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Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing
spacefaring dino
ann_leckie
I'm supposed to be writing today. But yesterday's words took the story in a direction that I see I laid the groundwork for, but I'm not sure if that's the best turning to take. I have to think about that. So I could be cleaning up previous chapters instead of forging ahead, but somehow it's all very Friday-like in my brain instead. And then I saw that rose_lemberg had tagged me in this cool "talk about your current wip" thing (so cool to read about her Birdverse, go take a look!).

So I can cat vacuum while still talking about my wip! What could be better? So!

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing.

1. What is the title of your book?

Ancillary Sword.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

This is a difficult question to answer. The universe is one I've been playing idly in for at least ten years--more, now I think of it--just, you know, the way you play around when you tell yourself stories for fun. It was, at first, composed almost entirely of standard sci fi/space opera tropes along with anything else that struck me as shiny at some point. Over time it grew more and more complicated. Then I decided to do NaNoWriMo in--sweet Mithras, was that 2003?--and actually writing a story down in that universe forced me to start making it all go together in some way that made sense.

That novel is still in a drawer, but at its periphery was another story that I'd have written if I'd thought I was up to it. I was pretty sure I wasn't, and might not ever be. I made several false starts at it over the years, and finally finished an actual novel last March. That novel, Ancillary Justice, will be out in the fall of 2013 from Orbit. (I can't even believe I just typed that.) Ancillary Sword is the sequel to that, and there's a third, Ancillary Mercy. that I haven't started on yet. Of course, because Sword isn't done yet.

I don't know where the idea for ancillaries came from. I think they're really just a version of a fairly common space opera trope. Like most of what's in the Radchaai stories. I see shiny stuff and grab it and put it in my Shiny Stuff box.  

Ancillaries are human bodies slaved to AIs. They're mostly made from prisoners of war, and once they're hooked up, they have no identity of their own, they are the ship. They're the infantry of the Radch, the cannon fodder, pretty much completely disposable. You lose one, you pull another body out of suspension and hook that up. They're alive when it's done to them, though some peoples outside the Radch call them "corpse soldiers."

The main character is an ancillary. Human but not human, Radchaai but not Radchaai. A disposable piece of equipment.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Space opera. Definitely space opera.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

No idea. :)

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?

I'm terrible at things like that. Here's what got submitted to Publishers Marketplace:
Ann Leckie's ANCILLARY JUSTICE, a far-future space opera in which a ship's ancillary A.I. or "corpse soldier" uncovers a dangerous secret at the heart of a galaxy-spanning civilization.


6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It's under contract! Sol Invictus!!!

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

This is a tricky question! I made so many false starts with Ancillary Justice and then set it aside despairing of ever being able to write it at all, that using that number would be very, very different from the year or so it took me to actually finish a draft once I saw a way to do it.

I'm currently about 25K into the first draft of Ancillary Sword and I've been working on it for about two months. Three if you count September, when I didn't work on it at all but read a whole bunch of hopefully-helpful non-fiction instead. Which is more or less how I usually work: write write write, get stopped, read nonfic until I've read whatever I needed that will let me move forward, write write write....do it all again.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

Um, I don't know. Fans of CJ Cherryh will definitely see a strong streak of Foreigner running through it, though not, perhaps, plotwise. Other people have mentioned Ian Banks but I really don't think there's much similarity there, if any at all.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It's hard to say. Obviously something about this character really interested me, and one of the most obvious things that makes her distinctive is the question of her identity. (Is she the ship Justice of Toren? The twenty-body ancillary unit Justice of Toren One Esk, who likes to sing? (Twenty voices! You could sing choral music all by yourself! How awesome would that be?! Not sure I'd take the rest of the trade, though...) Or is she just one segment of that ancillary unit? Or all three? And how does that work?) And there was something that interested me in the similarity and difference between ships like Justice of Toren (or units like One Esk, or unit segments like Breq, not her real name but the name she takes rather than going around calling herself Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen) and the Lord of the Radch, who is herself many-bodied but (maybe? maybe not?) quite entirely different. Certainly one is a piece of equipment and the other is just short of emperor of the galaxy.

And there was something about the whole idea of identity to begin with--is any of us just one whole person? Why are we who we are? Do you know, if the right part of your brain is damaged, you'll believe very surely that you're dead, or that you don't exist, or that your right arm isn't actually part of your body even though it's clearly attached? How fascinating and scary is that? Not that any of these books are heavy on the neurology, but still, wow. You start asking what makes you who you are, and who are you anyway? It's not like any of this is terribly philosophical, really it's just space opera, but that sort of thing, it makes you think, doesn't it. I put it in a box where I was keeping shiny stuff, and shook it up, and this is what came out.

Mostly I think this grew out of the pile of shiny things I'd thrown in the box. Religion? Shiny! Language? Shiny! Here's a bunch of anthropological stuff--ooh, shiny!

And all those shiny things, they came from the real world, and once I started building something out of them, I saw they weren't just random things, but things that had real world effects, real world implications. And cultures, languages, religions, they don't exist in a vacuum, they have histories, and they only exist because people build them, live in them, negotiate them, change them or recreate them. I tried to think about those, when I was building my story and my characters. Whether I succeeded in conveying the complexity of the things humans do--culture and religion and such as real, complex human activities--is a whole other matter, of course. It strikes me as unlikely, given I've written an old school space opera adventure, but I gave it my best shot.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There's some relatively mild genderfuck that I was afraid would make it unsalable, but I decided was too intrinsic a part of the worldbuilding to backpedal on. Radchaai is a language that doesn't use gendered pronouns, or mark anything for gender. Presumably the narrator is telling the story in Radchaai, so when it's translated the sentences aren't carrying any sort of information about the gender of the characters. Unless, of course, she's speaking in a different language, which she does for parts of Ancillary Justice. Now, in the real world, non-gendered pronouns don't necessarily translate into not caring much about gender, but for the Radchaai it does. Gender exists, for them, but it's kind of like, oh, hair color. It's real, it's there, you notice it sometimes, but there's no obligation to put it in one category or another, colors that aren't clearly blond or clearly brunette or red or whatever don't cause any disturbance or distress because hey, hair color is like that, and it's not something you need to know about someone, or spend much time thinking about unless you want to.* I thought for a long time about how to handle that, including the really obvious ways that could be fail, and in the end I made the default pronoun "she" and used the main character's best guess for the times she has to pick one. There aren't many characters in the book--either book--whose actual gender is stated, and it's entirely possible to read them as being populated almost entirely by women, if you want to read it that way.

What else might be interesting? The Radchaai are not based on the Romans, but oh my goodness does the Roman Empire make a nice, big, read-aboutable example of a large empire that functioned fairly well for quite a long time considering (longer, in fact, than they usually tell us in school when they say the Empire fell in 476. The Eastern Empire went on quite a bit longer) despite large distances and resulting slow communications. Which explains my strong interest in them for the last couple years. The Roman attitude towards religion has particularly interested me, and that shows as well, though as I said the Radchaai are not Romans In Space and their theology is not particularly Roman. But some things about them? Yeah, I totally stole from the Romans.


*This is, of course, not a perfect analogy for various reasons.

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.

I was tagged by Rose Lemberg, who answered these questions for her own work here. She was tagged by Mike Allen, and his answers are here.

Most of the people I'd want to tag have been tagged in one of those two posts, so consider yourselves tagged again. I'd also add Rachel Swirsky (but only if you feel like it!), Athena Andreadis, Dave Thompson, and Katie Sparrow. And, um, anyone I'm going to go "Oh, I meant to say them, too!" after I post this. You too.

Haha, thanks--but first, I want to go more in depth than just "fascinating read" about your WIP.

The identity and neurology stuff--was it kind of terrifying? Young-me who's still alive inside of grown-up me is terrified by that stuff. Grown-up me is kind of zen about it all, but the zen-ness is, I think, cultivated to avoid the terror.

Hah! Cultivated to avoid the terror sounds about right! It's one of those things--if "who I am" is really just an emergent property of the way my brain is set up and can easily be changed by a head injury or a stroke--or even if it's an illusion, a by-product of the way my brain cells work when they're in a big lump the way they are--well, there's nothing I can do about that, is there, and it's a convincing illusion so I might as well go with that, right?

It's not the first time I've had to read scary or disturbing stuff for the sake of a story. Honestly, I know some things now that I might not mind unknowing--but then again, the stories came out pretty well by and large, and that's important to me, so there's that.

Identity is an emergent property of the brain; the sum total of your synapses defines you (with feedback from the rest of the brain and body). Change of personality is one of the most common outcomes of head injury, stroke -- and of course, dementia.

Yeah, this is one of the things that has frustrated me over the last five or ten years about the kind of story where everyone's uploaded, and therefore has no physical body except whatever image they wish to construct, but they think just like embodied human beings, and experience emotions exactly the same way and I go "but emotions are physical, if our bodies are different or not there, the emotions are going to be different, right? Let's not even talk about what, if anything, gender could possibly mean in such a situation but here you're characters are all straightforwardly male and female, too!"

And of course, the (I imagine related) old "body switching" trope. Change your body radically enough, you're no longer the same person. When Crichton finds himself in Aeryn's body, he's not going to be Crichton anymore, right? (Though generally I enjoyed Farscape, things like that bug me.) He's just going to be Aeryn, because Aeryn's physical brain and body, that's what makes her what she is. Sheesh.

Which, also lately whenever I run across the "emotion spoils rational thought, if you could just remove emotion you'd be so smart!" or the related "being really smart means no emotions!" thing I grind my teeth and throw things. Emotion is part of the way we think, and when you take it away you have a hard time making decisions, people!

Anyway.

I have written extensively about this issue, both in my book and in response to the wet dreams of transhumanists who think that you can "upload" without consequences (example: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix). The mind cannot be separated from its physical substrate (the brain and the body associated with it).

As for emotion, people who say such nonsense are invariably thinking of the "four F" thalamic emotions that are reflexive. However, cortical emotions are as complex as thought -- and, in fact, they enable people to make decisions and choices.

well, there's nothing I can do about that, is there, and it's a convincing illusion so I might as well go with that, right?


Absolutely! It's just unnerving to think how tenuous it may be. Tenuous, but surprisingly durable, for all that.

the stories came out pretty well by and large, and that's important to me, so there's that.

:D There is that.

Awesome. I was already planning to buy it, but this convinced me again.

And after I had a bit of time to mull on this, two thoughts: first, I am fascinated by your take on the problems of embodied identity. I am intrigued by those enslaved or colonized bodies, and how the central identity encompasses them (or not) - will disposable bodies be as intrinsic to identity as non-disposable bodies? It seems not, and yet those disposable bodies are still peripheries of a central nervous system (right)?

Do you know, if the right part of your brain is damaged, you'll believe very surely that you're dead, or that you don't exist, or that your right arm isn't actually part of your body even though it's clearly attached? How fascinating and scary is that?
As you know, it's more complicated than that - but the "you believe," the sense of self in people with stroke damage is very interesting - and hard to research for obvious reasons, since if emotional or language capabilities have shifted from the previously established baseline, then we might expect the cognitive categories to shift accordingly, so that "you believe that you are dead" may no longer mean the same thing - am I making sense? These studies are often extremely annoying to me :/ What is clear is that there is an identity shift after any disability involving somatic changes.

The second thing is the pronouns - that is awesome. I have something similar going in one corner of the novel (one of the cultures switched languages to a language with gendered pronouns, but their original language had gender-neutral pronouns, so they are now using 'she' as a default).

I am intrigued by those enslaved or colonized bodies, and how the central identity encompasses them (or not) - will disposable bodies be as intrinsic to identity as non-disposable bodies? It seems not, and yet those disposable bodies are still peripheries of a central nervous system (right)?

As I see it, yes. So who is who? What is the character? And if you lose some part of your body/self, who is what's left? And then it became clear to me very early on that this needed to be in first person, and how the heck do you write first person with that person?

Also, yeah, the first time I heard the phrase "the colonized mind" I went zing and said "I have to find out more about that." Which isn't to say I've done anything really interesting on that score, to a large extent it's still stuff I'm learning and thinking about, but wow, I read a lot of interesting stuff and it made me really think more about what's underneath those standard space opera tropes.

What is clear is that there is an identity shift after any disability involving somatic changes.

Yes, absolutely, and I know what you mean about it being more complicated, and the popular versions of those studies (and sometimes the studies themselves) being infuriating.

I read this book--I can't find the name of the woman, now, you'd think I'd learn to take better notes--by a woman who had some odd identity stuff going on that was pretty clearly (at least from my perspective) the result of something like a series of strokes she had at a fairly young age. I could easily be wrong, it wasn't diagnosed as such, but her descriptions had a strong flavor of that sort of neurological involvement, to me. IIRC she died relatively young of a stroke. But anyway, starting from a particular moment her sense of self changed drastically, first moving to somewhere just outside her body and then moving around a bit, finally, disappearing entirely so that, she said, there was no self at all. Yes, there was a body moving and talking and doing things, but there was no self, she did not exist. It was really fascinating to be able to read her own description of her experience. It was fascinating, and also saddening the way it is when you see someone going through something really difficult and terrifying--she was frightened and upset for a long time, until eventually she interpreted her experience as being the loss of ego/enlightenment that some religious traditions aim at and came to terms with it that way. I really wish I could remember her name.

The second thing is the pronouns - that is awesome. I have something similar going in one corner of the novel (one of the cultures switched languages to a language with gendered pronouns, but their original language had gender-neutral pronouns, so they are now using 'she' as a default).

Oooh! I'm such an amateur at the language stuff, but I do love it. And hooray for 'she' as a default!! :)

That's comforting to know that she did find a way of living with her altered perception of her self (however constituted or not constituted), and it shows, I think, the organism's desire to get on with living, to self correct--like how a tree crushed by some heavy thing will grow up around it, righting itself as best it can.

The WIP sounds very interesting, Ann. Thank you for the tag! I'll answer the questions as soon as I'm done proofing the galleys of the EPub version of my anthology so it can go out for advance reviews. And of course, as you well know, space opera is prima inter pares as far as I'm concerned!

P. S. : our bodies are part of the brain feedback loop that defines us; there are identity shifts even after abrupt menopause (following cancer surgery, for example).

Edited at 2012-10-06 05:08 am (UTC)

I am very much looking forward to that anthology! Space opera was really my first engagement with science fiction, so, as I said over on another LJ, for me it's baseline, what science fiction is. Which isn't to say I don't enjoy anything else, or think anything else is "real"--I do. The more I read the more I saw the variety sf was capable of and it's part of what I enjoy about it.

But my particular place where I'm looking from, it's part of what infuriates me about the occasional "but SF used to be all about the future and science and now all this fantasy is ruining it!" because, while I do like the stuff that tries to be all about the science, just like I enjoy all sorts of sf, really for me the core is space opera. And I know that's a product of my particular history and I think, "You can't see that you're only speaking from where you're standing, not some God-like objective universal authority that lets you cast any other sort of sf into the outer darkness? I'd take your post so much more seriously if you'd recognize that."

I hope it meets expectations! Its publisher said that she can't pick a favorite, which is a good sign.

As for the argument that "SF suffers from loss/fear of extrapolation because the world moves so fast" the only domain for which this is valid (possibly) is computer applications. I discussed the issue of science in SF from both directions, I can send you the links if you're interested.

Links would be cool--I've been through your blog archives but really only haphazardly so I'm sure I missed interesting posts!

And, yeah, and also is SF really all about the prediction or extrapolation? Once again, it can be, and that can be really awesome wonderful stuff and if that's what the writer wants to do then fabulous and I want to read it! But it's not the only thing SF can or should do.

Plus the "we're just recycling old tropes!" thing kind of bugs me. I mean, that's how art works, right? You chew over and recycle and repurpose and reframe and twist and play with a stock of existing tropes. Sometimes someone adds something new, or changes an old one so much that it might as well be new. But the idea that SF's virtue is only in an inexhaustible supply of Stuff You've Never Seen Before and any attempt to explore or work with something previously existing is some sort of failure--no, sorry. And in fact, something truly radically different that didn't converse with any old tropes would be pretty near incomprehensible. Which, that's fine if that's what you're doing, every artist chooses her own project, but it's hardly the only valid way to do things, not by a long shot.

(It's related in my mind, oddly, to the way simpleminded critiquers sometimes complain that stories ought to be understandable with no previous, outside knowledge. Well, I mean, what story would that be, then? You just aren't thinking about the extensive previous knowledge you're already bringing to this, or thinking about the fact that your set of previous knowledge might not be a perfect match for the audience the author intended and you know? That's all right and no one's stopping you from learning more so you can appreciate new things, right?)

Agreed. The best stories have deep roots and many layers; these presuppose knowledge beyond just the matter at hand. Not all readers will be familiar with all the layers, but even those who aren't will sense the extra depth. The demands for "fresh new tropes" are actually those of spoiled brats ("I'm bored! Astonish me!") who also want to be perceived as deep thinkers and ushers of paradigm shifts by handwaving. Here are links that discuss aspects of this issue. I have written more, but that will give you a flavor.

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

Ain't Evolvin': The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest

Oh, this sounds so fascinating! Can't wait!

Oh, hey, I remember that NaNo! Was it 2002, or '03? Ten is a nice round number, and, correctly or no, I frame my own NaNo from that year as "the novel I've been writing off and on for ten years."

Those things about personality, perception, emotion, and the brain are indeed fascinating and terrifying. While not having read much, or at all, on the subject matter, there are several things from my own experiences I can relate to it, like my grandmother's senility.

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