, and how it works. So I just flipped that and I looked at historical examples of exactly that kind of interface between a culture that’s polytheistic and a culture that is exclusively monotheistic.
I saw you posted a message on Twitter where you said, “Might be time for a new rant about the assumption that pre-Judeo Christian religions were mere shallow superstitions with no spiritual significance.” I was wondering what, if anything in particular, prompted that or if you wanted to say a bit more about that?
A thing did prompt that. It was, in fact, a discussion of the book, but I don’t want to point anybody to that particular discussion of the book, because, first of all, they don’t deserve it, and secondly, it’s a really common attitude. The idea expressed was that obviously we have evolved past that primitive polytheism, and whatever you thought of the various current religions, they were philosophically superior and spiritually superior to ancient Roman paganism, which was nothing but superstition. It was nothing but placating the gods because you were afraid and bribing them to give you things or whatever. That’s a really common narrative and once again, it’s a common part of the narrative of the history of Christianity that it was real religion that involved real spirituality and real faith, and that’s why it has completely superseded these more pagan polytheistic practices.
Actually, that narrative has carried forward. I grew up Roman Catholic in a majority Roman Catholic city and it wasn’t until I was about college age that I discovered some of the attitudes people who aren’t Catholic have towards Roman Catholicism. That it’s pagan superstition, which has been superseded by true religiousness, is also part of the narrative of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, superseding the horrible, superstitious, ignorant Roman Catholic Church. I’m not Catholic anymore, I’m an atheist, but I find that really offensive and hateful. If you look at anybody’s religious beliefs and practices that aren’t yours, they seem kind of shallow, they don’t make sense, and they don’t have any resonance, so it’s hard to believe that they really find any real spiritual meaning in them. As I said, I grew up Roman Catholic. For instance, my first ventures into a Baptist church seemed really weird to me. I was like, “This can’t really be religion, right, because where is all the stuff that says God? It’s not there. It might as well be somebody’s living room or something, right?” That would be doing the people who actually are sincere worshippers in that church a tremendous disservice.
But having that experience taught me that your own tradition feels really rich and deep and resonant to you because you’re immersed in that context, and outside of that context, you can’t get that feeling because you don’t have the context. You don’t have the background. You don’t have the strings that are going to sympathetically vibrate to whatever that frequency is. It’s really easy to look back, particularly the way that in school we’re taught about Greek and Roman paganism as though they’re just these stories and that these stories explain why there’s lightning or why there’s such and such. Why there’s winter and why there’s spring, because otherwise they didn’t understand it; they were just so ignorant. I think a lot of particularly ancient polytheistic religions worked very differently from the way that Christianity works. I do not think they were any less important to the people who lived those religions.
I have one other question on religion I want to ask you, and this is a pretty thorny theological conundrum, so it’s okay if you can’t answer it, but the question is: How is God like a duck?
Oh, I wish I knew. I honestly do not know. That’s why it’s such a thorny question in the book, right?
So this is a question that comes up in your sequel to Ancillary Justice, which is called Ancillary Sword. I want to talk about that a little bit more. Ancillary Sword is interesting because it’s quite different from Ancillary Justice. Ancillary Justice seems more of an espionage thriller and Ancillary Sword feels to me more like a police procedural. What do you think about that and were you going for a different kind of vibe with the sequel?
I was definitely going for a different kind of vibe. On the one hand, I would love to give people more of the same who liked the book to begin with, but on the other hand, it would be kind of dull to write the same book a second time. Also, Breq’s situation is very different. She’s in the first book undergoing this huge tragedy and also looking for some kind of revenge or redress. In the second book, that’s already been resolved to the extent that she could do it and now her problems are a little bit subtler, a little bit different, and they’re going to be superficially quieter, at least for a while. So that really did require a different sort of book.
One thing that really stuck me about Ancillary Sword is that it seems to resonate with a lot of contemporary events. There seems to be a lot of Occupy Wall Street and excessive force by the police kind of stuff in there. Were you consciously reacting to current events?
It’s a coincidence how close the publication of this was to, for instance, events in Ferguson, which is not far from where I live, actually. I wasn’t necessarily drawing on a particular set of events, but I think that background of the police using excessive force with particular populations is one that’s there in the background. I wasn’t necessarily trying to make a political statement, I think, with a lot of things, and occasionally I get asked this: Am I trying to make a political statement with the worldbuilding? And my answer is that I didn’t set out to write a novel that was a political statement, but I also believe that we build stories — science fiction, far future, fabulous worlds — we build them out of our own world. The things that we pick to put into our built world do have political implications. They do say things about what we assume about the world. They do comment on the world that we live in, and so when I pick my things, then I try to look at them to see what it is I’m saying. I don’t necessarily pick things to make a statement, but I pick things because I think they are realistic. They’re things that really happen in the world. So when I want to make my world as real as possible, I’m putting those in there. There’s an extent to which, yeah, the fact that those things do happen is part of why they’re in the book, but they’re not necessarily there because I’m trying to make a statement about it.
One line from Ancillary Justice that really struck me and that comes to the fore in Ancillary Sword is this line where somebody says, “Luxury always comes at someone else’s expense.” Is that something that you might be inclined to say yourself?
Probably. At least a certain kind of luxury. It’s probably possible to set up a life that’s very comfortable for everyone and not come at anyone’s expense, but I think there’s a certain kind of over-the-top luxury that is not possible to have for everybody, that somebody is always going to get stepped on.
I think a lot of science fiction fans would like to believe that technology is somehow going to free us from this sort of dynamic, since it used to be that taking a hot bath was something you only got to do if you were the king and now a much larger percent of the population can take hot baths. That’s where I think this post-scarcity thing that you see in Iain M. Banks comes in. Do you have any opinion on whether technology might free us from this?
I go back and forth because, of course, your point about hot baths for instance is a very good and valid one. At the same time, how many people cannot take hot baths in Detroit right now even though that is default technology? You wouldn’t think there was a building in the U.S. that did not have the capability to give its residents a hot bath, and yet, there they are. What’s the reason for it? Because they don’t have the money to pay for it.
So I think whenever you set up the situation where anything like that is something that is not a right but a luxury — because in that case, it’s being treated as though it’s a luxury that you have to be able to afford, even though for the vast majority of people in the country it’s a considered a default thing that you can’t really get along without — that in and of itself is interesting, the way it changes the framing when somebody isn’t giving you the money you think you need. In science fictional terms, I don’t know if it’s possible. To some extent, my gut feeling is that you’re always going to be in a situation where you can never get more energy out of a system than you put in. You’re always going to get less out. Ultimately, it’s difficult for me to believe that that’s going to be any different when it comes to what you’re getting out of tech. There’s always going to have to be something put in, and there’s always going to be a place where there’s going to be a gap somewhere. Now, I could be wrong, and the analogy of hot baths isn’t necessarily physics except in terms of heating them up and cooling them off. I think it’s maybe unrealistic to expect it to be possible to set up a system where everybody wins, because basically, the rules of the universe are everybody loses eventually and you can’t cheat at the game. Maybe you can cheat temporarily, but you can’t cheat permanently. It’s going to come crashing down at some point.
I also wanted to ask you, in Ancillary Sword, about this character Dlique, who is a human being who was raised by aliens, and so has a very alien way of thinking. I want to read something this character says. The character says, “Eggs are so inadequate, don’t you think? I mean, they ought to be able to become anything, but instead, you always get a chicken or a duck or whatever they’re programmed to be. You never get anything interesting like regret or the middle of the night last week.”
I love that character.
I just love that part. Could you just talk about that character and trying to create this raised-by-aliens character?
She was kind of tough, but she was also fun to write, because the idea is that the Presger translators are raised by aliens. In fact, they historically — none of this actually explicitly appears in this novel — but their origins are that they’re cloned from human remains that the Presger took off of ships they destroyed. Originally, the first few of them had like no human contact whatsoever. They were completely grown and raised by these aliens, and trying to talk to them at first would be very difficult. They’re still weird, but they’re very scary. One of the things I was trying to do with her was to make someone who seemed kind of scatterbrained and silly and just bizarre. Yet at the same time, this is someone who is holding the fate of millions of people in her hands because she could go back to the aliens and say, “Yeah, they’ve broken the treaty. Kill them all.” The Presger, who never are on stage for this novel, are really extraordinarily dangerous. There would be no way to stop them if they decided that the treaty had been broken. Mostly, I was just trying to have fun with her.
In the acknowledgements, among the people and institutions you thank is the Missouri Botanical Garden. I was curious what role the Missouri Botanical Garden played in inspiring this story?
Mostly, I knew that I needed gardens in the station, and the Missouri Botanical Garden actually is one of the top botanical gardens in the world, which I didn’t realize when I was a kid. I grew up very close to them and visited them quite frequently. I was like, “Yeah, it’s just the botanical gardens,” and it’s not just the botanical gardens. It’s really fabulous. I spent a fair amount of time there while I was writing the novel thinking about how gardening would work on a space station. One of the cool things I got to do was they have a tour that you can pay for where you go back and look at their production greenhouses, which was really awesome. Actually, there are features of the beautiful display gardens, the gardens on the space station that Breq visits, that are lifted almost entirely from the Japanese garden at the Missouri Botanical Gardens.
This is in terms of the lake or what?
The lake and the fish, actually. The fish are there because I wanted them to be there. In the lake in the Japanese garden, there are these carp. They’ve been there since I was a little kid. The Japanese garden opened up in the seventies and I remember going all the time, and they have a food dispenser and you feed them. Of course, now they’re huge. They’re just gigantic. They’re still there and you still can go feed them. It’s just a beautiful garden, and I was like, “Well, I have to design my garden.” I said, “I like that and I like that, and I’m just going to put it all together.”
So then you mentioned that you’re working now on the third book in this trilogy, which is called Ancillary Mercy. Is there anything you want to say about that one?
Well, you mentioned the Presger are going to come on stage?
The Presger are going to turn up. The aliens themselves? That remains to be seen, but the Presger certainly. Obviously they wouldn’t have turned up in book two if they weren’t already aware of something going on. So they’ll be turning up again in book three definitely, much more prominently.
Will this be in a different vibe from the first two books or is it going to be more or less like one of the other ones?
It will probably have a little more action than the last one. In some ways, it will be similar, because of course Breq is still a single-bodied person, and so her point of view is going to be much more similar to that of Ancillary Sword than Ancillary Justice, where we had her when she was still a ship. But I think the book will have a different feel to it.
We’ve been speaking with Ann Leckie, and her new book is called Ancillary Sword. Ann, thanks so much for joining us.
Thank you for having me.
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