Saturday, February 28, 2015

What I Read in February

February was a good month for short stories or at least I managed to luck into a great patch of excellent stories.


Sketch by Morgan Crooks (2015)

Under a Blood Red Sky by Edward Ashton, published in Fiction Vortex: I have a couple of reasons to like this story: appealing characters, effective sense of time scale and far-future existence, ad the interesting (if familiar) look at the uses of virtual reality. Close to the end of Earth, as the sun swells into its red giant phase, a survivor of Earth’s civilization spends eons enjoying one single afternoon in-between marshaling the dwindling resources of Earth to fend off vultures in the closing eons of the solar system. This is big scale science fiction, all the more impressive to me appearing in a short story. It reminded me a little bit of why I love Asimov, Stapleton, Bear, and a little short story from last year called “The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye” by Matthew Kressel.

Meshed by Rich Larson, published in Clarkesworld. Loved this story. The concept of the memory implant is an old one, mined effectively in a recent Black Mirror episode, but this one has something powerful to say about the ownership we have of our memories, and how capitalism will ultimately find a way to commoditize all human behavior, all personal choice. An understated sly nightmare and all the more powerful because of it. 

Schrödinger’s Gun by Ray Wood, published in Tor.com. A fun story about a cop investigating a crime with an implant allowing her to sift through all of the multiverse possibilities of interviews and events. I found it mostly enjoyable for the way the sifting through infinite possibilities is handled, not as arty metaphor, more as an outgrowth of noir fatalism. The ending was predictable and inevitable in a very satisfying way. 

Foreknowledge by Mary E. Lowd, published in Apex. I do like heart-breakers and Apex excels in weird, personalized catastrophes like this story. We are not told why in this particular world an expectant parent learns not only the sex of a baby but also its life expectancy and cause of death, but that doesn’t matter. What this story is about is coming to terms with knowledge, of knowing too much, of over-understanding. Lowd strikes, however, a hopeful note towards the end, an interesting thing to say about a story where a parent learns their child will die in her cradle before her first birthday. 

There were a half dozen other stories that I read that I really enjoyed as well - “When a Bunch of People, including Raymond, got Superpowers” has got to be one of the wisest and funniest things I’ve read under 1000 words in a while. I also recommend “Acrobatic Duality” by Tamara Vardomskaya which appeared on Tor.com - one gymnast exists simultaneously into two bodies and wrestles with the demands of fame, greatness, and love. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Jupiter Ascending: Quick Review

I think it is difficult sometimes to talk about the lower mid-range of movies. When I try to picture the person who would fawn over the Wachowski siblings Jupiter Ascending, consider it the best movie of all time, I draw a blank. However, for a movie in the basement in terms of critic ratings, sitting at 40% and 23% at the Meteoritic and Rotten Tomatoes respectively, I think it might not be too late to ask for a quick adjustment to the common wisdom.

"'Jupiter Ascending' Theatrical Poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:%27Jupiter_Ascending%27_Theatrical_Poster.jpg#mediaviewer/File:%27Jupiter_Ascending%27_Theatrical_Poster.jpg

I want to be clear, Jupiter Ascending is not a GOOD movie. It doesn’t have particularly good acting, or script, or score. The world building is best described as needlessly ornate, and honestly a clear succinct explanation for the people, events, and creatures thrown up on the screen would have been appreciated. Alas, long gone are the days where the ideas embedded within Morpheus’ monologue could be almost as awesome as the fight scenes.

Allowing for all that, though, I’m left with a distinct impression of that movie, which is I had a good time. Now, I am a sci fi fan. I enjoy subreddits filled with as many beautiful spacecrafts and dystopian cityscapes as I can stand. So, in a sense, if there is a target audience for this movie, I am firmly situated within that auditorium. With that in mind, I had a good two hours. The action was exciting, tense, and for the most part benefited from some spectacular special effects. The big complaint I have about those scenes is that they suffer from the bloat found in many recent SFX heavy movies. There are only so many times we can see fancy space crafts zipping between Chicago sky-scrapers or pieces of burning ore facility crashing through the Great Red Spot of Jupiter.

But that’s just the thing. I can’t remember ever seeing anything quite like this movie before. It certainly shares elements with previous Wachowski movies, including inevitable comparisons with the original Matrix. But, it also has it own elegant, highly saturated style - maybe David Lynch’s Dune mixed with Lord of the Rings. I’d say this movie could be someone’s guilty Netflix pleasure except you really need a large screen and impressive sound system to get the most out of it. If it’s still showing around you, and you’ve caught up on all the Oscar bait you care to for the moment, give Jupiter Ascending a second look. It’s an interesting artifact of the almost-good, like a nonsensical dream that doesn’t quite survive the process of translation after waking up.

It is in a word, diverting.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lock In by John Scalzi: A Review

First of all, there’s the title of this story. Lock In is John Scalzi’s term for people suffering from the lingering aftereffects of an encephalitic flu that will strike the world in the near future. Most people who get this flu recover with no ill-effect. However, a certain percentage are left in a persistent fully paralyzed, conscious state, termed lock-in. They can’t move or speak, and exist completely dependent on society for care. However, Hadens, another term used to describe the survivors of the disease, possess a brain structure altered to a sufficient degree that they are are able to easily download their perceptions into mechanical bodies, called Personal Transports, and into the minds of even rarer subset of people who experienced the flu, Integrators.


"Lock In Cover" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lock_In_Cover.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lock_In_Cover.jpg

A strength of this book is that a reader gradually comes to understand the full scope of the Lock-In future. This fast-moving book provides details of the disease and how Hadens cope with it along the way, rarely through large chunks of undigestible exposition. Conversation, actions of characters, and the occasional helpful aside for the protagonist Chris Shane speed our acclimation to this familiar, albeit altered future.

One thing I really appreciated about this story was this propulsiveness. Scalzi doesn’t waste a lot time doing much of anything other than tell a story. It sets up the pieces of the mystery, offers one or two easily resolvable side plots and then at about the point the reader has it all figured out, the final confrontation is already underway. Although there is more going on here than the average techno-thriller, it reads with same breezy urgency of a Crichton novel.

That’s not to say that the late Michael Crichton was some how a piker on concepts in his novel, it’s just Scalzi has time and inclination, even in his tornado of a novel, to address outside issues raised by his speculation. As will be discussed later on in this review, Scalzi shows a natural ease with complication and ‘soft sciences.’ I have no way of judging whether or not the physics and computer science of this novel is legitimate, but I did buy the sociology. From the issues of tribalism to the more complicated questions of juriprudence, Scalzi paints a world unafraid of nuance. In Lock In people have become accustomed to people walking around in androids, but the way that manifests is more complicated than simply, “oh, some people are able to walk around like C-3PO’s.” Scalzi addresses the economy of care-taking that would develop around a significant population of intermittent invalids, an era of expansionist government intervention that would make Obama look like Rand Paul.

Scalzi also finds cranky, driven characters to set his plot into motion. Perhaps because his physical body is so immobile, the version of Chris out there in the world is fast and jumps around the continent with ease. I also liked that family is not skimped on or avoided. Chris has a dad. His dad has many admirable qualities along with many that are overbearing and suffocating. The way that Chris seeks his own autonomy even though his natural state is completely dependent is a facet of this story that just worked for me. The arc of the protagonist from someone dependent to independent serves the main plot, doesn’t distract from it. Chris’ snarky voice goes a long way to making this future feel lived-in and unglamorous. If this makes sense, I think most of the effects of the movie version of Lock-In would be practical effects, and the androids would be scuffed up and dusty. It is very easy to believe in this future.

Although I’ve already praised Scalzi’s work here to tease out some of the ramifications of his invented technologies, I think more could have been done. For example, perhaps shying away from frittering into a topic already over-worked from other stories, Scalzi spends very little time explaining the virtual world of the Hadens, and even less time actually taking us there. The events of the novel concern the real world, and that’s where the focus is. Still, I would have liked a few more moments exploring just what this kind of technology would make possible in terms of what human would be. Why couldn’t a Haden fork himself into multiple personal transports? Would it be possible to spread his perception across many different input sensors simultaneously, to gain a radically different gestalt of the world? What does it mean to grow up inside of a virtual environment with an awareness of that fact? Granted, Scalzi says this technology hasn’t been approved for non-Hadens yet, but wouldn’t there be a huge black-market for this technology among the unaffected?

In some ways this book serves as a metaphor for geek culture in general. The idea of lock-ins being their own subset of culture, needing intermediaries to exist in the real world, of there being an inaccessible corner of the net, all seems prefigured by what’s going on in the internet right now. Really what this book is doing is taking some of the discussion happening online about identity and anonymity and making them tangible through a murder mystery plot. But the questions this book dramatizing are already happening, have been happening, for decades.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Why I'm Watching Agent Carter

Agent Carter is one of the best shows on television right now and certainly one of the best arguments for a feminist critiques of culture. Whenever I get really interested in a show, to the point I start structuring my schedule around it, I have to wonder why. Why this show? What is it that appeals to me?

Agent Carter Promo Picture
The actress playing the title role, Hayley Atwell is a big part of that. She was a highlight of the surprisingly entertaining if flawed first Captain America movie and, in preparation for the Agent Carter mini-series, appeared in a couple of cool vignettes during the first half of this year’s Agents of Shield. In all of these, Atwell portrayed Agent Carter as an extremely capable and stylish agent, unafraid to use her keen wit or powerful right hook to get the job done. In a one-shot filmed by Marvel and tucked into the extras of the Iron Man 3 DVD, Agent Carter is coping as best she can with the aftermath of losing Steve Rodgers, and the contempt of her male co-workers. Despite these impediments, Carter finds a dangerous McGuffin and impresses Howard Stark sufficiently that he places her in charge of the new “SHIELD” organization. 

Those basic elements are still present in the Carter mini-series but elaborated on, and fleshed out. Carter is still obviously, unabashedly better than any other operative in SSR - smarter, faster, stronger, and more resourceful - and still gets zero respect. Instead, her presence in the office is denigrated as a pity case due to her relationship with Captain America. So, when her war-time friend Howard Stark contacts her on the run from suspected treason, she jumps at the chance to safe-guard the billionaire inventor’s lethal devices and clear his name. Throughout all of this, Atwell adopts the pose of the “happy warrior,” clearly outraged and frustrated by her treatment by the men of SSR but unafraid to take action to do what she knows is right. Part of the actress’s charm comes from how much of this inner turmoil is not expressed through fist-pounding or shouting but the simple flicks of her eyes. Listening to one buffoon after another, Attwell’s eyes are always framed prominently in the scene, scanning through the possibilities of the clues she unearths, gauging the usefulness of the rogues she encounters. I've included a fun gag video below to give an exaggerated example of Atwell's work. 


There is a barely constrained physicality to her portrayal of Carter that I find convincing and powerful. Beyond the timely reversal of  ‘smartest-man-in-the-room’ trope, Atwell mines some deeper level of star-power. Somehow she’s able to find a way to bring across how smart and tough this character is, while preserving an outer charm and control.

Certainly there is a strong element of fantasy to all of this but that’s what super-heroes are all about, ultimately; bringing to life some wish-fullment of power and heroism. But the details of a fantasy matters. It matters that the hero is this case is a smart but fallible woman. Peggy Carter gives us a diesel-punk Athena, beautiful and cultured, but also ready to kick ass. And like an Olympian, the importance here is not whether it’s realistic that Carter could do what she does, but that viewers have an image inspiring wonder about what they could do.

From the Iron Man 3 One-shot
Also like Greek drama, the conflict of the story is created through a violation of ceremony, of human ritual. And I’m not referring to Peggy’s work as an agent in a traditionally male job. The violation here is that Peggy Carter, so clearly shown as capable and effective is relegated to a menial status within the SSR. This mirrors the millions of women in post-war America who were thrown out of good-paying factory jobs as the culture sought to return to some idealized sense of normality. Because of this basic trauma, various other transgressions are permitted. Agents with poor work ethics are promoted above those with talent, wounded veterans are ignored, lies are allowed to continue, and the entire agency is shown to be remarkably incompendent in dealing with its basic responsibility, stopping bad guys. In a patriarchy, women are not the only ones who suffer. Men living in such as  system as well must constantly be reminded that to show emotions is female, that to show a moment of vulnerability or injury is feminine. If women are people that need to be rescued, then men are people who can never be saved. When Carter rescues the arrogant and high-handed Agent Thompson after a raid on a Soviet compound, this doesn’t come of as a final vanquishing of Thompson, the destruction of his value as a human being, but rather a moment where he achieves a kind of catharsis, and is able to admit to guilt over his war-time actions. This catharsis, at least briefly, brings Carter into the fold as an acknowledged and respected member of SSR.

What further complicates this scenario is the fact that Carter is working to clear the name of a lethorio like Stark. Stark, through his duplicitous business dealings and serial promiscuity represents its own violation of social norms, at least within the confines of the show. Carter acts as the moral center of a universe profoundly off-kilter, forced to fight shadowy conspiracies outside the rules and procedures of the law. In Greek tragedy, the problem always stems from some basic violation of the ceremonies of society. In the case of Agent Carter, we’ve learned that the basic violation was first committed by Stark in fraternizing with the wrong Leviathon agent. That error begets all of the rest of it, Stark’s hounding as a public enemy, the spread of weapons so perniciously powerful they could be considered war-crimes in themselves, and the lies. Eventually Carter wises to all of this and all but cuts her ties to him. I’m curious where this is all going to wind up as the one-shot (still officially described as canon) shows Stark with enough standing to raise Carter to the director of SHIELD.

One final winning attribute of this show is its luminous, effortlessly stylish production. It’s Mad Men for Avengers fans, with careful attention paid to details and cinematography.

Agent Jack Thompson (center) with Agent Ray Kryzeminski (left) in a fairly good representation of the Noir style of the show.
Yes, there are plenty of fist-fights, it is a Marvel property.
I couldn't find the shot I really wanted of this scene showing a reactor covered in a layer of asbestos, but this shot gets at the weird cross-genre elements of the show.
I’ve praised the choreography of Agents of Shield this season but Agent Carter takes it to another level. On the last episode in particular, attention was paid to make the action of the scene flow naturally from the conflict. Watch how the snappy dialogue between Carter and Jarvis flows seamlessly into the first pan to the face. The editing is kinetic while preserving a sense of the automat in which the fight occurs. The viewer is always oriented in the scene, able to follow who is being hit and where the action is heading. 



Agent Carter does an excellent job using action build and support characterization. During the second episode, many reviewers have noted the near-genius of editing Carter’s fight scene with a radio play featuring a humiliatingly fragile version of herself needing rescue. Fight-fights and car-chases are not everyone’s cup of tea, but done well, punches and kicks are just one more component to the essential struggle of a television show. I guess another way of saying this is, sometimes and uppercut isn’t just an uppercut when it’s a powerful female throwing the haymakers.

Unfortunately, as awesome as this show is, the ratings haven’t really kept pace. 

Some fatalistic hipster component of my brain says, “Don't like the show? Fine, you’re just not cool enough to get it.” But really, Agent Carter should be a massive hit and the fact that it isn’t says a lot about where our culture is right now. Gamergate is only the latest example of what Susan Faludi once called Backlash, the tendency of culture to react to perceived gains by women as some kind of existential threat. When women move into roles and power traditionally reserved for men, a certain type of individual grows threatened, much like Agent Thompson. They lash out, either physically or through social pressure, striving to shore up once more the crumbling edifice of gender roles. 

As this country gears up for another Presidential election almost certainly featuring an experienced, smart, capable former Secretary of State and Senator matched against a guy with considerably fewer achievements, it might be interesting to reflect on how this show comes to be perceived in years to come. 

Still, if you're like me, snowed in again this week, catch up on this show if you haven't. And watch tomorrow's episode. There are only a few episodes left and a show this good should be able to finish with style.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Boskone 2015

Boskone is the one local convention I’ve never had a chance to visit. It usually occurs at an awkward time for me in the calendar (seriously, Valentine’s Day?) but on the other hand it offers a chance to see all of my favorite authors gathered together in one convention - Laird Barron, Elizabeth Bear, John Langan, Ken Liu, Scott Lynch, Charles Stross, etc. If you want a quick list of authors to track down to find out what’s happening in speculative fiction right now, you’d be well-served just looking through the participant list of Boskone.

What to do, what to do.

The snowy wasteland surrounding the Westin Hotel. Morgan Crooks (2015)

This year I decided to give it a try before the impending blizzard closed down Boston again. In a nutshell I am going to have to go back. Although Boskone is a smaller convention than Arisia (which I’ve gone to for several years) I had a blast.

First off I’d just like to point out that the smaller size for Boskone probably works to its advantage. The focus here is more tightly centered on speculative fiction and the publishing industry, but unlike Readercon in the summer, Boskone also includes panels on media and fandom, which makes for an entertaining and distinct blend. The stand-out for me was Joan Sloncsewski's talk on spending a year in Antartica investigating microbial life there. I could’ve sat through another three hours of her travelogue, honestly. The portrait she gave us of a rugged, inhumanly barren moonscape contrasted with the strange ad hoc community that’s grown up at McMurto Station was just enormously appealing. She took a few videos of flying from the Research Station to her base camp in the desert valleys across the Ross Sea, and the views were simply staggering. As Joan pointed out, these are places where no megalife can survive, and to be clear what Joan meant by mega life was anything bigger than cyanobacterial mats. It has been pointed out that the frozen deserts of Antartica are the closest things we have to visiting Mars, and although the color of the sky looks different, the rugged and sterile slopes of the mountains gave plenty of evidence supporting that.


I also enjoyed the panel called Apocalypse How? with Jeffrey A. Carver, Scott Lynch, Steven Popkes, and Michael Swanwick. As detailed in one of my year-end posts, Swanwick wrote one of my absolute favorite short stories last year, “Passage of Earth,” and so I was compelled to do the whole star-struck fan thing and thank him for the story. I also got a chance to hear Elizabeth Bear talk about her process of writing “Covenant” which was another favorite of mine in a later panel. So, as far as the basic fan dynamic of conventions, Boskone pretty much delivered.

Neil Clarke wound up moderating a very well-attended panel on how "Not to Get Rejected" which was entertaining. As someone who has an Inbox stuffed with form rejection letters it was reassuring to hear from the other side of the equation. I guess my basic take-away is the biggest mistake in submitting stories is stopping. Clarke said plenty of stories he passed on got picked up by other markets and vice versa. It’s all about supply and demand. Oh, and don’t send zombie stories to Clarke, not even as a joke.

I also ran into a fellow panelist from Arisia, Gillian Daniels, and shared our mutual fandom for Agent Carter in a quick escalator conversation. Who knows what’s going to happen with that show but I agree with Gillian that it deserves/demands a second season. What a terrific show.

And that’s about it. I did brave the Boston T system to get to the Westin hotel but that worked out pretty well, actually. No delays either inbound or out and the folks at the Alewife parking garage were very nice not charging me a full amount when I misplaced my ticket. I’m going to add Boskone to my list of conventions next year but I really want to find out a way to be on a panel or two. I’m going to have to do some investigating.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Speculative Lexicons

Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice” gives me a chance to talk shop. In a science fiction novel, like the Radch series, a writer is confronted with the need to express novel concepts through the English language. Whether introducing an alien species or a new technology or simply a specific style of dancing, a author must choose from three basic options.


Wind Sculpture near Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe. Taken by Morgan Crooks (2013)
One: use common English analogues to express concepts similar to ones more familiar to readers. So instead of calling an alien fork a Quedebblian food-trident, call it a fork assuming it has the same basic function. Secondly, a writer could resurrect a less frequently used word and apply it to the situation - think the Wachowski sibling's use of the word 'Matrix.' Finally, a writer might created a neologism. This last category is in someways the most broad as it includes portmanteaus, figurative transliterations, and out-an-out inventions. However, for the most part, a writer would do well to make the most use of the first category, significantly less of the second, and as little as possible of the third.

Turning to Ann Leckie’s work, we can see how these choices inform the kind of the story she is trying to tell. Leckie uses all three types of speculative lexicon I outlined above. While she probably has a very specific image of the hyperspace hopping battleships described in her books, she refers to them, for the most part, simply as ships. If someone is using a dagger, it’s called a dagger and a shirt is a shirt. There is a very good reason to rely on common terminology as much as possible when writing speculative fiction. For one thing, a good science fiction writer is already introducing challenging concepts and technology during the course of the story; every word a reader must learn is one more barrier to easy comprehension of the story. In addition, playing with the reader’s expectations when it comes to common words can be very rewarding.

Recently I read a short story (and talked it up in my monthly short story column) called The Sound of Useless Wings, written by Cecil Castellucci. I enjoyed this story's subject matter - a portrayal of an alien’s perspective on exploration and love. I especially appreciated the language Castellucci used to achieve this goal. This sort of story can go off the rails so easily, getting bogged down in paragraphs of exposition and off-putting phonetic versions of some alien concept or another. Castellucci’s approach is to simply use everyday words to describe important concepts to the aliens and then suggest how these words do and do not fit our preconceptions.

For example consider this passage from the short story, where her protagonist Heckleck encounters a potential partner, a mate from a different social class.


I do what any Hort would do. When we are alone in a storage locker, away from the others’ eyes, I pull my wing and open my back plate and I show her my tiny beating heart.
I am in love.
“It’s so small,” she says.
“It will grow,” I say.


The meaning of this passage is accessible to anyone, the first awkward adolescent brushes with intimacy. However, the biology is different. Castellucci accomplishes a neat trick in this passage, simultaneously reinforcing the ways her protagonist is different from a human being while highlighting the profound similarities. She clues in the reader first, “I do what any Hort would do,” embracing an important principal of storytelling in dealing with the reader honestly. Castellucci shows you what she is going to do - namely describe the alien courtship between two giant space insects - but also draws you in close so you can experience this moment the way a Hort would. Wings and backplate pulled back, a heart is revealed. The word heart creates a certain image within the mind of the reader, presumably one in keeping with human physiology. And Castellucci allows that association to persist even as she complicates it. Human hearts don’t literally “mature," and we certainly can’t expose them at will by removing a backplate. Thus Castellucci has given us something familiar framed in an unusual and off-putting way. What’s masterful about this passage is that when the idea of a Hort heart is revisited later in the story, I think the reader still has this more or less human concept of what the organ is. Even though the reader has been trained by this point to appreciate the difference between what Heckleck means by a word and what we might mean by it, and yet that fundamental attachment of the word “heart” builds sympathy between the reader and Heckleck. Words bridge the gap between an invented arthropod to allow empathy for another being’s plight. If speculative fiction has any value at all, it is in moments such as these - pushing the frontier of what is a person, what a human being might empathize with.

What Leckie also makes use of repurposed familiar words. One great example is the different classes of ships in her novel. The main character Breq, used to be an artificial intelligence aboard a flagship vessel of the Radch empire. Now that ship could be called any number of things, from a dreadnought  or a warbird or a spaceship to name just a few examples. What Leckie does though is list three different classes of ship, from the pocket-sized Mercy, the mid-sized Sword and the largest class, the Justice. That’s smart. In addition to making each of the sizes immediately accessible to a casual genre fan, these choices also communicate something of the values of the empire that constructed them. The smallest component of their force is mercy, by far the largest some conception of Justice.

Another best practice when it comes to speculative lexicons is to be judicious with the introduction of specialized vocabulary. If a reader truly needs to know a new word to appreciate a story, make sure that new word its a thorough grounding and context, and make sure the word is used to its utmost. There is really nothing more off-putting than reading through a paragraph that seems half-written in some foreign language. Although I do enjoy Melville’s talent for world-building, the guy asks a lot of his readers. There was an XKCD post that made this point a lot more succinctly than I could ever hope to so I’ll just leave that here.



That said, I don’t think that a speculative writer should just swear off all use of neologisms. There are plenty of occasions where a new word is needed and only a new word will work. In my day-job as a teacher I make a point of spending some time explaining the word ‘pharaoh’ during our Egyptian unit. A pharaoh is often defined as a king of Egypt, or the ruler of the kingdom.  Now, if you know anything about Egypt’s long history of dynasties, you know the word ‘king' is not really satisfactory to explain the relationship between the ruler of Egypt and his/her subjects. A pharaoh, especially during the Old Kingdom, was  considered a sort of living god, a personification of Horus. This granted a pharaoh something approaching unlimited power within the Nile Valley. A pharaoh had a complicated and elaborate symbology surrounding his or her authority, one outstripping any but the oldest monarchies on the planet. To me, that means if you want to describe the ruler of Egypt, you should certainly use the correct word - pharaoh.

In a similar way, while Leckie keeps her neologisms to an absolute minimum throughout much of the story but she does use them. The Radch, to name one example, is presumably some phonetic version of what the characters call their civilization. Leckie could have simply called this civilization that Empire, or the Union, or any number of different things, but providing the peek behind the curtain of English creates the sense of another language lurking just out of sight of the reader. Things that have an obvious unique impact on the characters - the different worlds and alien races - are named with invented words.

The one big exception is right up front in the title, her appropriation of the word “Ancillary.” Now, ancillary, as defined, means a person whose work provides necessary support to the primary activities of an organization, institution, or industry, is not exactly a dead word but it’s not a word that most people hear on a daily basis. Leckie uses the word to mean human beings puppeteered by a ship-borne intellegence. That’s somewhat different from the dictionary definition and yet, remains a deft choice because it communicates the status of those machine-driven slaves. They are secondary, supplemental to the ship. As a word not frequently uttered in general conversation, ‘ancillary' has the benefit of novelty. But it is also not a completely foreign word.

So why not use whatever word the Radch call the ancillaries? The reason is familiarity. If a phonetic neologism was used, instead of a translation, the protogonist would be farther away from the reader. We would have to learn a brand new word to even begin talking about what the character was. With ancillary, we have a vaguely familiar word to hang on to while attempting to make piece with Breq’s radically different style of perception. Speculative fiction succeeds or fails on tiny decisions like this.

Words are the substance of writing. An author's ideas are transmitted through words and they can either be clarified or muddied by the lexicon employed. Leckie provides strong evidence that by far the best way to handle speculative lexicon is with a careful and parsimonious hand.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: Book Review

A book can wallow in my “must-read” pile for a while before I feel compelled to start it. With Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, it took the Speculative Literature: Year in Review panel before I kicked it to the top of the list. What both of my co-panelists, Gillian Daniels and Tegan Maninno, said about the book was that it was the best kind of space opera, epic in scope, full of rich characterization, with interesting takes on gender and identity. Sold.


Basically Ancillary Justice introduces a universe several millennia in the future where an expansionist empire called the Radch is beginning to descend into a very unusual kind of civil war. The protagonist, Breq, is actually the final remaining instance of a ship-borne intelligence called Justice of Toren, nearly obliterated due to the machinations of the empire’s ruler. Now, left with one very capable but limited physical body, Breq/Justice of Toren, seeks to exact revenge upon the Radch ruler Anaander Mianaai for her many misdeeds.
The plot is unusually concise for a space opera, embracing two main plot lines. In the first, Breq encounters a former crew mate on an ice world. In the second, which occurs a couple of decades before, Breq is helping to oversee the transition of a recently conquered world into the Radch empire. Through both narratives, the reasons for Breq’s need for vengeance on Mianaai become clear. I think both sections are very well-handled but at least in the beginning, it was the narrative of Breq tracking down the means for vengeance that really got me interested in the story. 

Leckie has a real talent for world-building, focused less on the technological gee-whiz underpinnings of her galaxy-spanning empire and more upon the human motivations for events. Although not on the same scale as Frank Herbert’s famous series, her take on politics reminded me of Dune’s realpolitik approach to hegemony and dynastic machinations. She also has a similar way of building a sense of a different universe through the actions of her characters as much as exposition.

Ancillary Justice also shows the power of voice in a science fiction novel. Breq/Justice of Toren, brings a unique perspective on common space opera tropes. As a former space ship able to project her consciousness through several ancillaries - essentially humans running as a hive mind - the Justice of Toren was able to see many events at once but be removed from the actual human emotions that caused them to happen. In addition, the Radch have a gender-free civilization and so Breq has trouble identifying the sex of the other human cultures she encounters, a fact she handles by simply referring to everyone with the female pronoun. A reader might struggle against this, straining to read between the words for clues about what a character’s ‘actual’ gender is. A reader might even find this necessity disturbing or frustrating, but for me, I found that element incredibly illuminating.

Far from a gimmick, this device allows Leckie to arrive at the main themes of the novel - that the basic problem of an empire like the Radch is not the loss of freedom or the inevitable spread of corruption or even the injustice of a capricious ruler but that such an institution flies in the face of a basic fact of human existence - that culture is constructed, real, and infinitely diverse. To claim that one culture is ‘civilized’ or that one mode of perception of correct is in itself a needless amputation of human possibility.

One curious aspect of the novel, probably a direct result of having such an unusual perspective is its narrowness. I guess another way of saying this is that the story has very little sprawl. Although some elements of Ancillary Justice, its far-future setting, the ubiquity of technology, its concern over the nature of identity, remind me of the late Ian Banks, this is a far more compact novel. There are no set-pieces that exist merely to flesh out some random corner of her universe. There are no characters that don’t some direct way serve the basic plot of the story. There is a brutal economy of action, character, and setting. In someways this reminds me of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap Cycle, particularly in its treatment of how simple narratives cover up more complex realities. Like Donald’s “Real Story,” the past is continually feeding back into the present, the significance of prior events revised and altered by relentless revelations.

I'm looking forward to the followup released this year and whereever this novel goes from there. I think the thing that really entrances me about this book is that it finds this nearly perfect blend of space opera scale and action with the intimacy and sensitiveness of new wave science fiction. There is plenty spectacle but a generous approach to human possibilities.