It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Science fiction has lost the plot

I recently finished The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which was not published as science fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award last year. In it, a flu pandemic has killed 99% of the population of the US, and the survivors have, of course, turned to warlordism and survivalism. It’s not a very good book – its presence on that shortlist is, frankly, mystifying. One character appears to be ripped off from John Goodman’s part, Walter Sobchak, in The Big Lebowski; and the narrator apparently suffered minor brain damage previously from a bout of meningitis and so narrates the novel in mildly-broken English… which serves no purpose in the story at all.

Anyway, warlordism and survivalism… There’s a long tradition of such post-apocalypse tales in science fiction and I’m sure we can all think of at least half-a-dozen examples. I’ve objected before to the assumption that the survivors of any apocalypse would immediately start killing each other, when clearly cooperation is the only sustainable strategy for survival.

And then there’s the dystopia, a much-beloved setting for YA. In almost all cases, a privileged elite enjoy lives of luxury while the bulk of the population either scrabble for a living below the poverty line, or are rigorously oppressed with no freedom to object; or both. I can understand the dystopia’s appeal for the YA market. In order to “break” the setting, which is the point of the story, the protagonist needs to be a super-special snowflake – which not only feeds into teenage narcissism but also relies upon, and reinforces, the risible “Great Man of History” theory, which is itself the sort of nonsense kids believe.

It could be argued that such dystopias only reflect the real world, that their popularity is a symptom of the times we live in. Perhaps that’s true. Certainly the UK is currently governed by a cabal of greedy fascists who are hell-bent on selling off as much of the country as possible to their plutocrat friends. There is not much difference between Downing Street and Panem’s Capitol.

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It strikes me that these two branches of science fiction are actually conditioning us to accept our current situation. Dystopia readers are waiting for a Katniss – and then everything will be all right. Post-apocalypse readers know they’re currently better-off, even if they’re being oppressed, than they would be with gangs of marauding slavers, rapists and murderers roaming the countryside. Science fiction was once a literature which encouraged change, which explored ways and means to effect changes. Now it’s comfort reading, it makes us feel good about our reduced circumstances because at least we’re not suffering as much as the fictional characters we read about.

And if it’s not apocalypses and dystopias, it’s interplanetary or interstellar wars. Making us feel good about our governments’ military adventurism. And fictional universes that embody so many libertarian sensibilities it’s becoming increasingly hard to argue that right-wing politics are not the default mode for the genre. Even left-wing authors create worlds built on right-wing principles, as if dramatic stories were impossible any other way. Which is simply not true.

Once upon a time, science fiction was driven by an outward urge. True, we know a great deal more about our planet and our universe than we did then. But there is still a lot we don’t know – the depths of the oceans, for example, remain mostly unexplored. We’ve found over 1800 exoplanets, but the furthest we’ve trod is our own moon, 400,000 km away – and that was over forty years ago anyway. What happened to that urge? Where are the science fiction novels inspired by it? I can perhaps think of only a handful published in the past twelve to eighteen months which might qualify.

The bulk of sf currently being published seems more designed to accommodate us to our meagre lot. It’s not holding up a mirror to our times, it is complicit with those forces which shape the modern world. It is telling tales to maintain the status quo by showing just how improbable, how impossible, meaningful change is.

A friend is currently trying to put together a list of sf novels about climate change – and it’s perhaps telling that most such science fictions take place after the climate has crashed. It’s almost as if we’re unable to prevent it – it’s going to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. Except, of course, there is. There are lots of things we could do. But certain powerful interests in the modern world don’t want the changes preventing climate crash would entail. So we have become resigned to consuming stories in which climate crash is a faît accompli.

Back in 1926 when Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of his magazine and so created the genre, he saw “scientifiction” as a possible force for good. And it’s certainly true that fiction can have profound effects on the real world – and not just in terms of inspiring nerds to invent new gadgets. These days, however, science fiction has all importance of middle-class fad foodstuffs. We consume it like we consume Greek yoghurt – and it’s not even that, it’s more like a bee flew over a pot which was then filled with curdled milk from a dog they found wandering the back streets of Athens…

So what went wrong? When did we become so resigned to the present, so resigned to our powerlessness, that we began to ignore not only change but the possibility of change in our science fictions? And what can we do about it?


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Fables of the Deconstruction, #1: Robots

All too often, people point at the tropes in a piece of fiction and use them to categorise it. This story has spaceships in it, therefore it’s science fiction; this one has elves, so it must be fantasy. One of the tropes often used to “identify” sf is the robot – well, a robot is clearly the product of technology, it’s an artificial person, a mechanical man or woman (or neither). What’s not science-fictional about that?

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The term “robot” comes from Karel Čapek’s RUR (1920), and is derived from the Czech word robota, a local form of serfdom in which serfs had to work only for a specified number of days each year for their liege. RUR was first translated into English in 1923 but, according to the OED’s Science Fiction Citations, the word’s first appearance in English wasn’t until 1925, in a novel by French-born British writer Thomas Charles Bridges, The City of No Escape. However, it was the mid-1930s before “robot” appeared in US science fiction magazines. It was then, of course, co-opted by Isaac Asimov, who wrote some forty short stories and a few novels (it’s hard to be precise as Asimov spent much of his later years trying to stitch his oeuvre into one great stupid shared future history, featuring both psychohistory and robots).

Čapek’s robota were actually biological – what are now commonly referred to as “androids” – so I’m not entirely sure why the term was adopted for purely mechanical beings. Perhaps this was because the mechanical being was an already existing trope: the automaton. (The SF Encyclopedia indicates there was a story in the November 1931 issue of Amazing titled ‘Automaton’.) But automata were real things – marvels of mechanical ingenuity, show-pieces, designed to display their inventor’s cleverness and so win them the patronage of some wealthy potentate; and they were often fake (the Mechanical Turk, for example). Automata were typically good for a single task, and in no way a replacement for a human being.

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Go even further back, of course, and you have the golem, an automaton powered and controlled entirely by magic. There are also automata in Greek mythology, built by Hephaestus – such as Talos, the giant bronze man who protected the island of Europa (although it seems the clockwork owl in Clash Of The Titans is an invention of the film’s writers). But neither automata nor golems fit in with early science fiction’s burning enthusiasm for science and engineering, for technology. If electronics magazines showed readers how to build their own television sets, their readers were hardly likely to be interested in a mechanical servant which required magical incantations to operate.

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And yes, servant – because technology exists, so these magazines would have you believe, to make life easier and more comfortable, and what could improve comfort more than a servant – to do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetch the mail, etc. And because these robots are servants, so they must be in the shape of a human being. Unlike real servants, however – and here lies their obvious superiority – they don’t require wages, food or rest, will always perform tasks to the high standard required, and will never be lazy, sullen, unresponsive or rebellious. In other words, robots are perfect slaves, but without offending anyone’s delicate morals. This could, however, be taken too far, as in Jack Williamson’s ‘With Folded Hands…’ (1947), in which robots do such a good job of looking after humanity that the race becomes too weak to survive without them. Or they could prove so ubiquitous that some humans might believe they were robots themselves, as in Margaret St Clair’s ‘Asking’ (1955) – although once the protagonist learns her true nature, she adopts all the arrogance of a slave-owner toward robots.

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In the real world, robots are entirely different. They’re more often referred to by a name specific to their purpose, such as a Computer Numerical Controlled Machine or Autonomous Underwater Vehicle or space probe. They’re built for specific tasks, or to perform within specific spheres of operation; and programmed only for that task or for that sphere. They’re used in situations that are too dangerous for human beings – eg, AUVs and space probes – but they’re not capable of everything a human could do. Or they’re used to perform repetitive tasks more quickly, more frequently and more accurately than a human could. In such cases, building robots in the form of a human being is not an advantage.

Science fiction, however, rarely shows robots as CNC machines, AUVs or space probes, but almost always as anthropomorphic machines. (Although Star Wars didn’t – not only is R2-D2 one of the most famous robots in sf cinema, but remember the variety of robot forms in the Jawa Crawler?) The SF Encyclopedia claims robots have proven popular in sf cinema because they can be played by human actors. (These days, of course, they’re done using CGI.) But in written sf? Why this insistence on human form? Why this need to present them as mechanical humans? After all, pretending robots are human is effectively treating them as an underclass, as slaves. If they are human in all but origin – something which applies just as much to artificially-created persons, such as the title character in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, – if they are human to that degree, then to treat them as not-human is no more than scientific bigotry, it’s the sort of immoral rationalisation used by owners of slaves.

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There are certainly science fictions featuring robots which question the morality of their existence, but they’re uncommon. Asimov used his robots to solve simplified moral conundrums, based around his Three Laws, which are themselves a moral code reduced to a single dimension – a moral code, that is, which does not question the existence or ownership of robots. Implicit in the use of anthropomorphic robots in almost every science fiction is an acceptance of slavery. And, to make matters worse, such robots are often then dehumanised – Cylons referred to as “toasters” in Battlestar Galactica, for example. Having created these ersatz people and enslaved them, they need to be reduced to the status of machines in order to justify ownership. They’re the people we demonise because we want to excuse our poor treatment of them, because we want to justify our belief that they are inferior to us. Much like the Tories are doing to the poor and unemployed in 21st Century Britain – calling them “skivers” and “scroungers”, as if it is their own fault, it is something they’ve done themselves, which means they’re not as good, not as human, as everyone else.

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And speaking of Cylons, they’re another form of robot common in science fictions: the killer robot. Arguably, these sorts of robots are more common in twenty-first century science fictions (horribly old-fashioned Hugo-nominated stories by Mike Resnick notwithstanding). Robots make an excellent enemy because they are implacable – unlike humans, or even aliens, they will not stop, they cannot surrender, and you can destroy as many of them as possible without worrying about the morality of it all. Likewise, generals can sacrifice countless numbers of robots for the most trivial of gains, and it doesn’t really matter since they’re little more than smart bombs. It’s the machine-nature of war-robots that is stressed, and not their human-like qualities. Owning people, it seems, is fine in sf, but the genre still feels some small qualms at killing them in great numbers.

Of course, real robots are not people. No matter how sophisticated their programming, the code which drives them is still a series of IF and WHILE and FOR loops. Any operation they perform must be part of their programming… or they can’t do it. Even if they do have the right snazzy tool fitted to one of their manipulator arms. Smartphones are pretty damn clever devices, but no one would ever consider them more than a machine. The same is true of supercomputers, Voyager 1, Curiosity, a UAV or those dancing industrial robots in that old Volkswagen advert.

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Perhaps people think there are no dramatic possibilities, other than in military sf, in robots-as-machines. Perhaps that’s why authors and film-makers have their robots look and behave like human beings. But once upon a time, science fiction’s spacecraft all used to resemble pointy rockets, of the sort painted by Chesley Bonestell in those Collier’s Magazine articles by Wernher von Braun. Look at the cover art of any late twentieth century or twenty-first century science fiction novel, however, and you’ll now see a huge variety in sizes, shapes and designs of spaceships.

What I think would be interesting would be to ditch the anthropomorphic robot, the ersatz human, with all its dodgy moral baggage, and instead treat robots as they actually are – like space probes, CNC machines, UAVs: ie, accept that they are products of their programming, they are tools, very sophisticated tools, but ones which can only perform tasks for which they have been designed and programmed. After all, it’s the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t be presenting worlds in which people, artificial or otherwise, are enslaved; we should be creating visions of the future in which technology plays a true role, is not just setting or a piece of hand-wavery used to justify magical maguffins. Far too many science fictions use genre tropes as little more than window-dressing for stories based on historical templates and loaded with historical baggage.


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SF Mistressworks in Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly

Starting this month, Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly will reprint a review from SF Mistressworks. You can download #3 Apr-Jun 2014 of the magazine here. For this first appearance, they’ve chosen my review of Vonda N McIntyre’s Fireflood and Other Stories. I’m very happy with Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly’s offer to host a SF Mistressworks review each issue as it will bring some excellent science fiction by women writers to a wider – and appreciative – audience.

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Memory jog

The latest issue of Perihelion Online Science Fiction Magazine has appeared, and among its many fine stories is one of mine – ‘Waters of Lethe’. It’s about a bathyscaphe journey to the bottom of Europa’s world-ocean. Sort of. You can read it here.

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I’ve now written stories which feature Wilfred Owen, Spitfires, the Bell, Apollo astronauts, flying boats, rocket sleds, bathyscaphes… What to do next?


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Fables of the Deconstruction

I’ve recently been reading a new science fiction anthology for review for Interzone and this, coupled with David Hebblethwaite’s remarks on science fiction awards here and Nina Allan’s comments here, has brought into focus some elements of my increasing dissatisfaction with the genre and its resistance to progress. Especially hard science fiction.

David complains about the lack of experimentation in form in sf, but I think there’s also a lack of experimentation in settings and narratives in hard sf. It’s all very well using cutting-edge science, the latest descriptions of exoplanets or the moons of Jupiter… But it always remains outside, outside the reader’s viewpoint on the plot, outside the characters’ psychology, their motivations or perceptions or worldview. While it’s true human beings need a specific environment to survive, and will take their society and transplant it wherever they may find themselves, irrespective of that external environment… their new surroundings will affect them, will change them. Not only must they make accommodations with their location, but their society will likely change as a result. But it rarely seems to in science fiction stories. Writers simply transplant a society little different to the writer’s present to their new environment, and add some technological bells and whistles to justify its presence. Even worse, they often model their society on an older one, such as the Wild West, with all its lawlessness and amorality, and stick it on, say, Io. How progressive is that? It’s not, of course. For all the story’s gimmickry and ideas, it still posits the sort of individualistic and brutal human (male, usually) that hasn’t characterised human society for centuries and is certainly unlikely to do so in the future.

To me, hard science fiction’s inability to reflect its settings in the psychology of its protagonists is a failure of the imagination. A good non-genre example would be Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, comprising The Jewel In The Crown, The Day Of The Scorpion, The Towers Of Silence and A Division Of The Spoils. It covers the years leading up to, and during, the independence of India, but much of the story is set among British expatriates in the country. While the British in India built communities that were models of those back home in the UK, they could not help but evolve into something different through contact with the country’s population. And the people living in those countries changed too – so much so that they often suffered culture-shock on their return to Britain.

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If you look further afield in sf, particularly in the short fiction market, there’s plainly a twenty-first century strain of the genre, one which freely borrows imagery and tropes from fantasy and New Weird. It also displays a greater spread of settings, societies and protagonists. Personally, I think the focus on imagery is mostly surface and usually hides a lack of sfnal progress – that’s progress in terms of how science fiction works, of course; the elements which go together to create science fictions and so differentiate them from other works of literature. The other areas in which sf is progressing – diversity, non-binary gender, etc – I think are excellent and long past due.

All this makes hard sf’s insistence on sticking to old story patterns all the more puzzling. I once defended hard sf from an accusation of being inherently right-wing. I still think it’s not right-wing, though I recognise many of its proponents write from a right-wing perspective. But certainly the subgenre is reactionary and conservative (with a small “c”, note). It doesn’t have to be. The laws of physics may be immutable, but there’s nothing that says human societies always tend to the Competent Man (usually a white Westerner) lording it over others by virtue of his competence, wits and willingness to commit violence. In fact, that’s a pretty offensive characterisation of human society. It’s sadly also widely prevalent in hard sf (and in sf too, in a wider sense).

Nina Allan, in her post, writes that sf no longer seems to comment on political and social issues, nor displays “evocative and original use of language”. She also makes a very useful distinction – between authors who write from within science fiction and authors who “draw their influences from science fiction”. Both her and David’s comments are addressed to the former – as are mine.

I think Nina makes some interesting points, but her comment about language seems to me to forget that science fiction is chiefly a genre of commercial fiction, with much of its DNA provided by pulp fiction. The current economic climate (well, actually, the global economy the neoliberals and neocons have gifted us over the past thirty years) means publishers prize commercial science fiction more than they do literary science fiction. The small presses – and self-published authors, to some extent – have picked up the latter baton, but they are still small fry in a large profit-driven ocean. When writing commercial fiction in any genre, there’s a tendency to stick to tried and tested – and familiar and lucrative – patterns. So it doesn’t really surprise me that prose in sf novels is blanding out, or even that ideas and the presentation of those ideas is tending to more… comfortable forms. I can rue this, I can compare it unfavourably with the situation thirty or forty years ago… but there are too many things that need to change, many of which the publishing industry has no control over, before it can be resolved. Plus, there are other issues which need to be addressed first – notably the lack of diversity, and the preponderance of sexism and racism – and it’s good that the sf conversation keeps on talking about these topics and is making progress at combatting them.

But. Science fiction. The stuff that makes these stories what they are. Nina uses this year’s Clarke Award shortlist as a barometer of the state of the genre. Which is not necessarily a fair argument. It has never been part of the award’s remit, and the jury are, as she acknowledges, all too human – in fact, I suspected one of the judges of championing the Mann but when I asked they said they hadn’t… which only shows the danger of making such assumptions. And speaking of Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise, for all the book’s faults, it can’t be accused of not being experimental in form. True, its structure is hardly original – a story-within-a-story, with “author” interpolations, plus ancillary material presented as appendices – but neither is it the far more common straightforward linear narrative, or indeed the relatively common dual narrative, past versus present, of the eventual winner, Ancillary Justice.

The point I’m trying to make, which unfortunately I keep on ruining by drifting from the point, is that the science-fictionalness, to coin a phrase, of a text, particularly hard sf, has not appreciably progressed for decades. I don’t doubt that the bulk of sf authors in years past never really bothered to interrogate or deconstruct the tropes they used – although some did, Samuel R Delany certainly did – and likewise very little present-day science fiction makes a serious attempt at examining the science-fictional assumptions, the tropes and genre furniture, of which it makes use. Nor do they explore the psychology of their protagonists. These, I think, are not only a missed opportunities, but also make sf, for me, a less interesting genre than it could be in the twenty-first century.

So let’s add these things together – from David, the lack of experimentation in form; from Nina, the lack of contemporary commentary; and from myself, the failure to examine what science fiction actually does and why it does it… Surely there’s something in among that lot worth exploring? Which is why the hard sf anthology I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post proved so disappointing a read – and also seemed to be so emblematic of much that I feel in sf isn’t working for me. The anthology’s contents certainly met its theme, and they definitely qualified as “hard science fiction”… but there were so many unaddressed assumptions implicit in the stories, and so little examination of what makes a story hard sf rather than simply sf, that I couldn’t understand why the editors had even bothered to put it together.

Science fiction is by definition fecund terrain for stories. Hard sf may add some restrictions, but that should in no way limit how it tells its stories. Why can’t sf writers dig a little deeper into the tropes they use so blithely? Why can’t they take science fiction apart, examine it from all angles, and then put it back together in interesting ways? I’d not only like to see that happen to a much greater extent than it does presently, I’d like to see it as the default mode for writing science fiction – especially hard science fiction.


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Writing, creativity and the internet

So apparently George RR Martin writes his novels using some 1980s software running on a computer that has no internet connection. Because obviously Game of Thrones needed to be mentioned again in the national press and this seemed like a good excuse. But seriously, I don’t see what’s news-worthy or admirable in someone who continues to use thirty-year-old technology when far more sophisticated and useful wordprocessors exist today. It has nothing to do with “creativity”.

As for the internet being a “distraction”. Well, okay, Martin doesn’t exactly have to check his facts or look things up because he’s writing big fat commercial fantasy and where do you research that sort of stuff? (Other than the history the author is ripping off, of course.) But some of us do a lot of research, and the internet is pretty damn useful for that. Sometimes it’s just a first port of call, before moving onto more detailed books on the topic; other times, the internet provides more than enough information for the purpose.

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I’ve often wondered how writers – especially science fiction writers – managed before the invention of the Web. I remember James P Hogan on a panel at the 2005 Worldcon talking about the various contacts he had made during his career – he admitted he was quite shameless at approaching people he thought might prove useful and blagging their contact details – and how he’d telephone them if he needed their expertise. So that was one method. And, of course, there are libraries. But reading some Golden Age science fiction, it’s plain a lot of sf authors didn’t even bother – they just made it up and assumed no one would catch them out. Nowadays, given that readers have access to exactly the same tools as writers, getting caught out is almost a certainty. (And it’s not like authors before the Web weren’t pulled up on their mistakes either – cf Larry Niven having the Earth rotate the wrong way in Ringworld; or indeed the design of the ringworld itself.)

There’s no such thing as too much research, although it’s certainly possible to put too much of the research into the narrative. Unlike Kim Stanley Robinson, I don’t consider the info-dump just another narrative tool in the sf writer’s toolbox – so no, I don’t think it can be used freely without embarrassment. Exposition is a speedbump, or a pothole, in the reader’s journey through a story. However, I do think a writer can make a virtue of the research. Some, in fact. do. But there are those, on the other hand, who do it really badly – like this one:

“Ready, Barn,” the lunar commander replied.

“Okay. TIG 142034700 NOUN 67 5530000370 plus 0002, need A 47 in plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955, needle 465 is plus 00370, needle 546 is NA. Ignition 1 Rev late is 1440209, toug weight 10789. Over.”

“Roger. Copy 142034700 55350000370 plus 0002 plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955 plus 00370, NA 1440209, tug weight 10789. Over.”

“That’s affirmative, Kathy. P32 CSI PAD follows. NOUN 11 143015060 NOUN 37 14438 all zips NOUN 81 0492 all zips. Need A 473 is 01818, 275 is 02780, AGS DELTA Vs plus 0492 all zips plus 0010. Over.”

No, that’s not from Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s actually from Space Station Friendship by Dick Lattimer, published in 1988.

Of course, not all science fictions require research. A style that has become quite common over the last few years – I’ve seen it labelled with the horrible term “sci fi strange” – seems almost completely made-up. Nothing requiring research there (unless you include the frequent references to other science fictions, that is). Still, it’s not for me  – don’t like reading it, have no intention of writing it. I like my research, it’s often what motivates me to write a story. And finding a way to use it in a narrative that works is, for me, part of the fun of writing.

Also, the shit that I look up is usually just plain interesting.

(Incidentally, the picture is, as the front of the machine states, a Research Machines 380Z, the first computer I ever used. The school I attended had two of them. These days, most of my colleagues at work are younger than that computer…)


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Ancillary Justice

Every couple of years, a science fiction novel appears which seems to generate a tremendous amount of positive buzz among my online genre friends and acquaintances. In 2011, it was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, the first of a trilogy, which went on to win the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle Award and appear on the short list for the Nebula Award. This year, it’s Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is also a debut novel and the first book in a trilogy. I’m also seeing a lot more word-of-mouth for Ancillary Justice than I remember seeing for God’s War, and I suspect it will do better in the various genre awards than Hurley’s debut.

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But then Ancillary Justice is located much closer to genre heartland than God’s War, and the interesting things it does – and it does a number of interesting things – are, I suspect, more generally acceptable than those in Hurley’s book. Both suffer structurally, but where God’s War had a choppy start, Ancillary Justice has a weak ending… and I have to wonder if that is felt to be a more forgivable sin. Having said that, Ancillary Justice is a richer brew in heartland sf terms than God’s War – richer, in fact, than a great many 2013 science fiction novels – but I don’t feel it fully explores everything it has to say. God’s War at least aggressively interrogated its tropes. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Ancillary Justice or feel it is a bad book. It is a very strong debut, and I have every intention of picking up the remaining two books in the trilogy when they are published.

First of all, let’s get the gender thing out of the way. Throughout Ancillary Justice, “she” is used as the default pronoun. This is allegedly because the narrator, Breq, comes from a culture which speaks an ungendered language. The problem here is that an ungendered language by definition possesses no gender, whereas “she” is very much a gendered term. The effect on the reader in English of using the word “she” as a default is not the effect it has on the characters within the story. Cause and effect are uncoupled. However, the effect on the reader does force a specific reading of the story. Leckie is making the reader interrogate their own perceptions of gender by using “she”, even if the argument for its use in the world of the story is weak. When Breq deals with speakers of other languages, ones that do use gendered pronouns, she frequently exhibits confusion over which pronoun to use. She uses visual clues to decide which is appropriate – there are, for instance, several references to clothing making this process difficult. But gender is not biological sex – and this is something that has been explored by science fiction over several decades. Numerous people have drawn comparisons between Ancillary Justice and Samuel R Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand which, I think, interrogates the concept of social gender more rigorously than Ancillary Justice. I like that Leckie has forced the reader to examine their own gender defaults, and I think that’s an interesting thing to do… but I’m not totally persuaded the world Leckie has created fully explores that aspect of the story.

Breq is the only surviving “ancillary” of an AI. Ancillaries are human bodies used as avatars – real-life “meat puppets”, if you will. As a result, AIs operate in effect as distributed intelligences. It’s a neat idea, but Leckie only skims the surface of it. Admittedly, for much of the book Breq is confined to a single body – once she was an avatar of the controlling AI of a warship, but now she is as effectively human as the person whose body she hijacked. Leckie plays the ancillaries as single intelligences with simply a much vaster range of sensory inputs. When Breq was One Esk, a troop of ancillaries on the troop carrier Justice of Toren, Leckie makes numerous references to the narrator’s ability to know what is happening in various different places, to call up information at will, and to monitor in great detail the human officers under whose command she serves. I’m not entirely convinced by Leckie’s presentation of an AI character, or its distributed nature – but then, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever found the presentation of AIs in science fiction especially convincing. Further, the plot of Ancillary Justice is actually hung from this incomplete version of a distributed intelligence – although how incomplete, or indeed different, is difficult to judge as unlike Breq we do not see that character from the inside.

While the gender thing and Breq’s once-distributed nature are the two most obviously arresting aspects of Ancillary Justice – and also appear to be the most remarked upon in reviews; as, er, I am doing in this review myself – there are a number of other elements to the story and world-building which I think are much more fascinating. I said earlier that Ancillary Justice was a rich brew, and it’s the combination of tropes Leckie has used, tropes which are not normally thrown together, or on which she has put a different and original spin, that I think make Ancillary Justice such an interesting sf novel.

Justice of Toren, the ship Breq-as-AI originally controlled, was operated by the Radch, a human civilisation led by Anaander Mianaai. Like the AIs, Mianaai has many bodies, thousands of them, and so rules the Radchaai by effectively being ubiquitous. The Radch is fervently imperialist, and has been operating a campaign of “annexation” on other human-populated worlds for over a thousand years. The Radchaai economy demands this – the Radch seem themselves as “civilised” and superior to all others (especially non-humans), and obviously they cannot maintain a society based on such a view without an ever-expanding underclass. There are many ways of reading the politics embedded in Ancillary Justice – an attack on neoliberalism, on neocons, on contemporary US politics… They all work. Nor do they overwhelm the story.

Which, such as it is, is presented in a format which hides its simplicity. Justice of Toren becomes inadvertently embroiled in an internal Radchaai struggle, kicked off by a pair of historical incidents involving alien races, most especially the Presger who are more powerful than the Radch. Ancillary Justice tells its story in two narratives strands. One is set in the present. Justice of Toren now survives only as Breq, a single ancillary survivor from thousands that had been used, or held in storage, on the ship. A second narrative takes place years earlier, when Breq was One Esk and is policing a city on a world that has been annexed. A Radchaai conspiracy intrudes, and One Esk and her officer, Lieutenant Awn, are caught up in it. Breq is the sole survivor of the fall-out from that incident and vows revenge on Mianaai. to that end, she travels to the world of Nilt to find a special undetectable gun which renders Radchaai armour useless. On Nilt, she stumbles across Seivarden, a Radchaai lieutenant recently revived after a thousand years frozen following the loss of her ship in battle. Seivarden is also now a drug addict. Breq remembers Seivarden, and decides to help her return to Radchaai space, although Seivarden is initially reluctant and ungrateful.

The two narratives build one upon the other, the historical one revealing the motivation for the present-day one, and the present-day one in turn making clear the actual events in the past. While it makes for a slow start, the structure actually allows Leckie to dole out exposition without interrupting the flow of the story. As the novel progresses, so its pace increases until the point where the two narratives meet – or rather, one is folded into the other – at the climax. Leckie’s world-building throughout Ancillary Justice is superb, and she manages to evoke multiple distinct cultures in detail. Perhaps at times the novel feels a bit like a Le Guin story crashing into a Susan R Matthews one, but that’s no bad thing – both are authors whose works I like and admire. Some have also remarked on an element of Iain M Banks to Ancillary Justice‘s world-building, though that may have been prompted by the presence of the AIs (ie, Minds) and the names of the characters. I don’t see a Banksian sensibility at work in Ancillary Justice, even though Ancillary Justice and Banks’s Culture novels are, beneath their space opera patina, both political sf.

Ancillary Justice is novel whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And yet some of its parts still manage that intellectual punch to the head – a “wonderpunch”, if you will – you expect in the best science fiction. There is a point in John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977) where the main characters travel out to the Oort Cloud and discover why aliens have been transmitting the eponymous beam of free information at the Solar System. In a meeting with these “Traders”, Varley throws away entire science fiction novels in a handful of lines -

“A few thousand. To get a representative sample. After that, we can learn humanity from each other.” He paused. “We know this is a strange request. The fact is, it is the only thing your race has to offer us. It is the only reason we have bothered to send you the things we have discovered and collected over seven million years.” (p 222)

Such a massive change in scale, delivered offhand in a few lines of dialogue, can’t help but provoke sense of wonder. Leckie does something very similar in Ancillary Justice, and it is the implications of this which I think proves one of the novel’s more fascinating elements:

When most people spoke of Radch, they meant all of Radchaai territory, but in truth the Radch was a single location, a Dyson sphere, enclosed, self-contained. Nothing ritually impure was allowed within, no one uncivilized or nonhuman could enter its confines. Very, very few of Mianaai’s clients had ever set foot there, and only a few houses existed who even had ancestors who had once lived there. (p 235)

Bear in mind that a Dyson sphere with a radius equal to the Earth’s distance from the Sun would have a habitable inner surface equivalent to 550 million Earths. Imagine the size of a civilisation which filled that and still needed to expand in order to fuel its economy. I would also guess the Dyson sphere is an artefact colonised by the Radch, since nothing in Ancillary Justice suggests they are capable of building it.

Not everyone has reacted positively to Ancillary Justice, although it’s hard to see how in comparison to other science fiction novels published this year it can’t fail to stand out. If I was afraid that the success of James SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes meant that space opera was regressing, then I’m glad to say that Ancillary Justice shows that progress is still possible and desirable. Leckie’s novel gives me hope that science fiction is a genre it is still worth reading. Recommended.

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