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