The hero is armed and dangerous. She saves a former officer despite disliking her. She’s on a mission to kill the head of the empire.
And she used to be a spaceship.
There’s been plenty of buzz about Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie‘s debut novel from Orbit about Breq, formerly the Justice of Toren, an AI once commanding thousands of corpse soldiers now split off, separated, and confined to a single body. Aside from the very appealing idea of a hero who used to be the AI of a spaceship, there are plenty of interesting things about Breq/Justice of Toren, not the least of which being her manner of speech.
Author Ann Leckie spoke with us on just a few questions burning through our heads after finishing the novel, which released at the beginning of October.
1. Breq’s consistent use of female pronouns regardless of other characters’ sex created a fascinatingly disorienting sensation for readers, especially since the English language has a focus on gendered pronouns and nouns. What inspired Breq’s disregard to gender, and what challenges did you face while writing in her voice?
So, I initially just wanted to play, in a very simple way, with a society that genuinely didn’t care about gender. Partly because I wanted to step away from real world cultural constraints, which can be tiring. And when I first started playing with the ideas that would become the Radch, I had just had my first child, and it was amazing the way so many people just seem to be completely unable to interact with a baby unless they know their gender. Or maybe someone would make a guess, and if they discovered they’d guessed wrong, they would be so apologetic, like they’d just done something horrible. But, I mean, babies and gender–how can anyone tell? And why would anyone care? They’re babies! Smile and coo and tell their parent that Baby is adorable. Why do you need to assign gender for that? I found it really weird.
So I was thinking a lot about the way people are pigeonholed by the gender society assigns them, the very different ways people treated my daughter depending on what gender they assumed she was. And my first attempts to write about that were unsatisfying, because for one thing, I found that I myself had trouble not thinking in gendered terms, and of course as you point out, English wants us to mention gender any time we use a pronoun.
I stewed over that for a while, and actually wrote a short story using all masculine pronouns with a footnote–I think fully a quarter of the story was footnotes, actually–explaining that really, nobody knew what gender anyone in this story might be because Radchaai just didn’t care. The story never did sell, and in hindsight I’m glad it didn’t. Even when I wrote it, I realized that I was kind of chickening out by using “he.”
I actually hadn’t read The Left Hand of Darkness at that point, but of course I’d heard of it. And at some point I read about LeGuin’s regrets over using “he” for the Gethenians. And it was somewhere around that time that I was introduced to the idea of defaults, which kind of clarified for me both why I’d felt I had to go with “he” for that trunked story, and why at the same time I’d felt it was a copout. I knew then that I needed to try a story with all feminine pronouns, but I was wary of even starting for a long time. And, in fact, I was afraid the novel would be unsalable because of it. I’m very glad to see that I was wrong about that.
Breq’s voice was pretty challenging! One extended scene in particular, I tended to get very twisted around as to what language she was speaking (and so what pronoun to use when, to refer to Seivarden). It was also a delicate balance between Breq’s very straightforward and level way of talking about pretty much everything, and her really very strong, at times almost overpowering emotions, most of which she’s just not going to mention but will obviously affect how she’s telling the story, and really do need to come through to the reader on some level. It was also tricky to get the things across that she isn’t seeing, or that she’s refusing to see, but that need to be visible somehow to the reader.
2. The Radch employs a number of methods to expand their territory and spread “civilization,” in part motivated by its peoples’ religion. What real-world empires inspired the Radch and its religion?
I tried not to just lift whole cultures for the book. Partly because that’s been done over and over again, sometimes well, sometimes not so well. But I did take a long, hard look at Rome. Rome was a huge empire that functioned for quite a long time over very long distances–distances that today are nothing much, but at the time were a matter of weeks or even months of travel time. And the practice of Interpretatio Romana–of equating foreign gods with Roman ones–was one I thought would be very useful, politically, to an empire like the Radch.
But Rome was Rome because of where and when it was. Transplant Augustus Caesar to space–and make the Romans not care about gender at all–and the result is something that isn’t actually terribly Roman. Still, there’s some good stuff there. I lifted–and of course altered considerably–the client-patron relationship from Rome.
Radchaai religion is a patchwork–it’s not based on Roman religion, not really, though of course the preoccupation with the will of the gods (and therefore with certain kinds of divination) is sort of similar, and of course the Radchaai are similarly polytheistic. The Emanations, though, are borrowed from Gnosticism (though of course changed for my own ends, and there’s nothing like the Gnostic Demiurge and the corresponding denigration of the material world in Radchaai theology, at least not the majority version of it).
3. The multiple worlds Breq/One Esk visits over the course of the novel feel rich and colorful, and particularly diverse. Which world did you most enjoy creating? Which was most challenging?
Thank you! They were all quite a lot of fun! And challenging. I spent quite a long time working out what sort of food should be available in a place like the very far south of Nilt, for instance. I quite enjoyed that, though, and enjoyed reading about and trying kinds of food that exist here, that I never would have known about or tried otherwise. And that sort of thing is one link in a long chain–one bit hooks into another bit, and I needed to understand bits that didn’t even show up on the page, at least for myself. But really, I enjoy that sort of thing. I enjoy learning about the ways people live and think, about how people dress and eat and relate to each other, and the ways that different cultures have such different assumptions about things, and what that might say about what I assume is just self-evidently true.
Basically, all the worldbuilding, challenging as it was, was an excuse to read a lot of history and anthropology and pretend I wasn’t just doing it for fun.