Hey, you! Yeah, you. Wanna read an excerpt from Provenance?
It’s round about the first half of the first chapter, actually.
I hope you enjoy it!
Hey, you! Yeah, you. Wanna read an excerpt from Provenance?
It’s round about the first half of the first chapter, actually.
I hope you enjoy it!
So, I’ll start this out with a disclaimer: Adagio contacted me and offered to give me some tea for free if I would review it on Twitter. I am not one to turn down free tea, and I already buy tea from Adagio more or less regularly. And they’re the home of the Imperial Radch Tea Blends, so.
I had a gift certificate to work with, so I actually got three things–one that’s already a favorite, one that wasn’t the sort of thing I usually get but what the heck, and one that I threw in on impulse before I checked out.
I’m not much of a white tea fan. I mean, I don’t dislike it, but it’s usually been not my fave–usually it just tastes like faintly leafy hot water to me. But I got a sample of a white tea with my Manual Tea Maker No 1, and either that tea was particularly good and/or the gaiwan style brewing really brought some nice flavor out. So I’d been meaning to try another white tea in the Manual and see what I thought.
This is Adagio’s White Symphony. The flavor is very delicate–I found I got best results using a touch more than I would have for another kind of tea. I tried it just in an infuser for 3 minutes, and then I tried it in the Manual. It definitely stands up to multiple steeps, but it wasn’t noticeably more interesting in the Manual. This is also the first tea that I’ve found doesn’t do well with my tap water. I was unhappy with the first cup, which was the old “faintly leafy hot water” thing. Then I tried using filtered water and the results were much better. It tasted like a very delicate tea, instead of hot water pretending to be tea. Seems like my problem with white tea might be more about my tap water, and I’m looking forward to drinking more of this one.
This is the sort of thing you’d sip and think about how it tastes. It is not, IMO, a great choice for a hearty cuppa, or for waking up in the morning.
This is Adagio’s Fujian Baroque. It’s a reliable favorite of mine. It has a sort-of-maybe sweet, faintly almost-chocolatey flavor, with no astringency. If you find ordinary grocery store orange pekoe or black tea too bitter or astringent, you might want to give this a shot. This is one of a couple of black teas I try to keep around. (The other is PG tips, because sometimes you just want a strong milky hit of tea.) I personally wouldn’t put milk or sugar in this, but I do find that it’s a good first-thing-in-the-morning tea.
And the third tea!
This is Chestnut flavored tea. I was clicking around and saw some reviews for this. The idea struck me as somewhat improbable, and by and large I’m not that much into flavored teas, but the reviews were good, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong throwing a sample package into my order. It’s really nice! It has a sort of toasty, nutty flavor that complements the black tea really well. I will certainly add this into my regular rotation, because I like it a lot.
(Adagio has one or two improbably flavored teas–I ordered some Artichoke back when it was available and…it was odd. But I read the reviews–it had its fans. Also Cucumber White, which I used in one of my blends. That was interesting, and actually maybe I need to revisit it now that I’ve discovered that white tea is better with filtered water.)
So, there’s a thing I’d been kind of thinking about for the past couple weeks, and it seems to me that it’s kind of become relevant in a really horrible way.
At one point, a few weeks ago, someone in my hearing made the observation that the Nazis had so utterly failed to have human empathy that they might be considered more human-shaped machines than real human beings. I took polite issue with the statement at the time. I will take more public, emphatic issue with it now.
Here’s the thing–the Nazis? Those concentration camp guards, the people who dug and filled in mass graves, led prisoners to gas chambers, all of that? They were not inhuman monsters. They were human beings, and they weren’t most of them that different from anyone you might meet on your morning walk, or in the grocery store.
I know it’s really super uncomfortable to look around you and realize that–that your neighbors, or even you, yourself, might, given circumstances, commit such atrocities. Your mind flinches from it, you don’t want to even think about it. It can’t be. You know that you’re a good person! Your neighbors and co-workers are so nice and polite and decent. You can’t even imagine it, so there must have been something special, something particularly different about the people who enthusiastically embraced Hitler.
I’m here to tell you there wasn’t.
I’m quite certain those people who committed terrible atrocities were very nice to each other! Super polite and nice to other good Aryan citizens of the Reich, and certainly to their families. Of course they were! They were perfectly nice human beings.
It wasn’t that they were incapable of empathy, of any human feeling. It was more a matter of where they drew the boundaries of that empathy.
Remember that the next time you find yourself saying “I’m not racist, it’s just…” or “I’m not racist, but…” because that just and that but are where the borders of your own empathy lie. And maybe you’re okay with those being the boundaries–but, look, when someone calls you on that, don’t try to pretend it’s not there.
We’ve most of us learned the first part of the lesson really well–the Nazis were horrible! Racism is bad!–without having learned the next part of the lesson: no one thinks they’re a villain, not even Nazis. After all, those Jews were a real threat to the Aryan race! They had to do what they did.
No one thinks they’re racist, because racists are bad, and I’m not bad! I’m a good, decent person. It’s just that….
Think about that. I’m not just talking to folks who were willing to vote for a flagrantly racist, willfully ignorant, obviously unqualified and unstable narcissist for president for what they keep insisting were totally not racist reasons. I’m also talking to folks who are dismayed to see said incompetent unstable narcissist set to take office but who say everyone should calm down, it won’t be that bad. Because this is the USA, not freaking Germany.
There was nothing special about the German people, nothing supernaturally evil about Hitler. They were all human beings, and it can happen here, and it’s far more likely to happen here if we pretend otherwise, because it’s the thing you won’t look at about yourself that will lead you right over the cliff you keep insisting isn’t really there, all the while you’re tumbling to the rocks below.
Stop telling yourself it can’t happen here. (A registry for Muslims? With maybe some kind of ID so we know who all the Muslims are? Totally reasonable, totally un-racist, and after all we’re Americans, so it’ll all be fine.)
When I first decided to research the Klan, I pulled all of the books on the Klan that I could find: histories & ethnographies.
— Kelly J. Baker (@kelly_j_baker) November 16, 2016
(Read that thread)
Stop acting as though calling some action “racist” is beyond the pale, unthinkably horrible to do to someone. Stop assuming that the people you know and talk to everyday can’t be racist because after all they’re so polite to you. Stop assuming that “racist” means “inhuman monster.” The end result of doing this is to make it impossible to call anyone or anything racist that isn’t cross-burning, actual lynching, Nazi-levels of racism. And sometimes not even then, as we’ve seen in recent weeks.
Which makes it impossible to do anything about racism–prevent it, address it, anything. Even in ourselves. Especially in ourselves. Which allows it to grow unchecked.
It can happen here. Flagrant racists are often very polite and decent people (so long as you’re white). The worst monsters of history were not inhuman monsters. They were all too human.
Every now and then, someone will ask me about what my guilty pleasures are. But I don’t actually have any.
Not because my taste is pure sophisticated perfection, no. I like pop tarts and velveeta and happy bubblegum pop songs (some of them, anyway) and popcorn read-em-once adventures just fine. And I have no difficulty telling the difference between a pop tart and a gourmet pastry, velveeta and some of the certifiably best cheese in the US.
And not because I think there’s no such thing as standards–just because I like something doesn’t mean it’s particularly good. I don’t think it’s some terrible injustice that Velveeta hasn’t got a pile of gold medals from the World Cheese Awards. It’s just, sometimes I love me some velveeta-covered mac and cheese, or a nice frosted blueberry pop tart.
I would say I don’t understand what there is to be guilty of, in these supposedly guilty pleasures, but sadly I know all too well what that’s about.
Velveeta? Is mass produced. That mass production makes it relatively inexpensive, and easy to get your hands on. It’s easy to cook with–you basically just melt it into whatever you’re making. It’s salty, it’s filling, it’s cheesy-tasting enough, as these things go. Little kids like velveeta. It’s not exactly a sophisticated taste to have.
That cheese I referred to above? If you don’t live in the vicinity of Bloomsdale, Mo, you’ll likely have a tough time getting your hands on some. Me, I can get a few ounces of it just by heading for the nearest farmer’s market, but it’ll cost me as much as two or three big blocks of velveeta. It’s totally worth it–they didn’t get that gold medal because the goats are cute. (Although the goats are super cute.)
I can like both of these, in different ways, for different reasons, but I’m supposed to feel ashamed of admitting the one. Why is that? Why are my personal preferences, some of them in such viscerally basic areas of my life–the taste of food!–subject to what is essentially a moral judgement? Why am I only supposed to admit liking what’s publicly valorized, and ashamed of liking what’s not?
And isn’t it funny how the stuff that I’m supposed to be ashamed of liking is inexpensive, mass produced, and easy to obtain? Isn’t that interesting?
Isn’t it funny how so much of the music and reading material that’s most heartily sneered at is loved by teenage girls? The bands or solo singers those girls fixate on in crushes of one sort or another, depending on a girl’s preferences and inclination, as fantasy romantic or sexual figures, and/or figures of hero worship, oh those are all horrible and stupid, aren’t they. The music is empty formulaic crap, the performers bland and pretty and plastic, and what are these girls even thinking, looking up to Taylor Swift! Never mind that adolescent girls have as much need as anyone for working out who they are and what they like, and the young, unthreatening folks who tend to make up those pop acts are entirely appropriate for the purpose. Sure, a lot of the music is disposable (and these teens react to it as though it’s earth shattering and profound and not cliche at all! How childish!) but some of it is better than it’s given credit for. And even if it weren’t, it’s no worse than ninety percent of everything else that hits the airwaves. Why the sneers? Why the hatred?
Or Romance. Romance isn’t one of my things, right, but let’s be honest, a crappy detective novel or a crappy SF or Extruded Fantasy Product is just as bad as a crappy Romance. When it’s SF we’ll protest that no, that’s just a bad one, the whole genre’s not like that, but Romance? Romance is just stupid, man.
Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things that poor people like–or tend to buy or use because it’s cheap. Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things that teenage girls like, or women. Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things we liked when we were kids.
I’m not saying that nothing can be criticized–there are surely bad Romance novels. Taylor Swift is a pretty good songwriter who has done some very admirable things, but she’s also had her less than admirable public moments. Velveeta doesn’t come out well in a comparison with really good cheese (unless its a competition for what will make the easiest mac & cheese, given only three minutes and a microwave to work with), and it’s probably not very good for you. I’m perfectly willing to criticize things I like, or consider criticism of those things, and still like them.
No, I’m talking about that weird, moral dimension to likes and dislikes. You like pumpkin spice anything? You should be ashamed. You should feel guilty, because you’re not supposed to like that, smart people don’t like that, people who like that have something wrong with them.
So much of what we like or dislike–what we’re publicly supposed to like or dislike–is functioning as in-group identifiers. You go to Starbucks because there are a zillion of them and you’re the kind of person who drinks lattes. You sneer at Starbucks because you’re not one of those sheep and their coffee is terrible, you go to the indie place where they serve you your latte in a mason jar, or in a puddle on a wooden plank. (I kid because I love–not long ago I was served dinner in half a dozen heaps on a wooden plank, and it was one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had. But there is something a little silly and super trendy about that kind of presentation.)
Or maybe I belong to (or aspire to belong to) a group that marks identity by reaction to the more widely valorized tastes–I’m sophisticated enough to prefer a cheap, canned beer (not just any cheap canned beer mind you!) or tea instead of coffee (again, not just any tea). Or maybe I’m sure someone is sneering at me, so I pre-emptively sneer at them, those snobs and their fancy moldy cheese and wine that’s no better than two buck chuck if you cover up the label and tell them it cost a lot and won some prizes.
All of it’s an advertisement for who you claim to be, in public. Being seen liking (or disliking) the wrong things can get you marked as an outsider, or as a member of a class you desperately don’t want to be part of. Sweet Mother of God don’t let anyone think I’m too much like a woman or a poor person or a gay guy or a lesbian or an elitist college educated liberal or…
Anxiety. Fear of being mistakenly–mistakenly, I swear!–placed in a deprecated category. Or just contempt for people in those categories. It’s not really about the art, the food, the coffee. If it were, you could talk about it without the sneering, without implying that anyone who would like this crap is deserving of mockery. Without talking about liking such things as though it were something you should feel guilty about.
It’s entirely possible to criticize things you like. It’s entirely possible to like bad things and dislike good things. It’s entirely possible to be a smart, educated, decent human being who likes pumpkin spice flavored stuff, and velveeta.
And while I know it’s difficult, it’s absolutely possible to criticize things without sneering at the people who like them. It’s harder than sneering, it takes some thought. And no, you don’t have to do it just because I’m saying you can. You can do anything you want. You do you. Just maybe think about it next time you’re about to say that something is a guilty pleasure.
So, if you haven’t heard about the recent (for certain values of recent) issues with the Hungarian SF magazine Galaktika, here are some links to fill you in:
In summary, Galaktika is a Hungarian SF magazine, and is, moreover, a revival of a highly respected older publication. And it turns out, they’ve been publishing translations of a lot of English-language science fiction stories. Stories they yoinked off the web, translated into Hungarian, and published without asking the authors for permission, let alone paying them.
I gather some authors who have discovered this have been hesitant to make noise about it, because if Galaktika folded, Hungary wouldn’t have any other prominent venue for short sf. I’m going to be straight with you, though–for various reasons, some of which would be impolitic to detail here in public, I have come to the conclusion that while this sort of thing seems reasonable on the surface (if a big magazine went down, that would be bad for writers!), when you look closely you start to see how skeevy it is (therefore writers should be willing to make Sacrifices to keep this magazine (or book publisher, I’m biting my tongue) going! If you really value the field and writers you won’t demand to be paid or treated with any kind of respect or courtesy YOUR WRITING CAREER IS ON THE LINE so do what we tell you and don’t complain or else).
And the sheer volume of stories Galaktika has stolen–yes, stolen–has become more and more apparent. And it so happens that SFWA’s Griefcom got involved,
and they were unable to make much headway, it seems,* and felt compelled to make that public statement linked above.
It just so happens that one of the stories Galaktika stole was mine. No, they did not ask, and no, they did not pay.
Now, the story of mine they took was a tiny flash piece. Not huge, to me, in the scheme of things. But you know what ticks me off more?
Their really inadequate excuses for these thefts. Editor in chief István Burger is quoted in the SFWA statement as saying:
When I decided to revive Galaktika more than 10 years ago, I went to the leader of one of the most respected literary agencies, to ask for his advice how to get permissions for the stories we plan to publish in the magazine in the future. I had no experience at all in this respect.
Our conversation had a very friendly atmosphere, the leader of the agency was happy that such an aknowledged magazine was revived. Finally we had a verbal agreement, that – as we plan to have a serious book publishing activity as well – we can consider short stories in Galaktika sort of an advertisement in which authors are introduced to Hungarian readers, so that we could publish their novels afterwards. The money we would pay for the rights for the novels contains the price of short stories. So agencies don’t have to deal with rights of short stories for $10 which is as much work as to get the rights of a $1000 novel. During this conversation it became obvious that agencies don’t want to deal with $10-20 so I didn’t want to bother the others with similar requests. Of course in case of longer stories and novels we made contracts.
I hope that it is obvious now that there were no intentional stealing at all, as we made an agreement in time for the use of stories. Now I regret that it was only a verbal agreement, but at that time we both acknowledged it.
Yeah, the fact that the verbal “agreement” wasn’t on paper means nothing. There can have been no agreement that mattered if the rights-holders of the stories concerned weren’t involved. Having a tape-recording of the conversation notarized by God Herself would change nothing. (I’m willing to believe the conversation actually happened, by the way, and that if so Mr Burger’s description of it is spun hard enough that the anonymous literary agent might only barely recognize it.)
Let me be absolutely clear about this: this excuse is utter bullshit. If Mr Burger actually believes this, he has no business trying to run a magazine.
Look, the thing about Galaktika publishing books too is completely irrelevant. My books are published in Hungary, translated into Hungarian–by Gabo, not the publisher that owns Galaktika. No story of mine in Galaktika was ever going to be an advertisement for a translation of my books. If I’d wanted an advertisement I would have bought an ad.
And I’ve been asked several times–sometimes personally, sometimes through my agent–for permission to translate short stories. Sometimes specifically in order to promote the translated editions of my novels! My agent is not too busy to deal with such things, and neither am I. And besides, let’s say I and/or my agent didn’t want to deal with such a small transaction? Well, tough cookies. That doesn’t mean you just get to take what you want anyway.
As for the claim that Galaktika was somehow an advertisement for the authors being stolen from–well, that’s suspiciously like the claim that “exposure” is a valuable commodity that writers should be more than happy to get in lieu of actual money. Sadly, one cannot eat exposure, or pay rent with it. And while any author is of course within their rights to allow a magazine to publish their work without payment, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with any given writer choosing to do that with any given story, the key words there are writer and choosing. Editors can’t just print anything they want without paying or asking permission because the author will get exposure and besides the magazine can’t really afford to pay.
(Here’s an extra-credit question: If the magazine can’t afford to pay writers even a token amount for a story, how in the world do you know it has any readers to speak of, to provide that oh-so-invaluable exposure?)
So, the TLDR of this is this bit from the SFWA statement: “SFWA formally recommends that authors, editors, translators, and other publishing professionals avoid working with Galaktika until the magazine has demonstrated that existing issues have been addressed and that there will be no recurrence.” The folks running it have demonstrated what is either bad faith or astounding ignorance. And writers are not obliged to put up with theft and mistreatment in exchange for dubious exposure, or because somehow the magazine or publisher involved is crucial to the field. How crucial is it if they’re not paying you? Seriously. That’s some abusive shit right there.
Aspiring writers, remember–people die of exposure. Exposure is not payment. If your work is good enough to be published, it’s good enough to be paid for. And nobody needs publishers who demand the rights to your work without pay while justifying it as somehow good for you. Nobody.
*In comments at the annleckie.com blog, John Johnston III, chairman of SFWA’s Griefcom, objects to my characterizing the situation as SFWA being able to make no headway. “Actually Griefcom has made and almost certainly will continue to make a great deal of “headway” on the Galaktika situation, and that blog post was a part of the process.” Well, he should know, because he is, as I’ve said, chairman of the excellent Griefcom. I knew that going public with a situation is something Griefcom generally avoids, and only resorts to when it absolutely must, and I oversimplified that as “making no headway.” I apologize to the good folks on Griefcom for my mischaracterization. They do a lot of excellent work for writers.
As the title says, I’m safe home again from my epic voyage to Kansas City, and my plans for today involve a lot of tea and mindless Netflix. But I thought I’d check in and say a few words about how my WorldCon went.
Well, first off, HOW ABOUT THOSE HUGOS! I’ll be straight with y’all, I have been rooting for The Fifth Season to win because it is a fabulous book. Several times I considered posting here to say so. In the end I decided it wasn’t a good idea, but in individual conversations I did say it. I mean, look, I’m really proud of Ancillary Mercy. And by the way, I am honored and seriously touched by the folks who’ve told me they put it first on their ballots and who hoped for it to win the Hugo. I have the best readers. I really do. And I would have been genuinely happy for any of the finalists had they walked away with the rocket rather than me, or Nora.
But The Fifth Season. Y’all, since I started voting for the Hugos I’ve found that very often there’s a particular book in the novel category. I mean, you read them, you read one and it’s like “yeah, this is good, I see why it’s there.” And you read the next. “Yeah, this is really really good.” Sometimes not to my taste, right? But good. Another one. “This is good too! It’s going to be difficult to rank these.” And then you hit that one. “Oh. Right. This is the winner.” This year, in my personal opinion, The Fifth Season was that book. I actually shouted “Yes!” when the result was announced. Because. I mean.
And it was a lovely night pretty much all around. I got to meet an astronaut! There were actually TWO REAL ASTRONAUTS there and I can’t even. Some lovely acceptance speeches, particularly Nora’s. And someone suggested to me afterward that Neil Gaiman maybe could have been more direct, instead of soft-pedaling his opinion. (Just kidding, I found his brief speech entirely delightful.) I got to meet Zoe Quinn, who is fabulous! I went to GRRM’s afterparty!
I’m telling my WorldCon backwards! Well, only kind of. My last con thing was a panel on Sunday afternoon with Geoffrey Landis. There were supposed to be more panelists, but in the end it was just the two of us, dealing with the question “Can hard science fiction be too hard?” which is honestly a nonsense question that misses the point, but it was a great start to just riff on, and we had a great time talking and there were wonderful contributions from the audience, and it went swimmingly.
Lieutenant Awn Elming Memorial Park was a success! I arrived on Wednesday afternoon with the 19 year old, and we decorated it up and arranged things and whatnot, and set out buttons and pins and ribbons for folks to take, and I tried to spend some time there every day so folks knew where they could find me. This was particularly important since I didn’t have a scheduled signing. That’s not a criticism of the con, I’m pretty sure scheduling all that sort of thing is pretty hair-raising and I wouldn’t do it for a million dollars, and there were lots of folks who wanted and deserved signing slots and very likely fewer spaces in the schedule than would accommodate all of us. But it did make things awkward for folks who wanted books signed but who didn’t want to accost me in the hallway. Anyway, the park was a place I could be available and talk to folks and sign things.
It was also a place where folks could play a hand or two of Cards Against Significant Species. Seriously, one of my awesome readers brought an actual customized deck and it sat there in the park and people played it (including me) and enjoyed the heck out of it. There was also a cosplayer! They were Lieutenant Tisarwat on Thursday (complete with purple contact lenses!), Anaander Mianaai on Friday, and Breq (with mourning stripe!) on Saturday. JUST SUPER AWESOME. I had also put out some pens and post-its with the vague, barely formed idea that maybe people might want to leave a note (for me, for someone else, for themselves, whatever) and that turned into post-its appearing on the park sign and the park’s NO FISHING sign, with truly delightful (and occasionally warring) messages. The string of different Anaander Mianaais who declared the park annexed, for instance, made me laugh. I have pictures of all of it, but have not uploaded them from my phone. Some of them have already been posted to Tumblr.
I would really like to thank MidAmericon for the whole park thing. It was a great idea, and it worked out particularly well for me. Partly because I was driving and could pack my car full of silly stuff to put out, but also it was just nice to have that place to sit down and chat.
I did the writers workshop on Friday, by the way, and I so enjoyed that. Rachel Swirsky and I did the same session and the…students, I guess? The students were great and I really enjoyed meeting them and talking to them about fiction–theirs, and in general. I have no doubt we’ll be hearing more from them in the future.
I also did my first ever kaffeklatch! Well, first as the person people were there to see, not as a fan. That was a lot of fun, and I so enjoyed meeting everyone and having a chance to just chat and answer questions.
So, basically, my con was awesome. Everything went really well, everything turned out either as I had hoped or well beyond what I could have reasonably wished for, and everything I was involved in was well-run and the folks I worked with or who I had cause to ask for information or assistance were super helpful. The couple of negative occurrences I heard about appear to have been dealt with quickly and appropriately. I had a great time. If I didn’t get to see you, I am sorry I missed you! If I did–I’m so glad we got a chance to hang out!
I could probably continue to enthuse, but the fact is, I’m exhausted. I’ve been basically “on” since Wednesday evening, and while I love love love meeting people and hanging out with new and old friends, it does take energy. (Yes, like many writers, I am a serious introvert.) And I did three panels yesterday on about four hours of sleep and then promptly jumped in my car and drove all the way across the state. So, after the four or five days of fun and partying, it is time for me to spend a day or so drinking tea and watching Midsomer Murders, because that’s about as much concentration as I’m going to manage for a bit.
So, for I think the rest of the month, the ebook of Ancillary Mercy is on sale for $4.99. So if you don’t already have it, this would be an excellent opportunity to grab a copy. The sale is on at Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Amazon.
Probably most of the people reading this already have a copy. But do you have a copy of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season? Have you read The Fifth Season yet? If not, why not? It is a most excellent book and I recommend it very, very highly. And it just so happens that The Fifth Season is also on sale (in ebook form). Here are links–Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Amazon.
Hello, dear readers! I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’m kind of busy writing a book! So today I’m hosting Juliette Wade, who not only writes great short fiction–check out this story at Clarkesworld if you haven’t already-she does the Dive Into Worldbuilding Hangouts, which, if you don’t know about those, check out the link at the end of the post! She’s also starting up a Patreon, and if anthropology and linguistics knowledge applied to sfnal writing and worldbuilding is something that appeals to you, you really should check that out. Links at the end of this post!
Juliette Wade takes a ridiculously close look at the worldbuilding of Ancillary Justice
posted by Juliette Wade
Thanks, Ann, for inviting me to the blog!
I’m here to talk about worldbuilding, and because this is Ann Leckie’s blog, I’ve decided to shine a spotlight – a ridiculously close spotlight – on the opening of Ancillary Justice.
What does that mean? It means I’m going to take a few paragraphs and break down exactly where the worldbuilding is taking place, piece by piece, showing you how Ann pulls you into her world. You’ve read these six paragraphs before, but you probably haven’t seen them this way.
Here we go!
The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it. It was minus fifteen degrees Celcius and a storm had passed just hours before. The snow stretched smooth in the wan sunrise, only a few tracks leading into a nearby ice-block building. A tavern. Or what passed for a tavern in this town.
I’m going to start here with the word “The.” That little article has an important job, which is to tell you that “body” is something that someone already knows about. It’s as if someone just said “Wow, a body,” and then the story picked up an instant later. As readers, we are seeing it for the first time, but we can sense that observing someone outside the boundaries of the page. Thus, “the” implies the presence of a narrator. The first hint of a world comes with “the snow around it.” Our minds produce a snowy scene.
So far we could be on Earth, but we’re about to get more clues to correct our concept. Measuring temperature as “minus fifteen degrees Celcius” means that it’s pretty darned cold, and can hazard a guess that we’re not in the United States, where Fahrenheit measurement is more common. The next key piece is the “ice-block building,” and the fact that the narrator calls it “a tavern.” The only Earthly ice-block buildings we know have very specific terminology associated with them, so our expectation of familiarity has just been dislodged. Last is “Or what passed for a tavern in this town.” That sentence more firmly connects us to the narrator – despite the lack of any pronouns – by passing judgment on the building rather than just describing its appearance.
There was something itchingly familiar about that outthrown arm, the line from shoulder down to hip. But it was hardly possible I knew this person. I didn’t know anyone here. This was the icy back end of a cold and isolated planet, as far from Radchaai ideas of civilization as it was possible to be. I was only here, on this planet, in this town, because I had urgent business of my own. Bodies in the street were none of my concern.
This paragraph keeps the narrator connection alive using the judgment inherent in “itchingly familiar.” Someone has to assess that familiarity; someone has to feel that itch, and get the sense of objection inherent in the word “but.”
Now, finally, we get a pronoun! “I” places us explicitly inside the thoughts of the narrator, and we see in this sentence that the narrator is a stranger to this snowy place. The next sentence gives us the biggest picture yet, keeping us grounded in the narrator’s perception of current location with the word “this,” but then calling it “a cold and isolated planet.” Now we can be certain that this is not Earth, and that the narrator has not only a sense of cosmology but a larger cultural concept where a planet can be judged as isolated from a perceived center. That invisible perceived center, then, is placed in parallel to “Radchaai ideas of civilization.” So Radchaai is the organizing, civilized center from which this planet is far and isolated. We can be certain that our narrator has the ability to travel between planets in the sentence that follows describing business.
I notice also that we have had absolutely no gender indicators about any character at this point, even though both the body and the narrator-protagonist have been established.
Sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do. Even after all this time it’s still a new thing not to know, not to have orders to follow from one moment to the next. So I can’t explain to you why I stopped and with one foot lifted the naked shoulder so I could see the person’s face.
The opening sentence of this paragraph is really important, because it speaks to another aspect of world that we might not initially notice as important. A protagonist’s identity is often quite easy to establish, because it falls in the realm of things readers expect. However, those who have read the book know that Breq is far from an expected protagonist. So it’s important that this sentence point out that “I don’t know why I do the things I do.” It makes the reader look around for unusual things about the narrator to explain why that might be the case. Then Ann establishes a contrast between “after all this time” and “still a new thing.” It doesn’t imply anything specific here, but later, it will fit in with Breq’s concept of twenty years being long-but-short in the context of her whole life. “Not to have orders to follow” is the next key phrase here, suggesting that the protagonist is someone who expects to receive orders.
Every suggestion limits the possible options for the protagonist’s identity. The fact that “I stopped and with one foot lifted the naked shoulder” shows that a sense of familiarity is not enough to inspire care for the body.
Frozen, bruised, and bloody as she was, I knew her. Her name was Seivarden Vendaai, and a long time ago she had been one of my officers, a young lieutenant, eventually promoted to her own command, another ship. I had thought her a thousand years dead, but she was, undeniably, here. I crouched down and felt for a pulse, for the faintest stir of breath.
Here in paragraph four we find the first gendered pronouns: she, and her, used to refer to the person who has the body. We also find a name: Seivarden Vendaai. This is a name in a created language, like Radchaai which appeared earlier, further confirming the alien setting. The feeling we get from alien names has mostly to do with our instincts for sound combinations or word pieces and the emotions we associate with them, but these aren’t names that carry any recognizable pieces of our language.
The phrases “my officers” and “lieutenant” work with the earlier phrase about orders to suggest that the protagonist is a soldier – and also that military organization is a key feature of this world. “Another ship” is too ambiguous to be definitive about the protagonist’s identity, but we’re getting closer to it. “I had thought her a thousand years dead,” though, pushes us further out of normal expectation, because the protagonist has known this person twice over the course of a thousand years.
This is a short one, but it does something interesting for a reader’s involvement in the story. It suggests that these two characters will interact in the future, because it suggests that the protagonist bears some responsibility for keeping someone still alive from becoming not alive any more.
Seivarden Vendaai was no concern of mine anymore, wasn’t my responsibility. And she had never been one of my favorite officers. I had obeyed her orders, of course, and she had never abused any ancillaries, never harmed any of my segments (as the occasional officer did). I had no reason to think badly of her. On the contrary, her manners were those of an educated, well-bred person of good family. Not toward me, of course – I wasn’t a person, I was a piece of equipment, a part of the ship. But I had never particularly cared for her.
Because of the implication of the previous tiny paragraph, it’s interesting that the protagonist immediately tries to deny responsibility here. Both this line and the next are full of judgment, which helps us stay connected with the protagonist’s identity despite the lack of description or gender. In the third sentence, we find the word “ancillaries” and the phrase “my segments.” Because Ann provides no explanation, she’s counting on readers to hold onto the new term “ancillary,” which we have seen before in the title, and actively look for its meaning. “My segments” tells us that the protagonist has segments – but we’re unlikely to suddenly decide she’s an arthropod! Why? First, because she has a foot to lift a shoulder with, and second, because when she sees a humanoid body she describes it as a “body” without marking it in any way as strange or alien.
The next piece returns us to the judgment of manners, which has some interesting aspects: first, the protagonist is able to judge education and breeding. The idea of good family is established as an important parameter for judging people (and it will be very influential throughout the book). It’s also interesting to notice that when Ann uses the pronouns “she” and “her”, she doesn’t then use gendered nouns like “woman,” but returns to the non-gendered “person” when describing “a person of good breeding.” This helps to set up the concept of feminine pronouns as being genderless by default.
Finally, Ann changes it up again with “Not toward me, of course – I wasn’t a person, I was a piece of equipment, a part of the ship.” So the protagonist, still as yet nameless, doesn’t expect manners. The protagonist is clearly a humanoid person as we would understand it, but explicitly defined as not a person, a piece of equipment, a part of the ship. If we go back at this point and look again at the way that Seivarden’s identity is described, we start to get a surprisingly good picture of the nature of the narrator’s identity, just from these tiny clues. We also have a pretty big mystery about society and identity to help us keep turning the pages.
This is what Ann is able to accomplish in the course of six paragraphs. When we read, we don’t typically notice any of it on a conscious level, but each word and phrase is doing its worldbuilding work inside our heads.
Juliette Wade hosts the Dive into Worldbuilding show on Google Hangouts, where she uses her academic expertise in anthropology and linguistics to take discussions of worldbuilding topics beyond the expected. Her short fiction explores language and culture issues across the genres of fantasy and science fiction. She has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy&Science Fiction, and Analog magazines.
If you’re a fan of worldbuilding and want to take your skills further, you can also become a part of the Dive into Worldbuilding workshop. Join Juliette’s Patreon and get brainstorming prompts, research links, exclusive peeks into research topics, or even get Juliette to help you with your work directly. https://www.patreon.com/JulietteWade
This is a guest post by Rachel Swirsky:
Thanks to my friend, Ann, for letting me use her blog. I’m Rachel Swirsky, and some years ago, I wrote a short story called, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” It rather upset some folks who have been raising great ruckus about it since. As a response, I’ve started a Making Lemons into Jokes campaign—a fundraiser through my patreon to benefit some of the people they’ve been nastiest toward, LGBTQIAA folks who are already at the bottom of a heap made of bullshit.
Since I’m here on Ann’s blog, I’ll point out that if we reach our $600 stretch goal, she and I, along with writers John Chu, Adam-Troy Castro, Ken Liu, Juliette Wade, and Alyssa Wong, will write a story together about dinosaurs. I really want this to happen, so I hope we reach the goal. We’ve got about a week left to go!
If you want the whole story behind the fundraiser, you can read it here– https://www.patreon.com/posts/posteriors-for-5477113. But here’s what I have to say today:
There’s advice I’ve heard all my life. You’ve probably heard it, too.
In elementary school, it was “ignore the bullies.” It never seemed to work.
These days, it’s “ignore the trolls.” (And let’s not mince words – trolls are just another kind of bully.) And it doesn’t work now, either.
Why? Because bullies don’t need you.
Bullies might enjoy it when you get angry, or cry, or whatever else they want you to do. They’re the kind of people who like that. It’s foreign to my personality, and I can’t understand it, but there it is. But they don’t need it. What they need is the laughing and baying of their own hounds. They’re showing off for each other, pissing on the trees to show just how terribly big they are.
This leads to the fundamental dichotomy of bullies.
First, that they are actually capable of doing damage. A dog crapping on the carpet still leaves crap on the carpet. And if they’re all crowding into your living room to crap on you, then that’s a lot of crap. Being covered in crap won’t break your bones, but it’s not nothing. Otherwise, a lot more people would spend their free time rolling around in crap. And sometimes they do bite—someone shows up with a gun at a gym or a hair salon, or brags on a message board about a murder that shows up later in the news, or makes a “performance art” video threatening to kill a woman and driving her out of her home.
But second, they’re ridiculous. I mean, really. The kind of people who think “I can crap on things and that makes me really important!!” are not serious people. They are somewhere on the scale from scabies to anthrax. You don’t really want to scratch all the time, and you certainly don’t want to take high-powered antibiotics, but it’s not like crabs who crawl through pubic hair are something you regard as impressive.
Sometimes we try to toggle those back and forth. Can lard the living room with crap versus hilarious clowns. But they’re both.
So, you do the same thing you do when the two-year-old pulls off her diaper and pees on the floor. You clean it up, and you laugh.
In elementary school, sometimes I’d turn around and face the bullies, and laugh at what they were saying. “You realize that’s not even a coherent insult, right?”
Bullies can hurt people. That’s what “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” is about, and perhaps why it makes bullies howl. But you know what else it’s done? It’s inspired hundreds of people to come to me and tell me about their experiences being bullied as kids or being hated as adults, being pummeled or harassed, and how they’ve moved past it. How “Dinosaur” has been cathartic for them, has helped them realize they aren’t alone.
Bullies aren’t the only ones who can travel in groups. We have our bonding and our strength. And at its best, it can be fun, and silly. It can destroy hatred with humor and positive energy. It can emphasize kindness and compassion. I believe in the power of humor, and I believe in the power of people clasping hands to help other people.
Don’t get me wrong. Humor won’t stop the bullies either. We’re always going to have to spend our time walking carefully around some amount of crap on the carpet. But humor reveals that the emperor is not only naked, but not even an emperor—as often as not, he’s some poor, pathetic exiled criminal, dreaming of ruling the world with an army of poltergeists and toddlers.
Don’t let them make us forget: they are morally weak, and they are outnumbered. And they’re hilarious.
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I still have somewhat limited internet access–but I wanted to let you all know that on March 17 I’ll be at Pandemonium Books and Games (4 Pleasant Street Cambridge, MA 02139) from 7 to 11pm. I’ll also be at Vericon that weekend, but, seriously, come see me at Pandemonium!