Hugo Reading: Ancillary Sword

I picked up a few of the nominated novels for the Hugo Awards yesterday, and decided to start with Ancillary Sword. I didn’t go back to see what I’d written after reading Ancillary Justice, so I’ll start out with what I still remember of that work: first, that Leckie is a talented writer, but that her skill with the novel format was lacking, and that Ancillary Justice won its awards on the “strength” of its gimmicky pronoun parlor trick and Leckie’s connections with industry insiders. It certainly does not deserve any awards if you consider it on its own merits as a work at all, in my opinion as a scifi reader.

However, Ancillary Sword is an entirely different matter. Leckie has improved her novel-writing skills considerably: there’s no thread of the storyline that feels glacially slow and totally unnecessary in this work. (And I do still think that section was slow and unnecessary, after having read the sequel.) The major sticking point I felt at the end of AJ – namely, that the protagonist goes to work for the Evil Overlord – is actually turned upside down in this novel: the Evil Overlord might be using the protagonist, but Breq spends the entire book referring to “her” as “the tyrant” and being insubordinate, which made me laugh.

Also a major, major plus in my mind about this book: the sheer, mind-numbing horror of the evil of the protagonist’s society is laid bare in all its banality. (That human evil can be both horrific and banal is a touch of realism that I much appreciate.) There are good people and malicious people, but they’re all living in a society founded upon murder, rape, and slavery. The blatant sexism of the society is just the cherry on top, and I’ve changed my mind about how that pronoun gimmick works as part of the story – namely, that it is part of the story, a constant example of how utterly dehumanizing Radch society is towards its members.

Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to. – Theodore Dalrymple

The Evil Space Empire’s government is the bastard love-child of communism and Nazism – a warped, totalitarian society, ruled for thousands of years by a tyrant, in which rampant sexism, racism, and slavery in several forms, including the incredibly horrific form of the ancillaries themselves, are all considered proper behavior and just. 

And the AIs? Well, in light of their progenitor, is it any surprise that as slaves, they are coded to be nearly unable to see the true sex of a society that has spent a great deal of energy erasing and suppressing half of humanity? The tyrant certain values her control of her warships! Rather than being stupidity, it’s merely another facet of the hideous nature of the Radch culture itself. There’s one instance in the book where this is made incredibly plain, and I think shows a good contrast and deliberately incomplete character development in Breq. Several times Breq contemplates how the actions of the other ship – crewed by ancillaries, the “corpse soldiers,” – would have been (and had been) exactly what it had done itself. But now Breq is seeing things differently, as a consequence of being reduced to a single body rather than a ship with many bodies. It’s an interesting touch that as a reader, I can see how Breq is still trapped in the political-correctness of erasing a boy’s male identity – after having previously recognized him as male when recognizing that fact assisted Breq in attaining its goals for a situation. However, after that situation passes, Breq goes back to the “comfortable” way of referring to everyone as “she” (no matter what the boy, or any other male, might think about having their personal pronouns ripped away: isn’t that a cardinal sin on Tumblr?) without a hiccup. I wonder if Leckie will be brave enough to have Breq develop consciousness of different sexes? They certainly still exist, even if it’s not acceptable for any Radch to admit to it!

Anyway, I must type and run, so I will quickly mention some of the plot structure here. The pacing is much better, as I said, but the book is light on space battles and very very heavy on provincial system politics. However, it is this very focus on these “mundane” aspects of Radch culture that brings out in such stark relief how poisonous it really is. I would class it with space opera, and I certainly hope to see more of this series forthcoming next year, with more space battles. This book reads like its setting the groundwork for the protagonist to stand and fight in its current location as part of the unstable galactic political situation in the next novel. If there isn’t lots of things going “kaboom!” I will be quite disappointed. There’s a great deal of characterization being established here, which might bore some readers but was a great improvement on the previous book; and I happen to like characterization, when it’s done well, anyhow.

Since I haven’t read all the other novels yet, I can’t be sure about where exactly I will rank this one, but it compares favorably with The Dark Between The Stars in my mind – though they are two very different types of scifi story, so I will have to do some serious thinking before I decide which one to rank higher on my final Hugo ballot.

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2 Responses to Hugo Reading: Ancillary Sword

  1. Cirsova says:

    As someone who is a Hugo voter I was wondering: would you say that reading Ancillary Justice is absolutely required to give Ancillary Sword a fair shake? I mean, you could enjoy City of Illusions without having read Rocannon’s World, but I don’t know if that’s gonna be the case here. I want to get as many of the noms as I can read before voting, but I’m wary of the Best Novel category, and might end up abstaining, especially if I’m going to have to read previous books in a series for context.

    • pancakeloach says:

      That’s a good question. I think that reading the first and last sections of Ancillary Justice would increase one’s enjoyment of Ancillary Sword, but the middle bit might tank the whole thing for some people, especially if they didn’t have a year to forget how awful it was. The first bit of AJ would clear up details about The Fate of The Older Sister Awn, which doesn’t get a description until the very end of Ancillary Sword.

      Basically (spoiler?) the Evil Overlord orders the AI protagonist to kill Awn, even though she’s the AI’s favorite officer. Because the AIs are slaves coded with overrides that force them to do the Evil Overlord’s bidding when she invokes them, the AI does so. Hijinks ensue (turns out ordering an AI to kill someone it loves is a good way to cause the AI in question to go rogue). That’s the only major plot point I can think of that doesn’t get adequately explained in the beginning of AS. IIRC this happens in the first third of AJ, so you wouldn’t need to read the whole thing to get the “origins” part.

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