I loved this novel. It was an impulse purchase although I was looking for a Delaney. I’d read that he was a close friend of James Tiptree jr, whom the world now knows was Alice Sheldon, and wrote feminist sf, so I wanted to find out more. Babel-17 (1966) is certainly feminist, but in a breathtakingly audacious way: it simply isn’t made an issue. Delaney just writes a novel about language, xenotranslation and mathematics, and wraps it around a pirate space opera. All the potentially contentious feminist, post-racial, gendered stuff is tucked out of the way, under the hood, where it powers the novel unnoticeably, just purring along.
Babel-17 is beautifully well written. It’s adorned with poetry, because Rydra Wong the protagonist is a poet as well as a xenolinguist, and I can believe her poems are real. (Apparently they are real poems, by a real poet, not just mugged up for the novel.) The space opera feels like a James Blish engineering romp, but aeons ahead in social attitudes. We have the pleasure of superbly plausible space-tech details to ease us through an engaging plot about people who live, work, and continue to work after living is over.
Delaney’s invention is stunning. Old pilots and navigators never die, they just become discorporate, and inhabit a special space station afterlife facility until their skills are needed for voyages where the physics and working conditions would pulverise living bodies. Rydra breaks the alien code (Babel-17), and is plunged into an alternative existence of enhanced senses which makes human speech and thinking impossibly slow. Bored crews save their money for cosmetisurgery so they can wear tails, or remodel their bone structure for better shipboard function where navigation means a whole-body interface with the shipbrain. The discorporate crew have no audible voices, but they speak directly to Rydra’s brain, so she can self-program their remarks into Basque before they dissipate completely. (Why Basque? It’s a memorable sound, so Rydra can recall what those crew are saying from phoneme memory rather than meaning.) Navigation crew triad up in threes in a marriage that lasts until death, working and playing together through the stars.
Who cares about the plot: Delaney’s details and world-building create the real magic. It was joint winner of the Nebula Best Novel for 1966. Go find a copy. I’ll race you to the Delaney shelf.
In the third and (so far) last part of her series about Breq, the last ancillary fragment of a battleship taking on the genderless Radchaai empire, Ann Leckie changes focus again. The first part (Ancillary Justice) was about plotting revenge and heading towards her target (see my review here); the second part (Ancillary Sword, reviewed here) was about establishing authority. Ancillary Mercy is about making people feel better, and it’s a decisive change of tone. It’s very good, but Leckie has chosen to focus on the small things (human emotions, justice), rather than go all-out for a riotous slamming space opera finish, so, be careful what you’re looking for.
I am a passionate admirer of Leckie’s technical achievement in finding a way to write adventure and space opera excitement without gender by the simple trick of making every pronoun feminine. If everyone is described by the same gendered words, then gender becomes meaningless, and we can all get on with the job of fighting injustice and righting wrongs without messing about with preconditioned gender roles. This worked magnificently in Ancillary Justice, because Breq establishes herself as a superb fighting machine and tactician against terrible odds, and against some nasty people. In Ancillary Sword she commands a battleship, takes over an orbital space station, administers calming influences and upholds the law down-planet. These are leadership roles, and in a few, beautifully positioned episodes, Breq shows what a formidable fighter she is as well because she’s not actually human.
Ancillaries are created to be the military parts of a spaceship, and have constant multiple communications with each other and Ship itself, a strange but supremely efficient mode of existence. Ancillaries are super-fast in their reactions and live for thousands of years, but can also be casually thrown away if they sustain damage too time-consuming to mend. New ancillaries can be grown, or enslaved by hooking up captured humans. Breq is, apparently, the first ancillary to act autonomously in the Radchaai empire because she is the only survivor of her ship, Justice of Toren, from when it was destroyed by one of the splintering fragments of the tyrant Anaander Mianaai, the all-powerful Emperor who, like the ancillaries, exists in clone form, grown in multiples to ensure her complete command over the vast numbers of star systems colonised and subdued by the Radchaai over thousands of years. Gosh, it’s getting complicated. Let’s end the catch-up summary now by remarking that Leckie balanced scale and details very well in the first two novels by focusing on the fate of individuals we grew to care for, because they were affected by planet-sized issues that represent the fate of this Empire. But in this third novel she ignores scale and focuses on the human stories, to the detraction of the trilogy’s overall impact, even while it is very satisfying to find out how Seivarden and Ekalu and Breq sort out their relationship issues.
In Ancillary Mercy we already know these characters: Breq herself: stolid, careful, confident, blandly purposeful, who sings when she’s happy and expects nothing more from these latest years in her very long life but the probability of death and the hope that she will not be betrayed again. Seivarden is her protégé, an arrogant aristocrat rescued from hundreds of years of pod suspension while being lost in space, to be awoken in a time where her House name means nothing, and no-one cares who she is or thinks enough of her to give her deference. She has self-esteem problems. Ekalu is Seivarden’s fellow officer under Breq’s command on the Mercy, a ranker lieutenant, trying not to be unnerved by her responsibilities, and passionately in love with Seivarden, while resenting her sense of entitlement. Ship of Atagaris, Sphene and Mercy of Kalr are battleships learning to think of Breq as a cousin, rather than a human, due to her unprecedented understanding of what it is like to be an AI, and how an AI might like and want autonomy and choice. Tisarwat is another lieutenant, with lavender-coloured eyes (she spent her first pay on tasteless contact lenses: nothing changes), was planted on Mercy of Kalr by Anaander, but willingly had her spy implants removed, and now Breq can use her tyrant-level accesses to any AI anywhere by being assured of her loyalty, though unsure of how much a seventeen-year old soldier can actually take. Translator Zeiat is a bewildering alien envoy, or diplomat, probably also a weapon, who has been sent to the Radch in human form (she’s eager to explore what a human can eat, even if it means temporarily disengaging her jaw to swallow the really large things) to see if peace is being kept while the rogue Anaander arrives at Athoek Station expecting to take over the system, and is outraged when Breq’s AI capabilities prevent her from wholesale destruction. That’s probably enough recap. But I am very fond of Kalr Five, Breq’s batman with a passion for teasets.
It’s curious how in this genderless setting there is so much insistence on personal relations, and balance in respect and deference. Leckie borrows elements from Japanese tea ceremonies, Chinese social protocols, and the elaborate rituals of Shinto religion to create a densely layered social structure to the Radchaai empire across the vastness of space and its galaxies. In every Radch station or planet there will be a Temple and priests, in every Radch ship the lieutenants will be led by the senior lieutenant in morning prayers, and every Radch citizen wears gloves except in the most intimate of situations, and even then gloves might be beworn to indicate respect, status, propriety. This is an Empire capable of overwhelming destructive power and vicious violence, and yet every member of the crew on Breq’s ship know the value and historical importance of a porcelain tea service. Leckie skews our expectations of space opera and makes us watch a tea ceremony instead of exploding planets, because the nuances of the participants’ behaviour at that ceremony give us political clues to power and intentions.
Underneath the elaborate anthropological invention throughout the trilogy, Leckie has been setting down clues for us to pick up and wonder about: what is it to be human? If the Emperor can rule as sole leader while also being a clone of more than twenty individuals, are any of those clone Anaanders more or less human than the others? Do they have free will? Are they like Breq as she once was, part of a greater united whole but with no volition of their own? Physical damage can be healed and repaired in days, and lost limbs can regrow in a month or so. If all the parts are regenerated or prosthetic, is the person still human? Mercy of Kalr advises and instructs her junior lieutenants on how to resolve their lovers’ quarrel with thousands of years of experience, and powerfully empathic understanding. Breq is in tears as she lies in a hospital bed, Seivarden keeping her warm on her damaged side. She cries involuntarily, not knowing why, and her Ship sends a soldier to hug her by proxy. These AIs are as human as the humans they care for and protect. I think this is the way that Leckie might develop this series, setting artificial intelligence free to be human in any way they see fit. It’s a minor note with the potential to develop into a new series in this fascinating society.
Some time ago I reviewed Ann Leckie’s debut and multiple-prize-winning sf novel Ancillary Justice. I loved it, and was highly impressed by what I still think is an immense technical achievement: writing fiction in which gender is simply of no importance at all. Leckie has invented a culture in whose language all pronouns are female (no he, no him), and whose honorifics are either male or neutral (Sir, Citizen). This messes with the reader’s mind, beautifully, since it shuts off our conditioning about male and female, and frees up that cultural space to consider relationships without gender, and power balances without sex-based claims.
In the sequel to Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, the strangeness of this concept has not worn off. This is deep space opera, from the school of writing that Elizabeth Moon made successful, in which soldiers are space crew (women and men both, indistinguishable in every thing that matters), concerned about ship systems and keeping control of the databursts while they wrestle with the FTL drive (I paraphrase, obviously, but I love this sf technobabble). Breq, the protagonist of Ancillary Justice, is no longer on her own on a private mission in Ancillary Sword, but commanding a ship, the Mercy of Kalr, with three officers, a doctor and thirty crew. They emerge from space at their destination, a station orbiting the rich and verdant tea-growing planet Athoek, and are immediately challenged by the nervous Sword-class ship on guard, which thinks they are raiders. Breq is, of course, a raider, in the sense that she is there to secure the station, planet and their inhabitants against invasion and infiltration by the Lord of the Radch, the multi-bodied and now dangerously split-personalitied tyrant of the vast Radchaai empire, in whose service Breq was once an ancillary segment of the ship Justice of Toren. Keeping up there at the back?
Breq’s implants connect her mind-to-mind to her Ship, and through Ship to all her crew. This is another clever technical innovation by Leckie (though versions of this occur in all space opera plots where the captain needs to consult the ship urgently). The twist for this novel is that the implant communications make it possible for Breq to be not just the first-person narrator of the story, telling us what she sees, hears and does, but also to narrate what her crew are doing too, when the plot needs that extra level of action replay. It’s beautifully handled, enabling action to be relayed from planet, ship and station locations through Breq’s experience of them rather than by awkward expositions or flashbacks.
How Breq uses this capacity tells us a lot about her character, as in her morals, ethics, professional comportment. She will not invade privacy: when she checks in on Lieutenants Seivarden and Ekalu and discovers them in a post-coital moment, she stays tuned in long enough to check that all is well through their conversation, hormone and adrenaline levels and heart-rates: then she leaves them. Monitoring individuals’ motivations and well-being by their bodily signs is as important as what they say and do. The characters’ attitudes to beauty and kindness are perceived by how they choose and use the ceremonial tea-drinking dishes. Kalr Five, Breq’s batman, fusses over the tea sets for the love of handling them as well as for appreciation of their beauty and their ritual use. Raughd Denche throws her mother’s three-thousand year old set on the floor when she is disinherited for being clumsy in how she manages her vendettas.
Ancillary Sword is expertly plotted. The story whips along niftily, unfolding new aspects of Radch system organisation and the alien cultures it has engulfed over the centuries. Questions of citizenship, power, status and governance are central: this is not a space opera focused on shoot-outs and clenched-teeth struggles suited-up in a vacuum. There is a vacuum moment, of course, caused by Breq’s secret weapon that can put a bullet through anything as long as it’s only 1.11 metres thick. This happens during the single struggle in the lakeside gardens under the dome during which Breq’s shoulder is dislocated so it’s no wonder her teeth are clenched. We are told a few more tantalising details about the Presger, the very strange non-human race who made the gun, when we encounter their translator-ambassador, who is accidentally killed by the Sword of Atagaris’ security detail, which puts Breq and the Sword’s captain into ritual mourning for a whole fortnight, down on the planet, during which time she has time to think more about what else is coming though the Ghost Gate, where that three-thousand year old antique tea-set came from, and whom she can trust to not blow up the bathhouse.
It’s all tremendous stuff, a thoroughly enjoyable read in a fascinating emerging world. Leckie’s storytelling capacities are innate, betraying none of the clumsy formulaic structures that creative writing school graduates often can’t shake off. I’m looking forward to the third and concluding part of her saga, Ancillary Mercy, with great anticipation.