We tried this with discussion prompts this time!
For a moment, things seem to be under control for the soldier known as Breq. Then a search of Athoek Station’s slums turns up someone who shouldn’t exist – someone who might be an ancillary from a ship that’s been hiding beyond the empire’s reach for three thousand years.
Meanwhile, a messenger from the alien and mysterious Presger empire arrives, as does Breq’s enemy, the divided Anaander Mianaai – ruler of an empire at war with itself.
Anaander is heavily armed and extremely unhappy with Breq. She could take her ship and crew and flee, but that would leave everyone at Athoek in terrible danger. Breq has a desperate plan. The odds aren’t good, but that’s never stopped her before.
1. Discuss the ideas of different types of relationships in the story, particularly Ekalu and Seivarden, Breq and Seivarden, Breq and Ship, Breq and herself as Justice of Toren. How does the inclusion of a variety of relationships (romantic, sexual, platonic, asexual, aromantic) work with world-building and how do these fit into critiquing/upholding/discussing contemporary cultures’ concepts of (and reliance on tropes about) friendship and romance?
AMR: I didn’t see it as critiquing today’s concepts of friendship and romance, I honestly saw it as Breq being okay with who she was (asexual/aromantic) and everyone else wasn’t. It wasn’t because asexual/aromantic relationships are okay, it was because she was an ancillary and therefore beyond the need for sex and romance. How often did everyone else talk about how she must be sleeping with people and how much clientage is based on who is sleeping with whom? Granted, sex is much more acceptable between people and monogamy didn’t seem to be required, but sex is also an obvious tool for relationship and status building, and has to be carefully considered when it’s between those of different ranks (unless it’s between you and your fieldhands, in which case, just take). Ship gets it, gets the need for contact but not sex/romance as seen when she sends in human crew to act for her, but again, AI. I also wonder about the sexual relationships. Sure, they don’t recognize a gender, but there definitely is a sex distinction, and a gender distinction with at least some of those cultures within the Radchaai realm (as seen by the confusion at the genitalia festival). Are they completely open to everyone getting it on with everyone else, or are there unspoken rules about who can/can’t, or preferences like “I like those who are tall, with strong chins, oh and a penis?” Are children made in traditional ways? I want to know more about how the relationships actually work!
LM: Regarding the children, there’s a part where Strigan asks Breq how children are made if Radchaai are “all the same gender,” and Breq responds, “‘they’re not. and they reproduce like anyone else….They go to the medic…and have their contraceptive implants deactivated. Or they use a tank. Or they have surgery so they can carry a pregnancy. Or they hire someone to carry it.’…None of that was very different from what any other kind of people did, but Strigan seemed slightly scandalized.” (Ancillary Justice, 104). We’ve also seen cloning as an option, like Raughd. I JUST THINK THIS SO FREAKING COOL. I mean, it sounds like anyone, regardless of genital configuration, could have a child if they wanted one.
I imagine sex and sexual relationships might look different between Radchaai and “annexed” cultures. Leckie doesn’t really get into it much, but I find myself wondering if in other cultures like Nilt or the Delsig on Athoek that use binary genders and gender languages are more likely to be heteronormative. No fiction is written in a vacuum, and Leckie as the author is coming from a culture that is binary to the point of obsession. However, I wonder if the human Radchaai are not just an extension of our own culture(s)–if the Radch were, say, Earth, and Earthlings had spread all over space, and then thousands (millions?) of years later, Anander Mianaai and the Radchaai had invaded all these planets and cultures, and if these places all had two main* sexes originally and the Radch culture evolved into one that didn’t assign gender to physical expression (clothes, hair, body shape).
*because of course, there’s a ton of physical variety in reproductive/sexual organs and chromosomes that is erased or isn’t obvious, not to mention identity/expression
LM: Anyway, I was really happy with the variety in relationships. I found the clientage system very interesting (I was a big Roman history nerd in high school), and I appreciated that monogamy didn’t seem to be very important. I don’t even recall marriage being discussed (maybe in the entertainments?). One of the things I was interested in, aside from Breq and Seivarden’s asexual relationship, was the need for friendship. The part when Breq talks about missing sleeping in a group with other ancillary bodies reminded me a lot of living in Japan, where the amount of platonic touching is very, very low compared to the US, which is low compared to other countries/cultures. I missed getting hugs from friends a lot and I feel weird and disconnected without the level of touch I was used to. It made me wonder a lot about friendship and platonic touch, because I’m chronically too nervous to platonically touch people for fear of, at one extreme, the touch being mistaken as sexual invitation, or, at the other, for violating personal boundaries. Which is why I appreciate Breq and Seivarden having a discussion about boundaries and preferences–Breq wants a cuddle buddy with no romantic or sexual expectations; Seivarden wants sex but is happy to have sexual relationships with other people (like Ekalu) and respect Breq’s boundaries. Everyone wins!
[more on these aspects later from AMR and LKR]
JW: Also–and by page 132 we’re starting to touch on this a little–the invasion of privacy that comes with the kind of awareness Breq has of her people is more than a little horrifying. All that data feeding in, her so hyper-aware of everyone’s slightest adrenaline surge or emotional flutter…yeesh. Boundaries! Boundariiiiies.
But is it epic friendship, with Seivarden? She’d sleep with Breq if Breq had any interest whatsoever, I thought. And Breq doesn’t, so Seivarden doesn’t pursue it, but still loves the hell out of Breq. I feel here that I’m at a viewpoint disadvantage. Every really intimate friend I’ve had, I probably would have gone to bed with, if they’d been willing and if circumstances had favored it. But I content myself with that friendship in a way I am probably super-imposing onto Seivarden, because life. Drugged though she may be, she does admit to loving Breq, when Medic states it outright, but it isn’t as though she’s going to start pawing up Breq who–she stated it plainly in book 2, I believe–has and would have zero interest.
I could see the label epic friendship apply to Mercy of Kalr’s regard of Breq, though, maybe. Or at least they’re getting there? Certainly Ekalu’s pretty damn awesome, for coming back and scooping her up out of a bloody space vacuum death. But Ship’s intimate knowledge of Breq, her willingness to both share it and withhold it when it, Ship, feels she needs/wants that…that’s pretty epic. Creepily invasive, but now they’re at least talking about how creepily invasive that is, so we’re getting somewhere. …
A little disturbing though–I’m only on page 132 so maybe we’ll hear more of a reason?–is the willingness to call Medic at the drop of a hat and pump people full of drugs, medicating them always toward some apparently “standard” mode of being that perplexes me. Tisarwat I understand, because of the brain-rape that essentially happened to her, and its repercussions. But Seivarden? She has a fight with Ekalu and is emotional about it and “oh my god, quick, get Medic to pump her full of stabilizers!” Cripe. It’s like there’s a line of best fit for mental stability and if you don’t walk it 100% of the time, boom, in with the IV. Which seems overkill. Allow for some variance, people. They are humans, remember, not ancillaries! If the Mercy crew pretending to be ancillaries bothers Breq so much, she might trouble to remember that they are in fact human, with all the fluidity that entails…
2. How does Ekalu’s unhappiness with Seivarden’s treatment of her in their relationship tie into marginalized voices speaking up against marginalizing/erasing voices (think of mansplaining/whitesplaining/cissplaining)?
AMR: Yep. This is a discussion we’ve had as grad students in the department and something I keep bringing up at the Educational Policy Committee meetings – if there is a power imbalance (class, job status, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) there needs to be obvious, easy ways to make sure the lower-power group can be heard or has a way of knowing where to go and what to do in situations that someone in a high-power group (cis-white-male) might know or just power through to get what they want. I’m in a weird place where I come from a lower middle class/working class home but I’m in academia, a world of mostly upper middle class people. I try to make things more obvious for my students because first generation college students and international students might be extremely lost, to the point where they don’t even know the questions they can ask, much less who they can ask and when, and luckily in my field/department we’re cognizant of such things so it’s not seen as coddling. Typical academics knew how to play the school game and upper middle/upper class relationships and politics were what they grew up with, so don’t recognize or understand the hurdles some students have to face in basic understanding, and really don’t get that these students don’t “just ask” or “just get help” because they don’t know who or how or what. And then there’s the microaggressions and the assumptions and the ones in power expect the ones without power to let them know (like Ekalu did) but then sometimes don’t believe, listen, or realize that putting all that burden on the marginalized students is really not cool (like Seivarden’s putting the burden of making her feel better on Ekalu after insulting Ekalu). Great clip about such things in a race context from Grey’s Anatomy (all hail Shonda!).Soapbox.
LM: I had a LOT OF A FEELINGS about Seivarden and Ekalu, especially about how well Leckie captured Seivarden’s privilege. On a personal note, having relationships–particularly romantic and sexual, but also platonic and professional– with people who are on very different on privilege axes than I am/one is can be hugely stressful. The tendency of people with privilege where you have less/none to erase you, gaslight you, and not listen is HUGE. Seivarden’s continued insistence that she didn’t know why her behavior upset Ekalu and that Ekalu was taking it too personally and overreacting were so real it was painful.
LKR: I think it is more a clear example of a marginalized voice speaking up than something that ‘ties in’ with that. I felt this book vs. the first or second at several points crossed the line into mini-John-Galt-gives-a-speech-on-the-author’s-ideas a few times, which for me made it harder to see the story as taking place in a universe different than our own with illustrative similarities and differences and made the story feel more like a product of our own universe. One example would be the passage on page 130 starting with “she was born surrounded by wealth and privilege…” This particular passage could easily appear on Reddit in a relationships thread and you wouldn’t necessarily know it was supposed to be spoken from an ancient AI to a rogue member of a military force in spaaace. However, I appreciate that this storyline did make sense given the characters, did tie into major story elements, and contributed to the general non-trope-iness of the books.
3. How do narrative techniques of sci-fi stories “thrilling conclusion” expectations compare to the plot of Mercy? (Specifically, the last ⅓ of the book from the Presger gun and the conclusion)
AMR: I tend to subscribe to the idea that sci-fi (and often fantasy and -punk literature) can be brainless and fun but often is social commentary. When it gets heavily into the social commentary (like the last book, a little bit), the message is no longer embedded into an enjoyable story but turns into an almost condescending rant by the author. I enjoy reading sci-fi that has some messages present, but hate it when it’s something so obviously meant to be a metaphor or analogy that they just slapped a different language/planet on a current/past practice or culture and consider it “alien” and use it as a vehicle for their soapbox (like the racial/slavery thing in the last book).
I absolutely loved this book for so many reasons; it gets into the social justice angle, it has the “thrilling conclusion” aspects that make it fun to read, and it gave that totally excellent twist at the end where the author gets into the ideas of whether AI that is “Significant” or advanced enough should be considered its own autonomous “species” with its own wants and desires. Love, love, love that, and how the themes of giving the ships and stations their own autonomy fits in with questions of how to give the “uncivilized” people their own autonomy and input on how things should be run, even if they are too “backwards” to know how to do it “right”. All with a good story that kept me turning the pages instead of a heavy, all-too-obvious allegory that makes you just want to hit yourself (or the author) over the head with the book.
LKR: I really liked that the ending deliberately and overtly worked to illustrate the flow of the ‘ever after’, contributing to the books’ tendency to display banal and galaxy-shaping events similarly, without really changing tone. Part of this is Breq’s laconic nature, but this is also a book where a broken tea set has a character arc and the fact that Breq has an idea that will likely fracture the Radch entirely comes out of left field and isn’t dwelled on much once put in motion. I feel like this series tries (and succeeds) in telling a more realistic fantastic story by not hyping up drama, not calling on typical dramatic tropes, and by not changing tone between events and assertions of different scales very much. I feel that this form of realism is in alignment or maybe the source of some of the other progressive elements of the work. In a work where you’re trying to paint an alternative universe where people are the same as here but circumstances are different representing real but media-underrepresented people as unremarkable and trying to avoid tropes / integrate trivial events into a galactic storyline are both in accordance with the goal of realism.
LM: I was really surprised that how the siege that began with Breq firing the Presger gun didn’t turn into a gun-blazing showdown that killed all the Anaanders somehow. Breq not being present for the battle, the team screwing up, and her standing up to one of the Anaanders to form the Republic of Two Systems was not the ending I expected but the ending I needed. Not going out in a blaze of glory or flying off into the sunset, but setting up a government that works for its citizens? Hell yes.
4. Of the series in general, did the concept of agender and omnisexuality change how you feel about spec fic? Fiction in general? Your life outside of literary pursuits?
AMR: I wish more series did things like this (I’m reminded of the Star Trek: The Original Series episode where they have a translator that automatically genders alien species because they’ve learned that all species have two genders ::headdesk::). There’s no reason to limit to two genders or to have gender be a thing – heck, as a species, we could divide things strongly by left-/right-handedness but we don’t make that arbitrary distinction into a real distinction. Left-handed people have a shorter lifespan in part because we make the world for right-handed people, and if we made that a thing then we could have discussions like, OMG, do ambidextrous people actually exist? There’s also this excellent satire piece if you haven’t seen it already, A Person Paper on Purity in Language.
This actually dovetails with a thing I’ve been thinking about in my research, differentiation vs. difference. We keep looking for differences between the genders, races, etc. to see what makes us different and how to close gaps in STEM fields, but many of these things are small differences that don’t really matter. We’re not really finding or looking for real differentiating factors. Males and females have different average heights, but you can’t differentiate males and females by height – so does the different average height actually matter? With bears, for example, height can be a differentiator – 4 ft, female, 6 ft, male, and you can be pretty confident in your categorization. People, not so much. I’m not sure where exactly I’m going with this line of thinking, but it’s been something I’ve been considering for a couple of weeks.
JW: From this post about Seivarden and gender by canonicalmomentum:
I’m… actually really disappointed by [“revealing” Seivarden’s “gender”]. I mean. Invoking “death of the author” and all that. I know this doesn’t mean anything about a “real” Seivarden.
Like. So much of those books talks about gender as a culturally specific concept, how in each different planet Breq/Justice of Toren has been on there’s a different concept so she has a lot of trouble reading it, how in Radchaai culture there’s no concept of a gender binary.
What we actually know from the books is that Seivarden is Radchaai. Which means she’s never assigned male or female by other people in her society. We know only that on the planet Nilt, the people see her as male. But immediately following that is a discussion of how culturally varied it is, which continues throughout the book.
In short, Seivarden is Radchaai. Not male or female. And I can’t see any reason to assign her one of those genders.
JW: Yeah, and I’m having difficulty focusing on the gender issues because the whole package is so interesting. Significance instead of sentience, multitudinous ways of being and the pain of the loss of them, conquest and cultural disconnect…I don’t tend to enjoy space stories because they assume a unified human past that is (and will be) anything but. The “salt-of-the-earth-rebels vs. the Evil Empire” is too trite a tale, for me. But this is much more nuanced.
Gender-wise, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to; what it seems Leckie hoped would be happening. I’m just welcoming all the she/her pronouns as they come and imagining everyone as women until contact with culture that differentiates necessitates knowledge of something else, which I then quickly forget. I am so tired of space stories with asshole dudes gunning around the galaxy that even though I know I would make the differentiations some of the multiple-pronoun cultures would make, centering the story on Breq lets me ignore that in favor of a fantasized all-women space story. Which isn’t at all what I’m supposed to be doing, I know, because it’s not questioning anything.
AMR: Love this article. It speaks to how I interpreted gender in the books, present but not an actual consideration. I also wonder about Radchaai in general – if the Rrrr and the Presger are actually aliens, then I was thinking of the Radchaai as a whole bunch of humans seeded throughout the galaxy at some point in time.** No one seems really different (in comparison to actual alien species). Only the “uncivilized” ones actually noted sex/gender differences in a meaningful way. I thought they still were male/female but it wasn’t considered a difference, like making a distinction between left-/right-handed people, those who are colorblind, those with longer ring fingers compared to pointer fingers, or some other thing that is considered insignificant in Western culture. If left-/right-handedness mattered to you, you would immediately notice it about someone and alter how you address/treat them, but if we were transported to a culture where it was expected that we speak with a left-/right-handed distinction, we would have the same difficulties Breq does with those who make gender distinctions. I would love a book where there aren’t sexes/genders, but I did not read this series as such.
My interpretation could be due to my cis-ness, but I also took it from the beginning where Seivarden is gendered by the local people. That could have been simply because they wouldn’t know how to speak to a person without gendering them, but I interpreted that and times like Breq’s confusion at the genitalia festival to mean that sexes (and in my head, male/female, since that’s the norm if not the reality) were still present. I don’t have the book with me anymore, but I’d love to review the quote at the Genitalia Festival to see whether Breq refers to multiple possible sexes or the traditional male/female binary. I assumed that anything that wasn’t spelled out to be different was traditional, which may or may not be the case.
AMR: Do you visualize characters when you read, and if so, how do you visualize the characters in this series?
I don’t tend to visualize what I read, but characters are, um, tagged with descriptors (?) once the author gives them. If you were to make a visual (screen/stage) version of the series, would you make everyone androgynous? Give them all obvious genders without regard to stereotypical gender considerations? Something totally different? I found that thinking of who I would cast if this were a movie, I considered “female” to many more of the characters than I typically would given that it’s a military vessel, probably due to the use of “she.” I’d love to see a more androgynous cast but that would be so difficult to do; even small mannerisms tend to make us think “male” or “female.” I would make Seivarden and the Fosyfs male, but beyond that – who knows?
LM: I had SO MUCH trouble with keeping characters straight in the first book, and I found that fan art really helped me flesh them out [see bonus materials at end]. I actually think of most of the characters as physically totally androgynous (by my cultural standards). Given that we don’t really know a lot about Radchaai fashion other than the uniforms, pants, shirts, and gloves from the first book, I just think of everyone in the same clothes, more or less. But it would be really cool to see it cast with a whole cast of genderqueer/genderfluid/nonbinary people of color in whatever they like to wear. Breq says going to the Radch is like seeing all the gender markers of all the cultures on every sort of body, but we typically only get descriptions like “Fosyf has a giant pile of hair and is solid and beautiful” or “Awn has her hair clipped short.” But the more descriptive you get, the more likely you are to have cultural gender associations with the descriptors, like curvy, thick, solid or delicate, petite, scrawny, wiry–there’s nothing about them that has to be gendered, but saying someone is thick with a pile of curls on her head gives me a different impression than someone who is “solid.”
I picture Fosyf looking like a cross between Rose Quartz from Steven Universe and Jezanna from Dykes to Watch Out For.
Bonus! Playlists inspired by Ancillary Justice/Imperial Radch over on 8tracks.
These cuties by weaselbusiness.
This lovely spoilery Breq I’M NOT CRYING YOU ARE
Join us April 5 (two months. yes) for Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.