WCB: In your first book, ANCILLARY JUSTICE, we met your protagonist, Breq, as a sentient starship named Justice of Toren, as a group of Ancillary soldiers named Justice of Toren One Esk, and as a single part of that group - One Esk Nineteen. For more on ANCILLARY JUSTICE, check out my interview with Ann here. In ANCILLARY SWORD she’s just Breq, or Fleet Captain Breq and her newfound loneliness is very apparent, painful even. As you wrote ANCILLARY SWORD, was it difficult for you to let go of Breq’s past selves and focus solely upon her?
AL: Not really. Since the events of Ancillary Sword pick up very soon after Ancillary Justice, I was really just continuing on with who she was at that point.
WCB: ANCILLARY JUSTICE & SWORD both touch upon themes of colonialism, worker exploitation and social injustice. In your books, the plantation is alive and well, but the workers pick Rachhaai Tea instead of cotton. What inspired these particular elements of your storyline?
AL: So, actually, I did some research into how tea is actually grown, in the real world. In fact, the folks who pick tea are in a lot of cases not paid much at all, and sometimes live and work in horrendous conditions. Try this http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/10634065/Abused-workers-toil-for-Tetley-tea.html which is from February of this year--months after I turned in AS. So, that's a real thing. Tea is the number one drink in the world, not counting plain water, and it's hugely profitable for the folks who sell it. Not so much for the folks who actually make it.
And of course tea is heavily tied into colonial projects. The Indian tea industry is a result of the British wanting to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. They tried sneaking plants out to grow in India, but most of the plants died. Eventually they found a variety of Camellia sinensis growing in North East India, and it wasn't long before the first tea plantations were up and running.
And the workers on those plantations? Check out David Crole's Tea: A Text Book of Tea Planting and Manufacture with Some Account of the Laws Affecting Labour in Tea Gardens in Assam and Elsewhere (1897). (http://books.google.com/books?id=IDFJAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false) In particular, check out the chapter called "The Coolie: His Ways and His Worth." Yeah. So, the "coolies" are the people who are actually picking the tea. And they've most of them signed contracts of indenture, committing them to several years of labor. Which supposedly those contracts have been carefully explained to them before they sign. But it becomes clear as the chapter goes on that the tea growers were absolutely not above misrepresenting the workers' obligations and/or rights under the law. And if the workers were unhappy and wanted to quit? They couldn't. Absent running away, which if the grower wanted, he could try to have them found and forcibly brought back.
When I was looking for information on tea culture, that sort of thing was impossible to miss. And it was very much part of what I was thinking of while I was writing.
WCB: Breq is always angry. In ANCILLARY JUSTICE, Breq was almost singularly focused upon exacting her revenge. But in ANCILLARY SWORD, her anger is more others-focused. Would you elaborate a bit on this, how Breq changes and evolves from JUSTICE to SWORD?
AL: Well, to some extent, the events at the end of AJ resolve some of Breq's anger. But not all of it, and I think the source of the anger is still there, and maybe the things that were easy to not think directly about when she wasn't in the Radch are staring her in the face at Athoek, and can't be dismissed or ignored. Or, Breq can't dismiss or ignore them--plenty of citizens in Athoek can and do.
WCB: Breq is fond of music and singing, and a "collector" of songs as you put it. Where did her love of music come from?
AL: Do you mean in terms of her as a character, or in writing terms? I love choral singing, actually, and when I was thinking about what it would mean to have so many bodies one of the first things that came to mind was that someone like that could sing choral music all by themselves! It was too compelling an idea to dismiss.
WCB: Radchaai technology is advanced; the alien Presger tech even more so. The Lord of the Radch and her many ancillaries couldn't exist without a mind-bogglingly complex, interstellar web of communications. Yet you spend little time describing how all of the tech looks or works. (A brilliant choice I think) What sold you on this approach?
AL: So, there are lots of different reasons for choosing that approach. On the one hand, I already had quite a lot of history and cultural information to convey, and only so much space to do it in. Something had to go. Plus, in real life, here and now, we don't actually spend much time pondering how the lights work or how our cars go, we just flip the switch, or get in the car and drive. When I talk about going to the grocery store, I don't generally spend time explaining the vast network of communication, transport, trade, and agriculture that makes the grocery store possible, or the make and model of my car, the road and signal system, or how the engine works. And of course, for some of the tech--ancillaries, for instance--I do have some basis for how it works, but large parts of it consist of Sufficiently Advanced Technology that, frankly, works because I say it does.
Which isn't to say that writers who do choose to focus on the details of the tech are making a lesser choice--it's a different one, and that sort of exploration is one of the things a lot of science fiction readers enjoy. So for some projects, it's the best way to go. But I didn't think it would be the right choice for these books.
WCB: Where did the idea for the Presger come from?
AL: Oh, I'm not really sure! Like a lot of things, they were just...there, and I decided to play with them.
WCB: You’ve said before that you wrote ANCILLARY JUSTICE in isolation. Few of your friends knew you were hard at work on it. But, ANCILLARY SWORD was written under intense speculation. Given that, would you share a bit about your process for writing SWORD? Was it hard to block out the praise and conjecture and just focus on the writing?
AL: I have to admit, it's been very distracting. Fortunately, Sword was nearly done by the time Justice came out. But writing Mercy is very, very odd. I try not to think too much about the various comments and speculation when I'm working on it.
WCB: What’s next in the Imperial Radch Series?
AL: I honestly don't know! Right now I'm focused on finishing Ancillary Mercy, and after that, well, at various points in my career so far, I would approach the end of a project and think "I don't have anything lined up next! What if that's the end of my having viable ideas, the end of my writing?" But it never was, something always came up. So, it'll be something, but I don't know just what, yet.
I'd like to thank Ann Leckie for this interview.
I'd like to thank you for stopping by. Don't forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a free copy of ANCILLARY SWORD. Thanks for visiting.
About AL: Ann Leckie is the author of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Award winning novel Ancillary Justice. She has also published short stories in Subterranean Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Realms of Fantasy. Her story “Hesperia and Glory” was reprinted in Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2007 Edition edited by Rich Horton.
If you're looking for more compelling Military Science Fiction, be sure to check out UNBREAKABLE, and the forthcoming INDOMITABLE. iO9 and Kirkus named INDOMITABLE among the top speculative novels to look for in 2016.
FOREIGNER turns Twenty
I first read C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner (a 1994 pub) last year, on the advice of my agent Cherry Weiner, a fellow Cherry. I know – what took me so long? I was immediately drawn into a world as intoxicating and alien as the title suggests, and fell in love with sf all over again. Foreigner is a first-contact story between humans and the atevi, but with a decided twist: we’re the intruders. Cherryh’s book and series of the same name are masterworks of the genre, and one of the longest running series in science fiction. Peacemaker, the 15th installment, is due out shortly (April). If you're a binge reader and just discovering Cherryh it's your lucky day.
I’m giving a copy of Foreigner away. Share this post on your FB page or in a tweet to throw your name into the hat. I'll announce the winner in a week (3/14/2014).
Here’s my recent interview with her:
WCB: Foreigner turns twenty this year. Congratulations! When/where did the storyline for it first turn up?
CJC: I sketch for amusement. I drew a face. It was Banichi’s. I began to think, well, stranded starship for a scenario. But what happens if you have to invent the space program in reverse? What if you’ve been in space so long you’ve forgotten how to fly in atmosphere? And what if you’ve been stranded on a planet so long you have no one trained to fly in space?
And then I added my sketch and said to myself—you’re not going to make it in any fast time frame without manpower and resources, advanced refining, etc...
WCB: Bren Cameron, your main character, is a translator/diplomat and the bridge between the humans and the atevi. Keeping the peace between the races is largely on his shoulders. Would you tell us a bit about him and the genesis of his character?
CJC: I’m a linguist, somewhat: masters study in things like Comparative Philology of the Indo-European Languages... and I’ve traveled in places where I had to communicate without much more than a dictionary—in some places where it really wasn’t safe to be—and where you really didn’t want to be misunderstood by the local authorities. So, yes, I know the problems you can get into, and when a joke is not a good idea.
WCB: Who’s your favorite ateva? Why?
CJC: My two favorite really are Banichi and Ilisidi—both for their dry sense of humor. Honestly, I don’t always know what they’re going to say—in that strange multiple personality that is a writer’s brain. They often make me laugh.
WCB: The atevi have no feeling of love, only man'chi or loyalty to an association or an individual. How hard was it to create an alien society based primarily upon that?
CJC: You have to get into an alien skin and remodel your drives and instincts. Would you react like a human in this instance? You might do the same thing. But would you do it for the same reason? I also tried to build the instincts/drives right down into the non-intelligent species. In the early days of science fiction, there were experiments with aliens who were recognizable species merely translated into upright bipeds. Personally, I think nature and evolution may sculpt bodies into the same efficient design, just as we can find ‘human’ features on a sloth...but the mind, I think, is another story. There are more models of behavior on this planet than there are models of where eyes go relative to mouths. In other words, I think when you start working on a combination of cultural overlay on mental process and nerves—you have far more than green skin and pointed ears for possibilities of alienness. Hardwired, yes; and cultural; and with individual differences and personality: internal consistency on one level, and idiosyncratic difference on the other. Man’chi is an urge we don’t feel in the same way, and it contains a hierarchical element—which is why Bren’s bodyguard has a fit when he tries to protect them.
WCB: Many in the sf community consider your world building second-to-none. How do you keep myriad details straight, particularly after so many books?
CJC: I have notebooks. And I occasionally ask my readers—I have a blog, and I can ask them to find something for me. Someone will have read that book recently. This doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. But I try to keep the internal consistency.
WCB: I’m midway through book two, Invader, but I did peek and was relieved to find Bren Cameron alive and well fifteen books later. Ten years from now, what do you envision Bren doing?
CJC: I think he’ll still be trying to keep Tabini’s young heir out of trouble. He gains more ability to *do* things unilaterally—but his real forte, the source of his success, is building consensus.
WCB: I heard that early in your career, some of your manuscripts were misplaced by various publishers. Would you tell us about that?
CJC: Back in the days of hand-typing, it would take 2-3 months to completely retype. I sent off one book to a publisher. No answer. I retyped. Resent. No answer. Did it again. No answer. Got really vexed and then didn’t know (never even having met a writer) whether I could legitimately send it elsewhere. So I wrote another book. And sent it elsewhere. Later I did sell to Don Wollheim, and asked him about the book that I’d had disappear—was I in some way obligated to that other company? No, he said. So I rewrote from carbon copy, and he bought it. Years later, I received a copy of the manuscript in the mail, from the company in which it had gone missing. I couldn’t figure. I thought, “Is it some reader? With a really weird gift?” And I told the story at a convention, on panel. A person in the industry stood up and said, “I know the rest of the story.” He was reading for that publisher—he had found the manuscript fallen down behind the shelves, read it and wanted it—but when he checked with his editor, as I recall—he found the book had already been published, not only in the US, but in translation. That was Hunter of Worlds. And it was not an easy book to type in the old-fashioned way, I can tell you. We both had a laugh about it, for sure.
WCB: What authors have most influenced your work? Do you have a favorite?
CJC: I’m not kidding when I say Jack Williamson and Publius Vergilius Maro. Jack for obvious reasons—and Vergil because I was a Latin scholar, and translating that man’s work into English is a real problem. He was a master of sensory description: his descriptions always start with the senses as a scene would impact the person arriving on the scene: the impression of sight, sound, then the details, then the emotional impact—he was incredible; but he can’t be translated, not well. Doing it as well as I could taught me an immense lot. I never had a creative writing course. But I had Vergil.
WCB: What are you currently working on?
CJC: Well, finishing the current Foreigner arc, and opening a new can of worms. Doing a book on marine tank-keeping. And doing some e-book work as well, on a site I share with two other authors, at closed-circle.net. I’m thinking about some sf books of another sort. I’m full of notions.
WCB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
CJC: Just to let people know they’re welcome at my blog page, and that I’m going strong and happy in it.
I’d like to thank C.J. Cherryh for being with us today.
I’d like to thank you as well. Be sure to read Foreigner if you haven’t already (or read it again - it's that good), and check out C. J. Cherryh’s other titles everywhere books are sold. The fifteenth installment in the Foreigner saga, Peacemaker, goes on sale April 1st.
C. J. Cherryh is the Hugo and John W. Campbell award-winning and best-selling author of over 60 books and numerous shorts.
It's a real honor to talk with Jack McDevitt, one of the grandmasters of SF, about his new novel, STARHAWK. Jack's the creator of the Priscilla Hutchins and Alex Benedict novels, numerous other stand-alones and shorts, and the Nebula Award-Winning author of CAULDRON.
STARHAWK is a prequel of sorts to the Priscilla Hutchins series. If you haven't read Jack McDevitt before or met "Hutch," STARHAWK is the perfect place to start.
WCB: When did the idea for Starhawk, your latest Priscilla Hutchins novel, turn up?
JM: William, after Priscilla made her first appearance, in The Engines of God, I hadn’t expected to see her again. My original plan had been to avoid sequels. But I’ll admit that I became enamored of the character, as I did of Alex & Chase, so I guess it was inevitable that she would come back. She returned in Deepsix, and I haven’t been able to let go since. When it reached a point where she’d appeared in six novels and several short stories, it just seemed that a launch point was needed, something that would explain how she became who she is.
I’m not sure where the idea for the central plot came from. Oddly, it wasn’t there when I started writing the novel, but it appeared gradually as I worked with the character. As an example of how that developed, the last section to be written was the prologue.
WCB: How did “Hutch” first appear to you? What was she doing?
JM: The character who became Hutch was inspired by an A.E. Housman poem from “A Shropshire Lad.”
Housman writes of an experience he had watching troops march past in London, going off probably to the Boer War. A moment comes when one of them glances toward the poet and their eyes lock. Housman records his
‘My man, from sky to sky’s so far,
We never crossed before;
Such leagues apart the world’s ends are,
We’re like to meet no more;
‘What thoughts at heart have you and I.
We cannot stop to tell;
But dead or living, drunk or dry,
Soldier, I wish you well.’
Priscilla was born with those lines. The soldier was replaced by a statue thousands of years old, found on Iapetus by an early automated flight. The statue is of an alien being, obviously female though not human, and it is clearly a self- portrait, which is determined from footprints. The prints lead to the top of a nearby ridge, where the creature obviously stood admiring Saturn, and which, because of tidal lock, would remain frozen permanently in the same section of sky.
Housman is replaced by a female astronaut named Terri who is on one of the early manned missions. Terri recognizes something in the eyes of the statue. Later, she follows the tracks to the top of the ridge, and sees where the creature stood, transfixed by the spectacle of the ringed giant. Like Housman, she makes an emotional connection.
In the prologue to The Engines of God, Priscilla repeats Terri’s experience. Her reaction: ‘The universe is a drafty, precarious haven for anything that thinks. There are damned few of us, and it is a wide world, and long….What had brought her so far from home? Why had she traveled alone? Long since gone to dust, no
doubt. Nevertheless, I wish you well.
WCB: Your books raise questions about the universe that aren’t easily answered. Without spoiling too much, is there one or two puzzles yet-to-be-solved at the heart of Starhawk?
JM: I’m going to leave that to the readers to decide.
WCB: During this year’s WorldCon, you said something at a panel about looking up at the stars and thinking that, “surely all of this wasn’t just made for me.” Has Hutch had similar thoughts?
JM: That question takes us back to Hutch’s first appearance. By ‘me,’ we’re referring to the human race. And she’s much too smart to think that something so immense could have been put in place specifically for one species hanging out on a single world so far from some other worlds that light would require billions of years to cross between them. The stage is too big.
WCB: A running theme in all of Priscilla Hutchins’ adventures is the importance of space exploration. Would you talk a bit about your hopes (and perhaps hers too) for the future of space travel?
JM: Unfortunately, manned flight is probably limited to the solar system. Again, the distances are too great. We can dream, but I doubt we’ll ever be able to transport people beyond Pluto’s orbit. Unless we get extraordinarily lucky, and it turns out that FTL is actually possible. And I can’t help thinking that we might be better off that intelligent aliens probably can’t reach us. I hate to think how we’d react to the appearance of a million-year-old civilization, even if they were friendly. How would we feel, e.g., if they lived a thousand years?
WCB: You are well-known for your Academy Series (Priscilla Hutchins) and Alex Benedict novels, and you’ve alternated between them for over a dozen books. Do Hutch and Benedict fight for your attention? Is one of them more persuasive?
JM: I like being able to move from one set-up to the other. It helps keep my mind fresh. I don’t think I’d be comfortable doing a single series of novels. Or maybe another way to put it: The narratives would be more likely
to become repetitious.
WCB: What’s next for Priscilla Hutchins?
JM: I have no idea, William. I left her, after Cauldron, facing a situation in which we were backing away from space travel. I should probably go back to see how she deals with that.
(WC) haven't enjoyed a book as much as ANCILLARY JUSTICE in a long time (book one in Ann Leckie's thought-provoking Imperial Radch Series). I'm delighted to interview her about her debut SF novel.
Win a copy of ANCILLARY JUSTICE: (THIS GIVEAWAY HAS NOW ENDED)
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WCB: The book opens with Breq (and her other names too – more on that in a moment). Was she also the first character to come to you?
AL: Yes, she definitely was. Or, for this story, at any rate. In fact, Anaander Mianaai existed more or less
from the beginning of my constructing the universe, so she was already part of the background. But this whole story, yes, began with Breq.
WCB: In the book, you stretch the concept of self and self-awareness in myriad ways. We get to know
three, um, expressions of your main character within the novel: a sentient starship named Justice of Toren, a group of Ancillary soldiers named Justice of Toren One Esk, and a single part of that group - One Esk Nineteen. As you’ve said before, that’s a lot of “mes.” In the first chapter, we learn One Esk Nineteen’s other name too, Breq – just Breq. All three“selves” see the same things but not in the same ways, or perhaps not with the same perspective. How would you summarize Breq’s many points-of-view, separately and melded together?
AL: Very carefully? Honestly, that was, from the start, one of the most difficult things to tackle. And it required not only a technical approach that would work--that would get the idea across to the reader convincingly without confusing them profoundly--but also required me to settle, in my own mind, just what it meant to be someone, or not be someone, and what the boundaries to a person were, or could be. I actually don't think I settled that for myself terribly well--I came away from the reading I'd done somewhat disturbed, because, although most of us ignore it in day-to-day life, the answer to that question isn't simple, and our sense of being a particular person, or where we draw the line between us and not-us, is very fragile.
WCB: The book opens with Breq alone, on a hostile word, a mere fragment of her former self(selves). She’s lost a lot. And yet, Breq is remarkably resilient, mentally stable, singularly focused. Could a mere human endure such change…and remain sane? Is Breq’s fortitude a testament to the Radch who engineered her, or something more?
AL: I think ordinary human beings are able to endure some amazing things. And I think it's impossible to predict just who will or won't endure those things--to some extent, there are things about yourself that you only discover under terrible trial, and sometimes what you discover isn't what you assumed you would.
In some ways, Breq's focus is a way for her to endure what she's gone through. I'm not a hundred percent sure I'd describe her as entirely sane! But then, like everyone, when terrible things happen, you deal with them as best you can.
I do think that some of Breq's focus and stability isn't entirely human. I also, though, think that if it were another ancillary that had survived, the story would have been very different. If it hadn't been part of One Esk, or if it hadn't been Nineteen, I think that would have made a difference to the way things played out.
WCB: Ancillary Justice has already received tremendous praise, and been compared to the works of C. J. Cherryh, Frank Herbert, Ian Banks, and others. I would also add Alastair Reynolds. It’s been labled a number of things too: grand space opera, Mil SF, and genre bending. How would you characterize the novel? Have the reviews changed your perception of the book?
AL: I have generally called it "Cherryh-flavored space opera." The reviews have really been amazing, and I can't tell you how honored I am to even find myself in the same sentence as Cherryh, Herbert, Banks, or Reynolds.
I was fairly sure the book wouldn't sell. I wrote it anyway, because I didn't see the point in spending so much time and effort on something that didn't really interest me. It's been an enormous privilege to see so many people express enjoyment in the book. And to the extent that reviews have changed how I think of Ancillary Justice, it's been along that axis--where I thought my interest in the story was idiosyncratic, in fact it seems that other people were looking for this sort of thing, too.
WCB: Breq is incredibly old. Thousands of years make for a lot of history. What sort of research did you do as you prepared to write this book?
AL: I nearly always read a fair amount of history and anthropology for my projects. When I'm building parts
of a world it helps for me to see the breadth and depth of what's already out there. I also spent some time tracking down very specific details, some of which never made it onto the page but helped me to feel I could visualize things--little nitpicky things like what kind of foods can be produced in what sorts of environments. Or, say, what people do about waste disposal in the arctic.
I also spent some time reading up on physiology and neurology. Not to the point where I'm an expert, but so I had some idea of whether the things I was assuming about how ancillaries worked, or how they saw their officers, might have some basis in real world logic--logic that I might want to rely on at various points in the story.
WCB: Ancillary Justice is being compared to other well-known novels like Foreigner and Dune. Surely, you
have your favorites. Which authors and/or books influenced you the most? Ancillary Justice? And why?
AL: Foreigner would be entirely a fair cop! I think that whole series has left an obvious stamp on Ancillary Justice, and there are a few places where I've deliberately hat-tipped the books because of that. I also cut my SFnal teeth on Andre Norton. And there's certainly a very direct, obvious trace back to LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. I've also learned quite a lot from Jack Vance, over the years.
I do understand comparisons to Banks, they make perfect sense, but in fact, before I wrote Ancillary Justice, I had only read Consider Phlebas, and that quite some time ago. Since then I've also read The Hydrogen Sonata. The world is certainly the poorer for his loss.
WCB: What’s next in the Imperial Radch Series?
AL: Next is Ancillary Sword! Breq is sent to Athoek, where Lieutenant Awn's sister is. Athoek was annexed a few centuries ago, and supposedly is entirely assimilated, but that might not bear close examination. And of course, there's no guessing who might be on which side of a brewing civil war, or how the neighbors--not all of whom are friendly or human--might react to what's going down.
If you're looking for more compelling Military Science Fiction, be sure to check out UNBREAKABLE, and the forthcoming INDOMITABLE. iO9 and Kirkus named INDOMITABLE among the top speculative novels to look for in 2016.