(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.
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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.