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Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie) (2015): Moving on from Lifeboats to another sort of ship.

I can't believe the trilogy stuck the landing. I am verklempt from the narrative economy and elegance of Breq seceeding from Anaander Mianaai's empire (predictable) and linking that to the Presger (surprise!) by raising the question of AI Significance (a twist that was wonderfully set up and executed).

I was wrong when I guessed Breq was consciously shaking apart Athoek and not telling the reader, but I'm very happy with being wrong. Ancillary Mercy is the plotty novel I wouldn't have known how to ask for. There's plot, and more plot, and a lot of it's character-driven, so the narrative tension, the story's success or failure, comes down to people, whether ships or soldiers or stations or citizens. Which is also why the parts about people falling apart and breaking and making mistakes, and the breathing room the more intimate moments bring to the story, are so important. Besides making me think Seivarden might finally be getting a handle on her issues. A little bit. Maybe. I could talk about what that does for pacing, or I could talk about the way that love takes, and it takes and it takes, and slip in my Hamilton moment for the day.

I also think that AS is important because it's about Breq looking past her immediate vendetta and getting connected to a community. Or more than one community: Mercy of Kalr's crew, and Athoek Station, and Athoek the planet. AS takes Breq from let's kill the Lord of the Radch, and who cares what happens after that to let's start a breakaway state, and then do the next thing.

I mentioned in skygiants' DW that I had all these feelings about how the identity issues and the Presger and the entire history of the Radch come together at the very end of the novel, so here's me having feelings. If that wasn't already clear.

There is a slightly screwy but direct line from Breq / Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen finding Seivarden more than half dead from hypothermia to Breq's final tallying-up of things her Mercies are up to, after setting up Queter and Sphene. One step after another, as Breq says; but the thing linking the entire series - Awn's murder and Dlique (and Zeiat) and horrible Raughd and the AIs and Seivarden - is this idea of selfhood. Who is I? Who gets to influence that identification? Is it not horrible when someone rips away your concept of who you are in the service of who she (or he, or it) is? Either in a straightforward let's make ancillaries of our enemies and hapless baby lieutenants way, destroying that person outright; or in the subtler way of Lieutenant Awn forced to decide whether she's the sort of person who obeys orders or lays down her life for her beliefs. Or Queter's near-miss with reeducation, tied up with the Valskaayan and Samirend transportees to Athoek, and how their identities have changed as they're integrated into the tea plantations. Maybe I'm pushing the theme too hard, but it's one way to look at the three novels that might be useful for seeing a through-line.

And the Presger Translators and identity is another thing going on with this. Is identity fluid, for them? I think of identity and I think of Breq's confusion of gender, her persistent difficulty identifying and interpreting the gender markers of non-Radchaai societies. It reminds me a bit of Zeiat's cakes and counters and invisible lines (1). It's the same question Lieutenant Awn asked in Ancillary Justice (2). The way identity and categories go together doesn't work the same way.

Zeiat is relieved she is not Dlique. It suggests to me a confusion about the Radchaai connection of name (as in thing-you-are-called) and identity. But change physically, and that identity goes, and the name with it? Zeiat's first introduction as Dlique, until Breq suggests she might be Zeiat, and Zeiat's failure to recognize Breq after she loses a leg suggest something about human naming schemes and identity. Significance, perhaps, instead of identity: the question is not, Who are you? but Identify your Significance.

That might go with the messy, persistent failure of colorblindness. Gender may be utterly irrelevant and valueless to the Radchaai, but it's a stumbling-block for Breq outside Radch-controlled space. And there are other markers, of status and ethnicities, that are felt as deeply in Radch space, even when they're officially denied. We are all Radchaai, all civilized, but in Ancillary Justice Seivarden complains (shocking, I know) that people aren't just wearing styles she doesn't recognize from her time, but that they're different between stations. And these markers, and the hierarchies they represent, mean nothing to Zeiat in turn. There is something deeply nonhuman going on with the Presger and identity and Significance that I would love to see explored in another novel.

Are there things to quibble? Probably. The writing style is very choppy, in a way that some people might not enjoy. I missed the breadth and depth of Seivarden's epic failboat issues, until things came to a head, but that might be a reader issue, not a writing issue. I also very much appreciated Leckie clarifying how ancillaries work in the Ancillary Mercy AMA: What's different is their sense of identity. Your sense of identity is very fragile--it's not just made up of your memories, but of your strong sense that you are you and not someone else. The right kind of brain damage (or in this case surgery) can alter or destroy that. . . At any rate, ancillaries have their sense of individual identity removed, and replaced with that of their ship. . . Tisarwat has all her old memories. But she will never be that previous Tisarwat. That was a missing piece that helped me understand what was going on with Tisarwat a lot better.

Something I've quite enjoyed is the evident influence of C.J. Cherryh's writing. Zeiat in that spotless white Breq identifies with the Translators Office reads as a shoutout to Cherryh's Foreigner series; actually, the Presger read as if someone had spent a lot of time thinking about the paidhi-aiji and mixed those thoughts with some space opera and high powered AI tropes. I love it. And it took me an entire day to figure out why Sphene so delighted me. Do whatever you like to the magistrates, shoot them into the sun for all I care. Just don't bore me with it now. What I want to talk about is ancillaries. Now why would I love that sort of tactless blunt talk backed by the power of a warship? (Ahem.)

Ask me what my favorite Sphene moment is and I quote all of Sphene's dialogue. That ship is awful and I would cheerfully subscribe to The Adventures of Sphene And Queter, An Ongoing Serial, With Lots of Sarcasm And Deadpan Gallows Humor. I mean, look at this:

"I want to find out of I managed to damage any of Anaander's ships. And if I did, I want to try to do more damage. I need to know what's going on at Athoek so I can plan."

"Oh, Cousin," replied Sphene, "We sit here arguing, we can hardly agree on anything, and then you go straight to my heart like that. We must be family."


And also the eggs song. "We aren't cousins anymore." Sphene, I would hug you if there were any question in my heart you'd react with emotions other than horror and disdain.

Tangentially, I love the way the cousin thing comes together, turning Sphene's mockery of Breq's Mianaai connection into something just as edged and complicated that's something entirely different by the time Athoek Station asks to be a cousin too. And Breq's reply - "Of course you can, Station. You always have been." - is totally adorable.

The trilogy ends in a good spot, so I don't feel like I really need more of The Adventures of Breq / Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, and Her Myriad People. But I sort of want something else in this universe, with some minor tossed-off reference to the Provisional Republic of Two Systems (or a Thousand Eggs, or whatever it chooses to call itself) and the doings of its citizens.

(1)Translator Dlique in Ancillary Mercy:

She took the tray of cakes off the counter, set it in the middle of the table. "These are cakes."

"They are," Sphene agreed. The translator looked to me for confirmation, and I gestured agreement.

"All of them! All cakes!" Completely delighted at the thought. She swept the cakes off the tray and onto the table, and made two piles of them. “Now these," she said, indicating the slightly larger stack of cinnamon date cakes, "have fruit in them. And these" —she indicated the others—" do not. Do you see? They were the same before, but now they’re different. And look. You might think to yourself — I know I thought it to myself — that they're different because of the fruit. Or the not-fruit, you know, as the case may be. But watch this!" She took the stacks apart, set the cakes in haphazard ranks. "Now I make a line. I just imagine one!" She leaned over, put her arm in the middle of the rows of cakes, and swept some of them to one side. "Now these,” she pointed to one side, "are different from these." She pointed to the others. "But some of them have fruit and some don't. They were different before, but now they're the same. And the other side of the line, likewise. And now." She reached over and took a counter from the game board.

"No cheating, Translator," said Sphene. Calm and pleasant.

"I'll put it back," Translator Zeiat protested, and then set the counter down among the cakes. "They were different — you accept, don't you, that they were different before? — but now they're the same."

"I suspect the counter doesn't taste as good as the cakes," said Sphene.

"That would be a matter of opinion," Translator Zeiat said, just the smallest bit primly. "Besides, it is a cake now." She frowned. "Or are the cakes counters now?"

"I don't think so, Translator," I said. "Not either way." Carefully I stood up from my chair.

"Ah, Fleet Captain, that's because you can't see my imaginary line. But it's real." She tapped her forehead. "It exists."


(2) Awn in Ancillary Justice:

"What's the difference," Lieutenant Awn said, so quietly it didn’t seem like a break in the silence, "between citizens and noncitizens?"

"One is civilized," said Lieutenant Skaaiat with a laugh, "and the other isn't." The joke only made sense in Radchaai — citizen and civilized are the same word. To be Radchaai is to be civilized.

"So in the moment the Lord of Mianaai bestowed citizenship on the Shis;urnans, in that very instant they became civilized." The sentence was a circular one — the question Lieutenant Awn was asking is a difficult one in that language. "I mean, one day your Issas are shooting people for failing to speak respectfully enough — don't tell me it didn't happen, because I know it did, and worse — and it doesn't matter because they're not Radchaai, not civilized.


Also, Leckie's tumblr is a delight. See especially #peep-peep-peep-peep.
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