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Booklog: Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie) (2015): Moving on from Lifeboats to another sort of ship.

I can't believe the trilogy stuck the landing. I am verklempt from the narrative economy and elegance of Breq seceeding from Anaander Mianaai's empire (predictable) and linking that to the Presger (surprise!) by raising the question of AI Significance (a twist that was wonderfully set up and executed).

I was wrong when I guessed Breq was consciously shaking apart Athoek and not telling the reader, but I'm very happy with being wrong. Ancillary Mercy is the plotty novel I wouldn't have known how to ask for. There's plot, and more plot, and a lot of it's character-driven, so the narrative tension, the story's success or failure, comes down to people, whether ships or soldiers or stations or citizens. Which is also why the parts about people falling apart and breaking and making mistakes, and the breathing room the more intimate moments bring to the story, are so important. Besides making me think Seivarden might finally be getting a handle on her issues. A little bit. Maybe. I could talk about what that does for pacing, or I could talk about the way that love takes, and it takes and it takes, and slip in my Hamilton moment for the day.

I also think that AS is important because it's about Breq looking past her immediate vendetta and getting connected to a community. Or more than one community: Mercy of Kalr's crew, and Athoek Station, and Athoek the planet. AS takes Breq from let's kill the Lord of the Radch, and who cares what happens after that to let's start a breakaway state, and then do the next thing.

I mentioned in skygiants' DW that I had all these feelings about how the identity issues and the Presger and the entire history of the Radch come together at the very end of the novel, so here's me having feelings. If that wasn't already clear.

There is a slightly screwy but direct line from Breq / Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen finding Seivarden more than half dead from hypothermia to Breq's final tallying-up of things her Mercies are up to, after setting up Queter and Sphene. One step after another, as Breq says; but the thing linking the entire series - Awn's murder and Dlique (and Zeiat) and horrible Raughd and the AIs and Seivarden - is this idea of selfhood. Who is I? Who gets to influence that identification? Is it not horrible when someone rips away your concept of who you are in the service of who she (or he, or it) is? Either in a straightforward let's make ancillaries of our enemies and hapless baby lieutenants way, destroying that person outright; or in the subtler way of Lieutenant Awn forced to decide whether she's the sort of person who obeys orders or lays down her life for her beliefs. Or Queter's near-miss with reeducation, tied up with the Valskaayan and Samirend transportees to Athoek, and how their identities have changed as they're integrated into the tea plantations. Maybe I'm pushing the theme too hard, but it's one way to look at the three novels that might be useful for seeing a through-line.

And the Presger Translators and identity is another thing going on with this. Is identity fluid, for them? I think of identity and I think of Breq's confusion of gender, her persistent difficulty identifying and interpreting the gender markers of non-Radchaai societies. It reminds me a bit of Zeiat's cakes and counters and invisible lines (1). It's the same question Lieutenant Awn asked in Ancillary Justice (2). The way identity and categories go together doesn't work the same way.

Zeiat is relieved she is not Dlique. It suggests to me a confusion about the Radchaai connection of name (as in thing-you-are-called) and identity. But change physically, and that identity goes, and the name with it? Zeiat's first introduction as Dlique, until Breq suggests she might be Zeiat, and Zeiat's failure to recognize Breq after she loses a leg suggest something about human naming schemes and identity. Significance, perhaps, instead of identity: the question is not, Who are you? but Identify your Significance.

That might go with the messy, persistent failure of colorblindness. Gender may be utterly irrelevant and valueless to the Radchaai, but it's a stumbling-block for Breq outside Radch-controlled space. And there are other markers, of status and ethnicities, that are felt as deeply in Radch space, even when they're officially denied. We are all Radchaai, all civilized, but in Ancillary Justice Seivarden complains (shocking, I know) that people aren't just wearing styles she doesn't recognize from her time, but that they're different between stations. And these markers, and the hierarchies they represent, mean nothing to Zeiat in turn. There is something deeply nonhuman going on with the Presger and identity and Significance that I would love to see explored in another novel.

Are there things to quibble? Probably. The writing style is very choppy, in a way that some people might not enjoy. I missed the breadth and depth of Seivarden's epic failboat issues, until things came to a head, but that might be a reader issue, not a writing issue. I also very much appreciated Leckie clarifying how ancillaries work in the Ancillary Mercy AMA: What's different is their sense of identity. Your sense of identity is very fragile--it's not just made up of your memories, but of your strong sense that you are you and not someone else. The right kind of brain damage (or in this case surgery) can alter or destroy that. . . At any rate, ancillaries have their sense of individual identity removed, and replaced with that of their ship. . . Tisarwat has all her old memories. But she will never be that previous Tisarwat. That was a missing piece that helped me understand what was going on with Tisarwat a lot better.

Something I've quite enjoyed is the evident influence of C.J. Cherryh's writing. Zeiat in that spotless white Breq identifies with the Translators Office reads as a shoutout to Cherryh's Foreigner series; actually, the Presger read as if someone had spent a lot of time thinking about the paidhi-aiji and mixed those thoughts with some space opera and high powered AI tropes. I love it. And it took me an entire day to figure out why Sphene so delighted me. Do whatever you like to the magistrates, shoot them into the sun for all I care. Just don't bore me with it now. What I want to talk about is ancillaries. Now why would I love that sort of tactless blunt talk backed by the power of a warship? (Ahem.)

Ask me what my favorite Sphene moment is and I quote all of Sphene's dialogue. That ship is awful and I would cheerfully subscribe to The Adventures of Sphene And Queter, An Ongoing Serial, With Lots of Sarcasm And Deadpan Gallows Humor. I mean, look at this:

"I want to find out of I managed to damage any of Anaander's ships. And if I did, I want to try to do more damage. I need to know what's going on at Athoek so I can plan."

"Oh, Cousin," replied Sphene, "We sit here arguing, we can hardly agree on anything, and then you go straight to my heart like that. We must be family."

And also the eggs song. "We aren't cousins anymore." Sphene, I would hug you if there were any question in my heart you'd react with emotions other than horror and disdain.

Tangentially, I love the way the cousin thing comes together, turning Sphene's mockery of Breq's Mianaai connection into something just as edged and complicated that's something entirely different by the time Athoek Station asks to be a cousin too. And Breq's reply - "Of course you can, Station. You always have been." - is totally adorable.

The trilogy ends in a good spot, so I don't feel like I really need more of The Adventures of Breq / Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, and Her Myriad People. But I sort of want something else in this universe, with some minor tossed-off reference to the Provisional Republic of Two Systems (or a Thousand Eggs, or whatever it chooses to call itself) and the doings of its citizens.

(1)Translator Dlique in Ancillary Mercy:

She took the tray of cakes off the counter, set it in the middle of the table. "These are cakes."

"They are," Sphene agreed. The translator looked to me for confirmation, and I gestured agreement.

"All of them! All cakes!" Completely delighted at the thought. She swept the cakes off the tray and onto the table, and made two piles of them. “Now these," she said, indicating the slightly larger stack of cinnamon date cakes, "have fruit in them. And these" —she indicated the others—" do not. Do you see? They were the same before, but now they’re different. And look. You might think to yourself — I know I thought it to myself — that they're different because of the fruit. Or the not-fruit, you know, as the case may be. But watch this!" She took the stacks apart, set the cakes in haphazard ranks. "Now I make a line. I just imagine one!" She leaned over, put her arm in the middle of the rows of cakes, and swept some of them to one side. "Now these,” she pointed to one side, "are different from these." She pointed to the others. "But some of them have fruit and some don't. They were different before, but now they're the same. And the other side of the line, likewise. And now." She reached over and took a counter from the game board.

"No cheating, Translator," said Sphene. Calm and pleasant.

"I'll put it back," Translator Zeiat protested, and then set the counter down among the cakes. "They were different — you accept, don't you, that they were different before? — but now they're the same."

"I suspect the counter doesn't taste as good as the cakes," said Sphene.

"That would be a matter of opinion," Translator Zeiat said, just the smallest bit primly. "Besides, it is a cake now." She frowned. "Or are the cakes counters now?"

"I don't think so, Translator," I said. "Not either way." Carefully I stood up from my chair.

"Ah, Fleet Captain, that's because you can't see my imaginary line. But it's real." She tapped her forehead. "It exists."

(2) Awn in Ancillary Justice:

"What's the difference," Lieutenant Awn said, so quietly it didn’t seem like a break in the silence, "between citizens and noncitizens?"

"One is civilized," said Lieutenant Skaaiat with a laugh, "and the other isn't." The joke only made sense in Radchaai — citizen and civilized are the same word. To be Radchaai is to be civilized.

"So in the moment the Lord of Mianaai bestowed citizenship on the Shis;urnans, in that very instant they became civilized." The sentence was a circular one — the question Lieutenant Awn was asking is a difficult one in that language. "I mean, one day your Issas are shooting people for failing to speak respectfully enough — don't tell me it didn't happen, because I know it did, and worse — and it doesn't matter because they're not Radchaai, not civilized.

Also, Leckie's tumblr is a delight. See especially #peep-peep-peep-peep.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/657246.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 26th, 2015 04:38 pm (UTC)
I laughed _so_ hard at the "we're no longer cousins" line. Aliens, AIs, spaceships, revolution...and then a "bottles of beer" joke that emerged organically from the narrative. Genius!

I was distracted by something when Sword came out, so I just read the entire trilogy in one fell swoop (distracted only by the new Bujold ARC), 2/3rds of it new-to-me. I sometimes think it's a _little_ over-hyped (while still very good), and then you point out that parallel between book 1 and 3 with the line-drawing and it just is so impressive! I love it when authors can make something like that, even if I need help noticing it.

You've got to wonder what Breq's Annaander is going to think of all this once she finally learns. One could almost see her deciding to team up with herself against this vexing Fleet Captain. :-P
Oct. 27th, 2015 04:48 am (UTC)
What's your opinion of the new Bujold? The e-arc is sitting in my phone's memory, but I haven't opened it yet.

Oh, by the time I got to "we're not cousins anymore," I was past laughter and well into high-pitched noises of delight. Ancillary Mercy broke me somewhere around "you're both being stupid. It's a very Breq kind of stupid, and I thought it was just because Breq is Breq but I guess it's a ship thing."

If you liked the eggs song, you have to read Leckie's tumblr, if you haven't already.

I'll concede the Ancillary trilogy may be over-hyped at the moment; there's some very vocal fans who have been very happy with Ancillary Mercy. I can also imagine some of the discussions of privilege dating very quickly. But I hope that I'm wrong; and if I'm even partially right, that people find enjoyment and value in the novels for a very long time.

I love it when authors can make something like that, even if I need help noticing it.

There might be some really strong thematic elements resonating through the three novels because it's what Leckie wanted to tackle in the overarching story, or because it's one of her Big Themes. I'm very much looking forward to whatever Leckie does next, so I can start learning the answer to that question. But Breq's solution to, well, everything? That was plotting genius. That took three novels to set up, and you don't see it coming, but once it's there, you go, "that's perfect." I haven't read a twist executed that well in years.

(Completely unrelated: Hamilton, y/n? And speaking of twists, I tripped and watched Fringe. I wish to subscribe to the Olivia Dunham fanclub, stat. And I am very excited Elementary cast John Noble as Sherlock's dad.)
Oct. 27th, 2015 02:42 pm (UTC)
It's hard to know what to say about Bujold without spoiling it...and there are some _major_ bombs that get dropped, albeit very early on.

At the same time, people complained that in "The Goblin Emperor" nothing happened...and this novel makes that one look like an action-packed thrill ride! It's about characters making fairly momentous decisions, but they are personal decisions and the plot is about their _making_ the choice, not necessarily enacting it, or seeing it all the way through.

...that might be getting a bit gnomic. It's Cordelia, it's Bujold and it's delightful.

>If you liked the eggs song, you have to read Leckie's tumblr, if you haven't already.<

I've glanced at it, and I made the mistake of listening to the "It all goes around" lullaby/round that got posted to Making light. 3 days later, I'm still humming the damn thing.

> But Breq's solution to, well, everything? That was plotting genius.<

Yes, 'Chekov's Significance'. Totally organic and totally out of nowhere. Breq struggled a bit with self-determination, but the idea of actual emancipation just popped out of the aether and was utterly correct. The Leckie = Cherryh + Banks comparisons could not be more on-the-nose. Tea + AIs is a sub-genre I could really get behind.

> I'm very much looking forward to whatever Leckie does next, so I can start learning the answer to that question<

Had you read the short story she posted to Tor.com? Same universe, totally different setting. Not sure if there's enough to sense thematic unity or not, but it's another taste of the Radch-verse.


Completely unrelated:

Hamilton = Big Yes. I finally saw enough captions on Tumblr to listen to the soundtrack on YouTube. Wow. I don't think I've ever heard anything like it. One article I read said that it had a greater word density than pretty much anything other than (some) Gilbert & Sullivan, and I'd believe it. I went it thinking "This is going to be The Rap version of 1776, but he really has a nice mix of styles and I love all of King George's little sociopathic love-ballads. They're like a palate-cleanser and context-provider all in one.

Fringe- I binge watched it last year up through the middle of season 4 and then burned out a little. Peter had returned but no one remembers him. I know the general scope of the remainder of the series, though. Ambitious stuff, but I'm ambivalent about huge time-line sweeping changes. I watch something because I like the setting. People and settings do evolve, but when you re-write the entire universe and intend to keep it that way, it might as well be a different show at that point (I'm looking at you, Eureka). Anna Torv _is_ superb, though and I think it's some of Noble's best work. I got tired of him on Sleepy Hollow, so I'm glad to see him being disagreeable on another show.

This summer, _I_ tripped and watched Steven Universe. 50+ episode-ettes on YouTube in 2 days. Now _that_ is an interesting little cartoon. If you haven't already jumped on the bandwagon, I'd recommend it in a heart-beat.
Oct. 28th, 2015 04:40 am (UTC)
Thanks for the Bujold heads-up!

I've read "Night's Slow Poison" as well as "She Commands Me and I Obey". Now I'm going to read the rest of Leckie's short fiction.

I love all of Hamilton, except maybe "Say No To This". The musical is just so clever.

While I appreciate Fringe taking risks, which payed off marvelously in the third season, I have a laundry list of problems with S4. The reboot wasn't well executed. Also, from what I've heard, the second season of "Sleepy Hollow" did no one's resume a favor. I'm just saying.

Haven't seen Steven Universe yet. Tell me more.
Oct. 28th, 2015 07:45 pm (UTC)
>Thanks for the Bujold heads-up!

I hope I was informative without being _too_ informative. :-P I'll be extremely interested in your take on the matter once you've read it.

>I love all of Hamilton, except maybe "Say No To This".

The affair is definitely a low point, but I think I appreciate the fact that it isn't THE Tragedy of the piece. Hamilton done screwed up, but it isn't the one crowning screw-up of his life, dominating all else. It's just something unfortunate that happens, he suffers, he atones, the story moves on. It's not forgotten, but it's not overwhelming either. It makes the story more realistic, to my eyes, since life (and history) are, after all, just one damn thing after another. Hamilton had screwed up before and he'd screw up again.

Compare with affair with, say, Benedict Arnold's Betrayal, which is the One True Aspect of _his_ story.

Given my previous exposure to Hamilton was definitely from sources with a Jeffersonian bias, I'm tempted to find the biography used for the musical and take a look. What I came away with most was the sense of wasted _potential_. Hamilton did a lot, but he also ultimately _did_ throw away his shot with the senseless pursuit of honor and tragic misunderstandings. Imagine if his energy and intellect had had a chance to be tempered into wisdom...just as the split between North and South started to fester (1840s, 50s).

...There's probably an interesting alt-history book in there somewhere.

>The reboot wasn't well executed.

With Timeline Shenanigans (tm), I'm always waiting to see "Ok, how will they reverse this?" right up to the point of "Oh, I guess it's permanent after all." You're supposed to confound audience expectations, but usually it's not a gradual, wishy-washy process.

>Haven't seen Steven Universe yet. Tell me more.

Well, first off: I cannot do it justice. Let's just start there.

The basic premise: a young boy is raised by three alien/superhero women. This is like saying Dune is about giant worms and religion.

It's a series of 15 minute episodes. Very compact, often very funny. _Lots_ of confounded expectations as the creator keeps throwing up tropes and cliches, then shooting them down like skeet. There are also, occasionally, really good songs. Like "Once More With Feeling" type clever, thematically appropriate songs.

The series starts off with a combination of "adventure" stories and "slice of life with secondary character" stories (they all live near a small beachside town full of quirky folks).

Over time, you learn more and more back-story in little bits and pieces: who are these women? What is the deal with Steven? 3-4 facts in and suddenly what you thought about everything is drastically re-arranged...and then a few more reveals and the context shifts _again_. Even 60-70 episodes in, where the revelations have started coming hard & heavy, I've no doubt that additional refinement and re-interpretation of things I _think_ I know will be coming.

...I should add, this is different than "everything I knew was wrong!" which you get in things like Lost and Alias and stuff by M. Night Shamalayan. Rather, this is "Everything I knew has been cast in a new light!" which is much more interesting.

To say more would be even rambly-er, so I'll just leave it there. Given that 80% of it is on youtube and each ep is only 10-15 minutes long, it's great for either small bits or long marathons (that seem longer because 2 hours = 8 stories). If you give it a try, I'll be very interested in your opinion.

You watching any other TV besides Fringe? Of the new shows, Limitless is actually a lot of fun and Blindspot isn't awful. Supergirl delivered _exactly_ what the extended trailer promised, but will see if it can continue to do so long-term. Between it, Flash, Arrow & Agents of Shield, we are truly living in a Golden Age of TV Superheros. :-D
Oct. 29th, 2015 10:59 pm (UTC)
Pre-Hamilton, my feeling on the American Revolution was one of overwhelming tedium. I have been convinced it's a less boring period of history than school made it out to be.

I watched the first (two?) episodes of Steven Universe last night. It's cute; I'll probably watch more eventually.

Now that I have watched all of Fringe I'm casting about a bit. I've watched the first two seasons of Arrow and Orphan Black, I'm up to date on Elementary, one of my friends convinced me to give the Murdoch Mysteries a go... I tried to watched Agents of SHIELD and could not bring myself to care. My bar these days is a little higher than "isn't awful."
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