Ancillary Justice

From time to time, I encounter a work of fiction that really makes me think. One such book is Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice. Having encountered it in Asimov’s “On Books” column this month, I decided to buy a copy for my eReader, and I’m glad I did.

Leckie’s protagonist, Breq, is all that remains of a military ship’s AI, Justice of Toren. As Justice, Breq simultaneously inhabited a massive number of ancillary bodies, but is now limited to one of the solders from the unit One Esk she used to control. Breq has embarked on a mission to kill Anaander Mianaai, an enemy who likewise lives in thousands of bodies herself. It is an epic battle spanning multiple worlds and distinctive cultures.

These days, when I read fiction, I find myself doing so with my metaphorical red pencil in hand. I could blame my experience critiquing people’s work with Critters, but the reality is probably more mundane: I am teaching myself to edit my own work, and it has heightened my awareness of everything I read. As a result, I found myself considering a number of things Leckie does especially well with this novel and whether I could equal any of them in my own work.

Most superficially, I appreciate the way Leckie describes the interstellar empire in which her story is set. The Radchaai are polytheistic syncretists[1], and Leckie realistically integrates integrates their religious practices into the fabric of her story. As a strict monotheist, I don’t know if I could possibly attempt to portray this perspective. I don’t even know if I would have imagined something as elegant as Leckie’s use of gloves to portray Radch cultural ideals.

A second characteristic of her work, and the one which challenged me most while reading, is the fact that the Radchaai make no distinctions between male and female in their language. As a result, Breq uses a single set of pronouns — generally translated into the feminine third-person pronouns in English — to describe other characters of both genders[2]. It parallels the way I myself use masculine pronouns as the generic neuter, and while it’s not the way I usually think, it works here. Compared to other pieces I’ve read that use  alternative gender-neutral pronouns, this technique flows much better for me.

Third, and perhaps most noteworthy in Ancillary Justice, is Leckie’s deft handling of the multiple simultaneous perspectives of her protagonist’s ancillary bodies. While writing in first person point-of-view, Leckie takes advantage of her character to achieve an almost omnicient perspective on her plot. In any other story, this would break my suspension of disbelief, but here, it actually serves to to emphasize what is essentially an alien AI perspective.

Taken as a whole, Ancillary Justice is a solidly-written and creative novel, strong enough that Justin Landin of thinks it should win the Hugo for Best Novel. I don’t get a vote, and to be honest I haven’t read enough new novels this year to make a fair judgement, but this much I can say:  Ancillary Justice is a worthwhile read.

[1] In the extras, Leckie indicates that her Radchaai culture borrows heavily from Roman polytheism, but her description of their gods and the heavy use of doubled ‘a’ in character names makes it feel somewhat Hindu to me. Regardless, it is a consistently-portrayed culture, and it works.
[2] In my description above, I used these same pronouns to describe Breq and Anaander, though neither one has a single definitive gender. This was the author’s choice, and I think it deserves that respect.



The Joys of Yiddish

While assembling the shelf of books for my banner image, I took some time to think about what books represent me best, with special consideration of the books that get the most use. I was surprised to find that my bookshelf is most heavily weighted by nonfiction. It made me realize that while I thoroughly enjoy reading a good story, the books I feel compelled to keep at hand are the ones I can later use to refresh my knowledge. I am content to borrow works of fiction from the public library; reference books, I need to own.

Joys of YiddishOf all the books on my shelf, the one most heavily worn is The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten. Inhabiting the intellectual space between a dictionary and a book of jokes, it is really just a series of definitions clarified by amusing stories, and serves to illustrate the author’s love for Jewish culture in America. While I haven’t yet found much use for Yiddish in my stories, Rosten’s colorful anecdotes have brought pleasure to many an afternoon, and add depth to my otherwise whitebread existence.

An example: the word gewalt[1].  Literally meaning “strength” or “power”, it is, when used as an interjection[2], a one-word prayer crying out for strength in the face of formidable circumstances. For its purpose, I find no equal in the English language to this elegant term, and it has infected my speech to the point that my daughters now mutter “gewalt” when confronted by an absurd situation around the house.

You may be inclined to suspect that I have a bad habit of absconding with vocabulary that is not legitimately my own. Your suspicion is correct, but I nonetheless hold that Yiddish phrases have become useful arrows in any English-speaker’s quiver. From aha to shtick, Yiddish has infected our way of speaking.

Consider, for example, my trip to the UK ten years ago. Having noticed a small sign reading nosh (food), I spent an hour driving around the back roads of Sussex in search of the bagel it promised. Alas, it was not possible to purchase bagels in that part of England[3]. I later learned that restaurants in England had been using the term in its general sense, and the sign in question actually referred to some kind of church dinner being held that afternoon.

I now find, to my great joy, that this marvelous text has been re-released by Rosten’s daughters and updated with the help of Lawrence Bush. I may have a new text on my wish list.

[1]pronounced “geh-valt”, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Rosten illustrates this word with the tale of its use by a French diplomat, so I think I’m justified in taking it for my own use as well.
[2]It is interesting to note that Italians use their word for power, forze, as an interjection as well. The fact that they use it in joy at a soccer match may indicate a difference in the Jewish and Italian experiences through history.
[3]Though I have many unpleasant things to say about New York, it does appear to be the one place in the world where you can buy a bagel (with lox) at two in the morning. If I am wrong, please tell me where else this can be done, and I may be forced to travel there.

Cinder and Cinderella

As a role model for our daughters, Disney’s Cinderella leaves something to be desired.  It’s something I’ve thought for a while, but I was reminded of it this week when Dancing With Fireflies mentioned the need for strong female role models in YA fiction. Apparently, it isn’t much better in juvenile fiction, either.

The Movie

To be fair, Cinderella isn’t all bad. With her kind heart and perseverance, the eponymous lead is miles ahead of the passive female characters in many stories, and the plot, with its heavily female cast, easily passes the Bechdel Test.  When I first saw it in a movie theater at the age of eight, I enjoyed it. As an adult, though, it bothers me. Consider:

  • Cinderella has a goal, but that goal is essentially to find and wed a wealthy man. This may have been acceptable in 1950 when the film was first released, but it lacks something in this century.
  • The prince Cinderella wins as her prize is so two-dimensional he’s a virtual MacGuffin, a rich man with a title who can dance. Yes, there’s a solid foundation for marriage!
  • The only memorable male characters in the whole plot are Jacques and Gus, the mice who provide comic relief through their foolishness. Cinderella patronizes them for the whole film, and when they want to help the other mice provide their heroine with the fancy dress she needs so badly, the other mice shoo them away. “Leave the sewing to the women.  You go get the trimming. And we’ll make a lovely dress for Cinderelly.” Who’s we, anyway?

This may seem like a rather androcentric set of complaints to be making about a film primarily marketed at girls, but consider:  how would you feel about a film for boys where the only female characters are the helpless princess, who needs to be rescued, and a pair of incompetent ditzes?

The Novel

CinderEnter Cinder, the 2012 novel by Marissa Meyer based on this same fairy tale. I loved reading this book when it first came out, and I still do. Meyer’s Linh Cinder is to me the epitome of a well-written strong female lead:

  • as a cyborg, Cinder suffers from discrimination, but still does what’s right, even at significant personal risk.
  • as an ace mechanic, Cinder demonstrates competence in a field that is stereotypically male.
  • Cinder loves her prince not because of his appearance or title, but because she knows him, and knows he’s a genuinely good man.
  • Cinder is motivated not simply by love, but by the desire to save her country — and by extension, the world — from domination by the evil lunar queen.

Along the way, we have three-dimensional secondary characters, both male and female: the cruel stepmother, the greedy stepsister Adri, the naive stepsister Peony, and the mysterious Doctor Erland, each with distinctive personalities and motives. Comic relief is provided through the android Iko, whose penchant for excessive emotion is described as a “programming defect.” And even Iko provides help in ways no one else can.

As Cinder’s story continues in the follow-on novels Scarlet and Cress, we learn that Cinder isn’t merely a good person — she’s also a great leader. She isn’t perfect — Cinder is constantly afraid of becoming just like the people she fears most — but she’s a legitimate action hero, and I think, a good role model.

How to Write a D* Good Novel

For the past ten years, I have been an aspiring writer. Although I have sold one short story for inclusion in an anthology, mostly I’m just piling up rejection letters so far. Along the way, however, I think my writing has improved. The three biggest contributions to my improvement, I think, are these disciplines:

  1. Keep writing, keep revising, and keep sending things out to potential markets.
  2. Keep reading, both fiction by great authors and books about the discipline of writing.
  3. Get feedback from other writers through a critiquing group like Critters.

My most recent foray into discipline #2 is a book I found in my public library: How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. For my review, I think I’ll go Clint Eastwood on you and partition my ideas into The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good

Over the years, I’ve read books and essays on writing by Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Terry Brooks, and others. Most have something useful to say about character, motivation, and conflict. Frey’s book surpasses them, however, in its ability to show me how to focus when my plot gets stuck. He does this with humor, and more importantly, with examples. More importantly, it gave me a much-needed kick in the seat of the pants to push my characters and dialog past the mundane, so they operate at their maximum capacity (his words). I came away with practical changes I could make to my novel-in-progress to keep the plot from falling flat.

The Bad

If you want a modern text on writing, this is not the place to go. Written in 1987, Damn Good Novel will not be able to give you tips on ePublishing, because the internet didn’t exist back then. Frey’s writers use typewriters, not computers, but that’s okay. The same things that made a narrative great in the 1980s still apply today, and that’s what Damn Good Novel is about.

The Ugly

Although the title of this book may catch the eye from a bookstore or library shelf, I was less than thrilled about its presence on my coffee table when friends from my wife’s Bible study group came by to visit. This probably means I’m shallow. So be it: I care about my reputation.

Rating: 8/10