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So, on the most recent episode of the Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan asked, was it possible to be so enthused and relieved about science fiction without (or with a great deal less of) the normal dose of racism and sexism that this might blind readers to the fact that the work was otherwise not all that significant?

So. Disclaimer. I have no intention of attacking Jonathan Strahan, who it seems to me is genuinely interested in science fiction having less racism and sexism in it.

Here’s the thing–it really, really matters who’s asking this question. It really, really matters whose criteria you’re going by when you try to determine if a work is “really” significant. I think that if Strahan had not been a white straight cis guy, he would not have asked this question in quite this way.

I love analogies! Let’s have one.

Imagine that you dearly love, absolutely crave, a particular kind of food. There are some places in town that do this particular cuisine just amazingly. Lots of people who are into this kind of food hold these restaurants in high regard. But let’s say, at every single one of these places, every now and then throughout the meal, at random moments, the waiter comes over and punches any women at the table right in the face. And people of color and/or LGBT folks as well! Now, most of the white straight cis guys who eat there, they have no problem–after all, the waiter isn’t punching them in the face, and the non-white, non-cis, non-straight, non-guys who love this cuisine keep coming back so it can’t be that bad, can it? Hell, half the time the white straight cis guys don’t even see it, because it’s always been like that and it just seems like part of the dining experience. Granted, some white straight cis guys have noticed and will talk about how they don’t like it and they wish it would stop.

Every now and then, you go through a meal without the waiter punching you in the face–they just give you a small slap, or come over and sort of make a feint and then tell you they could have messed you up bad. Which, you know, that’s better, right? Kind of?

Now. Somebody gets the idea to open a restaurant where everything is exactly as delicious as the other places–but the waiters won’t punch you in the face. Not even once, not even a little bit. Women and POC and LGBT and various combinations thereof flock to this place, and praise it to the skies.

And then some white, straight, cis dude–one of the ones who’s on record as publicly disapproving of punching diners in the face, who has expressed the wish that it would stop (maybe even been very indignant on this topic in a blog post or two*) says, “Sure, but it’s not anything really important or significant. It’s getting all blown out of proportion. The food is exactly the same! In fact, some of it is awfully retro. You’re just all relieved cause you’re not getting punched in the face, but it’s not really a significant development in this city’s culinary scene. Why couldn’t they have actually advanced the state of food preparation? Huh? Now that would have been worth getting excited about.”

Think about that. Seriously, think. Let me tell you, being able to enjoy my delicious supper without being punched in the face is a pretty serious advancement. And only the folks who don’t get routinely assaulted when they try to eat could think otherwise.

There isn’t only one axis on which something can be significant, or advance the genre. And declaring that only the axes that are important to you matter–particularly when the axes being dismissed are ones that matter a lot to women, LGBT, and POC–is a move straight out of How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

*No, I am not referring here to Strahan.

8 Responses

  1. Pingback: Linkspam, 10/25/13 Edition — Radish Reviews

  2. S
    Shannon Phillips

    Hi Ms. Leckie! I am in the middle of Ancillary Justice and really enjoying it, but I think there is an issue with the Kindle version of the text. In chapter 9, it seems like the beginning of Seivarden’s story is cut out (the text jumps from Strigan saying “Translate for me. My Radchaai isn’t good enough.” to what seems like a mid-narration: “One moment an ancillary had shoved Seivarden into a suspension pod…”)

    I understand that you as the author are not responsible for e-book quality, but Amazon doesn’t really have any place that readers can report errors of this sort, and I wondered if you could tell your editors about the problem? Also, on a selfish note, I would very much like to read the missing text.

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi, Shannon! I’m glad you’re enjoying the book!

      In fact, there’s no missing text there. It jumps to the point where Breq stopped the story earlier–the destruction of Seivarden’s ship at Garsedd. (I went back and checked my manuscript to be sure.) I’m sorry to have been so jarring there!

  3. A

    I enjoyed the analogy but it made think what if there actually was a restaurant that occasionally punched a random person in the face, regardless of who/what they are, it’d make dinner more exciting… just the restaurant though not the book
    Also barely started AJ but seems promising

  4. S
    Shannon Phillips

    I finished the book and was *very* impressed. I left a five-star Amazon review and I’ll put up a good review on my blog/Goodreads shortly as well.

    And I agree completely with your post here. I couldn’t tell just from what you wrote whether or not Strahan referenced Ancillary Justice directly, but if so, he was wrong. It *is* significant. I felt almost like your use of the female pronoun as the default was a direct advance from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (and more particularly the short story “Winter’s King,” which she re-wrote after realizing that using the male pronoun throughout in Left Hand of Darkness failed to convey the effect she wanted).

    In other words, Ancillary Justice exists *within* a tradition of feminist sci-fi (if I was writing a paper I’d probably talk about Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang as well, although McCaffrey is problematic at best from a feminist standpoint), but absolutely pushes the boundaries of that tradition. The only way to call it insignificant would be if you weren’t aware of, or didn’t care about, that particular lineage within sci-fi.

    1. Ann Post author

      I honestly don’t know if Strahan was referring to AJ or not–he did mention the book later in the podcast (and mentioned it the week before as well, and I was thrilled at both mentions) but it wasn’t tied to this particular comment. I have no reason to believe he was referring to AJ specifically. But the question hit something that has been a sore spot for me generally. I get really frustrated at dismissals of work for not being significant or influential, where the dismissal is basically erasing or ignoring the the grounds on which it is those things–and these particular grounds make it even more frustrating to me.

      I didn’t set out to write a “significant” book. I wanted to write a story where things blew up–because I like explosions as much as the next girl–but did so in a way that interested me. Because of my reading history, certain things are going to interest me over others. As you point out, I’m writing in a particular tradition. The book does indeed have a lineage, as you say.

      And I have to admit, I get frustrated when that lineage is erased or ignored. I don’t mind, for instance, folks saying the AIs remind them of Banks, the association is obvious, but I do get a bit tired hearing Banks over and over again and only an occasional McCaffrey. When you’d think the comparison to McCaffrey would be way more obvious.

      As you say, when you remove the context from any book, it’s going to look like less than what it is. And that whole erasing or dismissing the context, particularly around the work of women–and not just women but POC and LGBT writers–just keeps happening over and over.

  5. C

    I LOVE this analogy. Just goes to show we all have blind spots for the types of oppression that don’t directly touch us, and for the privileges we have that others lack. It’s good to constantly remind ourselves that our own perspectives are simply that.