Thursday, December 25, 2014

Blackstone F & SF: Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie's “Ancillary Justice”, whatever else it is, is certainly turning into a touchstone for the SF community—I can't think of a book in recent years that so many people are reading and discussing, regardless of their usual tastes in the genre. Last night the Blackstone Fantasy & Science Fiction Book Club took a crack at it. Spoilers and nitpicks below!
Discussion was initially overwhelmed by the number of readers here who just didn't get into it for a number of reasons. A few different people made the argument that the novel is too complex, for complexity's sake, pointing out the gender ambiguity, the braided plot, and the initial lack of exposition on topics like the decade units. That last point is completely fair, for what it's worth: given the huge expo-dumps spread through the book, it really wouldn't have hurt to simply explain how the “One Var” “Two Esk” etc. naming convention worked. That aside, a few of us at group counter-argued that this novel is actually not terribly complex at all, particularly compared to a lot of other SF (Egan for example)--there's only a handful of characters and settings, the technology is barely an issue: it's a pretty straightforward revenge story, just with an exotic setting and some mild narrative complications.

Organizer Sally tried to get us all to answer the question of what we thought about the time-jumping narrative: for the bulk of the novel, “present tense” chapters alternate with chapters set about 19 years previously. We didn't quite make it around the circle with everyone's responses, but it's a really interesting question. I've been thinking a lot lately about the issue of narrative structuring, particularly with regards to POV braiding, flashbacks, and framing (perhaps a future post on that), and “Ancillary Justice” is one of the works that shoved that issue to mind.

If the novel were re-arranged so that it played out in internal-chronological order, I'm not sure the experience of reading it would be that different—except that the dual tension of Breq's hidden motive would be removed. “Dual” because, in the “present” timeline, we as readers don't know that motive for a while; in “past” timeline we know the root of that motive must be coming up sometime. Rearranging the novel so it played out straightforwardly would remove both of those tensions; furthermore, the novel would kind of separate out into two or three quite distinct novellas, rather than cohering into one revenge arc, if the past and present weren't interwoven like this.

A good criticism, however—I think Steve brought this up—is that the arrangement of past and present chapters isn't very rich: they don't particularly sync up as one reads them, there's little thematic connection or reveals; it feels instead rather like Leckie wrote the two complete storylines and then intercut them in order to achieve that dual tension.

We naturally got into discussion of gender (or lack of it) among the Radch, with reference to Le Guin & Butler among others. I found myself having to repeatedly bring up the fact that Seivarden is not a "man", despite the fact that, on a non-Radch world, she's identified as a male.

Something I've been wondering about in this universe is how sexuality works among the Radch--I find the idea of a genderless but not asexual society totally plausible, but I'm curious as to the nuts and bolts. It would break down if everyone in the society weren't effectively bi- (or pan) sexual, which, again, plausible--although as of my current understanding that would require some tinkering at the biological level: gender & sexual preference are not entirely socially coded. Plus, so much of gender is performance; curious to think how that would work in the Radch. I'm guessing we'll get into this discussion pretty good when we talk about "Ancillary Justice" at Think Galactic later next year.

Something we didn't get into much was some of the technological/science-fictional aspects of this universe--there are a lot of things that I'm not sure whether to point to as flaws, or as interesting-and-waiting-more-information. For example: the contrast of the Radch's DYSON SPHERE, and the teensy tiny simple scale of everything else they're doing (also, a fully populated Dyson would dwarf the rest of the human universe to insignificance, unless there's a lot more planets in this empire than it seems). Also, how does the actual technical infrastructure of ship/ancillary intelligence work? Initial description seems to be that the bodies work as living remotes for a ship-borne AI, but then later it seems the ship artificial personality/some abilities continue even in Breq's lonesome little body. Why can't cameras see the Presger gun? It seems like magic, frankly, although I suppose Leckie can always invoke Clarke's Third later.

A fun, disputatious discussion; whatever else it is, "Ancillary Justice" is certainly getting those going.

Next month's selection for the Blackstone Fantasy & Science Fiction Book Club is "The Thief" by Megan Whalen Turner, which Sally swears is not just YA despite its awards and nominations in that category. Monday, January 26th at 6:30pm at the historic Blackstone Library.

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