Pushing the Very Limits of Gender, Selfhood, and Tea: Highlights from Ann Leckie’s AMA!

Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice, has won all the things, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards! The sequel, Ancillary Sword, comes out this week from Orbit, and there will be a limited edition hardcover of AJ coming out next May from Subterranean Books! You can also read her excellent story, “Night’s Slow Poison” (which is also set in the Ancillary universe) here on Tor.com!

Now we’ve rounded up some of the highlights from Ms. Leckie’s recent Reddit AMA – check out the highlights below!

On Ancillary Futures!

CompuChip: Do you have plans for books outside of this series?
ann_leckie: I’m not sure what I’m doing after this trilogy is finished. When I first started writing, I did mostly short fiction, and I’d work on a short story and get near to being done and have no idea what I’d work on next and then I’d panic. Was that the end? Would I never have another idea again, was that all the fiction that was in me??? But invariably something would occur to me and off I’d go to the next project…. so, something will come up. It’s likely it’ll be in this same universe—it’s a big, big universe, and so it’s entirely possible to do something very different from what I have been doing, while still using at least part of what I’ve built. But that’s not a hundred percent certainty.

On Tea

Defmyname: What exactly are Radchaai flasks and how is tea brewed in them? Are they sort of thermos like implements or more similar to something else?
ann_leckie: Yes, I see them as like thermos, only with heating elements. In fact, there’s a deleted scene from AJ where Seivarden complains that the tea flask they brought from outside the Radch doesn’t brew tea right—it brews at the wrong temperature, because it’s meant for a different sort of tea. (Of course, that wasn’t actually what Seivarden was upset about. I quite liked that moment, but really the scene needed to be cut, and the book is better without it.)

On Joining the Wonderful World of SFF

tigrita07: Hello! First, I have to deeply apologize because I have not HEARD of you! I’m slowly getting into the science fiction and fantasy genre. But I’d like to ask you, other than your book, what books would you recommend for a newbie in Science Fiction? Or better yet, what books inspired you?
ann_leckie: Oh, that’s actually a difficult question! Science fiction is huge and varied, and there’s almost any sort of book or story you might imagine. Very possibly the work of John Scalzi would be a good place to start. Though if you’re into the very literary end of things, you might like Michael Chabon. Or Ursula Le Guin or Octavia Butler! If you want to know where I started, though – I started reading SF as a kid, and the first author that I noticed their name, and began to realize that books didn’t just materialize in the library somehow but were written by individual human beings was Andre Norton. I’m partial to C.J. Cherryh, and China Mieville, and Jack Vance, and oh, try some Lois McMaster Bujold!

On Annexation

Civilianapplications: I wondered if you could shed light on the approximate size of The Radch, ie number of systems it has annexed?
ann_leckie: Radch space has thirteen provinces—thirteen provincial palaces. Each province has, oh, I’m going to make this up, at least a half dozen systems. Possibly more, depending.

On the Mechanics of an Ancillary

dog-solitude wanted to get into the inner working of an ancillary, so maybe skip this one if you haven’t read the novel yet and want to be surprised by the process!
I found it really chilling to read the sequence where an ancillary is made, where Justice of Toren offhandedly remarks that for the next couple of weeks after taking control that body will have adrenalin surges and lots of fear. Are the people who become ancillaries still conscious but ’locked in’ for weeks after becoming ancillaries, slowly going mad until there is nothing left? I really hope not.
ann_leckie: So, the question of who that is, once the ancillary is made, is really kind of complicated. Obviously it’s the same brain and body as before, just altered, so in that way, yes, they’re still conscious. On the other hand, they don’t see themselves as that person anymore, but as part of the ship. The emotional turmoil is a side effect of the process—you can’t go mucking about in someone’s brain without possibly messing with any number of fairly delicate systems, and if you throw various neurotransmitters out of whack you get nausea and anxiety. It’s not fun for the individual ancillary involved—but no ancillary is individual, and when you’ve got twenty bodies, one of them feeling terrible isn’t such a big deal, particularly when you’ve been through it before lots of times and you know it’s only temporary. Still, that doesn’t change how horrifying the whole thing is, does it. Incidentally, you might be interested in Collision with the Infinite by Suzanne Segal. It’s basically a first person account of someone who had depersonalization disorder and I found it really, really interesting.

On Shipping:

Sonntam: Do any ships/stations dislike each other?If so, how do they show their distaste? (Excluding Breq and Station, of course.)
ann_leckie: Oh, definitely some ships and stations dislike each other! Some military ships, for instance, look down on stations, and the stations of course can’t help but notice it. And Justices and Mercies would tell you—if they were ever to be so candid about it, which isn’t terribly likely—that Swords all think they’re better than everyone else. And of course, there are individual likes and dislikes. By and large dislike is generally not overtly expressed, ships and stations being the sort of beings they are.

Playlists for Reading!

Civilianapplications: Any recommended style of songs to listen to while reading Ancillary Sword to go with my Pu-erh?
ann_leckie: Aside from the playlists linked below, you probably couldn’t go wrong with nearly any sort of choral music. If you go to youtube and type in “sacred harp” you’ll find, well, Sacred Harp singing, which is…very much it’s own thing. And it’s what I was thinking of when I was writing about Valskaayan choral music.

I’m also partial to Ockeghem. Here, have the Kyrie from his Missa L’homme Arme! That tune they sing at the beginning is the one the piece is based on—and it’s one of the actual, real songs referred to in AJ. And here, have some Varttina! And how about this from Big Blue Ball

On Gender, Selfhood, and Writing the Other:

defmyname: Did you go into writing the book with particular physical appearances in mind for characters & intentionally leave the descriptions sparse to let the reader imagine them on their own, or did you have a more nebulous impression of the characters and just sort of wing it? Also I would like to sincerely thank you for, either intentionally or by a quirk of the book being first person, having Breq be able to be read as agender, outside even of the Radchaai monogender. Your approach to gender in the Radch & use of feminine pronouns as default was awesome but being able to ID with Breq as agender is incredibly important to me, as non-binary representation in mainstream anything is basically nonexistent. So intentionally or not, thank you for doing a Cool Thing and giving me a badass space ship to want to be when I grow up. Thank you so much.
ann_leckie: Some characters I have a pretty good idea what they look like, and some not so much. Partly I left descriptions sparse because (this is just between you and me, now) I’m not good at that sort of description and was focused on other things. Probably one of these days I’ll work on that! But also, as a reader, I find that I’m not terribly interested in very detailed physical descriptions of characters. A few lines to sketch in a few details works for me, and the rest I fill in myself. When I’m writing, I don’t really have much other guide than “as a reader, how would I respond to this?” So that’s a factor too. But I know not all readers are the same, and I know that’s a skill I could stand to add to my toolbox.

And you’re very, very welcome! In fact, when I started the book, Breq’s being agender hadn’t occurred to me, but of course it’s the logical conclusion, considering who she is, isn’t it. So it started out by accident, but has ended up intentional. And I know how important — how essential! — representation is, how important it is to be able to find yourself in stories. Stories are the way we make sense of the world, and if you never see yourself, that amounts to being told that there’s no place for you, anywhere. I’m glad to be able to help, even in a small way. And here’s wishing you more and better representation in the future. :D

TyrannosaurusVexed: I’m wondering how you decided which characters’ genders to reveal in Ancillary Justice versus which to leave ambiguous. It definitely had an interesting impact on the way that I thought of/viewed different characters (and observing that effect on my own thoughts was one of the things I so enjoyed about the book).
ann_leckie: I didn’t sit down and plan which to reveal. Mostly it was just a matter of who might be referred to in languages other than Radchaai. I did deliberately reveal Seivarden as being male—or more accurately, as being read as male in the culture Breq is surrounded by in that first chapter—in order to convey as quickly as possible what was up with the pronouns. But other than that, it was a matter of who was being referred to in what scene. Honestly, I don’t actually know the genders of most of the characters in the all-Radchaai scenes.

tanman1975: The idea of self and what it means, especially if it splits is mind boggling. So much potential exploration here; I am definitely looking forward to reading the sequel. I would like to know who are the authors that you read? Who have influenced your writing style the most?
ann_leckie: I read as much as I can – ironically I have less time to read now that I’m a published author! I’d say I was most strongly influenced by Andre Norton, C.J. Cherryh, and Jack Vance. Probably lots of others too, but those are the most obvious to me.

Goodbyecaroline: I wanted to ask you a few questions about your intentions in AS. First up, it seems like in AS you’ve really set out to hit a few big buttons of modern, internet-enabled progressive discourse, like those of respectability politics, double binds of oppressed people, the limitations of a privileged standpoint, tone arguments etc. Was that deliberate? I wondered if it might be related to feelings of responsibility for deliberately creating a fictional colonialist society – that with that creation, comes the responsibility of depicting the real effects of colonialism, not just “cool space empire”? And obviously that ties into the whole “writing the Other” discussion that’s been going on in sci-fi for some time now. I wondered, were you part of the audience/involvement in Livejournal fandom’s Racefails?
ann_leckie: I didn’t start out saying “I’m going to hit the buttons of progressive internet discourse!” Though of course I pay attention to a lot of conversations on those topics—largely because of these books. While I was writing short fiction, I had developed a process that involved a lot of close examination of real world examples, so that instead of relying on defaults and stereotypes, I could depict something very realistically, whether it be the biology and behavior of snakes, or the way a particular society might be constructed. The basic idea (whether it worked or not is another matter) was to make meticulously real as much as I could, so that my readers would believe in the realness of what I was saying and when the talking animals and the magic appeared, it would just be accepted along with the rest. (The vast majority of my short fiction is fantasy—editors would buy it much more readily for whatever reason, so that’s where I focused.) It’s not the only way to convince a reader, but I found I enjoyed it, and definitely enjoyed the process of research. When it came time to look closely at my galactic empire, I used the same principle: how do empires that actually exist work? And it was difficult not to see that the defaults and stereotypes of empires in SF are very stylized, not really much like the real thing. My empire is entirely fictional of course, but I wanted it to be solid and real-seeming, and not just another cardboard empire, so I took details from my understanding of the real world to use in its construction. So my purpose was mainly to construct a solid, believable story. Of course, the details that seem real and resonant to me are going to reflect my own beliefs about the world, my own experiences, and my own politics. It’s not something I did on purpose—but I think any story is going to reflect some sort of politics, even if the writer intends not to.

I do think that narrative is very important—I think that we use narrative to organize the world around us, and so it does matter a lot what kinds of narratives we have in our inventories, and which ones are reinforced so often and so strongly that we habitually reach for them without thinking. I would say that a writer would be well advised to be aware of what they’re conveying in a given narrative, but that doesn’t always extend to details being realistic in a particular way. I was part of the audience for the various recent Racefails, and I found them…educational. I also turned over for a long time the idea of “the other” and the concept of othering someone, and the idea of exoticization. I’m grateful to have been a spectator to those conversations, I learned a lot from them.

On Multiple Planes (and Spaceships) of Consciousness:

Jdrch: In AJ, how does the ship accommodate being in multiple places in multiple manifestations at the same time? Are all the manifestations synced back to a central entity/identity, or what?
ann_leckie: That is a very good question. It’s all handled by a system that I ordered from Sufficiently Advanced Technologies (TM). But basically, check out my answer below for my thought process on this question.

Fanfiction, Yay or Nay?

jbs090020: How do you feel about fan fiction? Ancillary Justice is so unique, would it bother you if someone used your characters and/or world building to write fan fiction?
ann_leckie: So, fan fiction. I know it’s a delicate topic, and I’ve thought long and hard about it, and written a statement on how I feel about fanfic. Here it is:

You kids have fun!

No, seriously. I won’t read it, not because I’m afraid anyone will accuse me of stealing ideas but because it’s just better for all of us if I don’t. And I really would be unhappy if someone tried to sell their fanfic. But I find it tremendously flattering that some readers seem to want to engage so closely with the book(s). Honestly, in a lot of ways that’s even better than the awards. And fan art, too! Fan art is fabulous.

On Cosplay:

j65536d: Would people usually be able to tell an ancillary apart from a normal human just by looking? Are their implants something that would be physically evident? I’m asking for cosplay purposes :-)
ann_leckie: No, the implants are not externally visible. Also, you just made my day!  Oh, and the only thing that would distinguish an ancillary from an ordinary human would be that they’re usually expressionless. The ones that are only out of the holds for military operations wear only armor, but the others (like One Esk) wear regular uniforms, though of course without jewelry. Note that (well, you can’t note this till you’ve read Ancillary Sword) Mercy of Kalr’s (human, not ancillary) crew is in the habit of acting like ancillaries, and can occasionally be mistaken for them (though almost certainly ancillaries themselves see the difference, based on subtle cues). Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, it’s in the first chapter.

On Sandwich Spreads and Valentine Michael Smith:

Aelius_Galenus: I recently picked up both Stranger in a Strange Land and your book. I started reading Stranger and was sorely disappointed at how it turned out, and in fact I refused to finish reading it. I quickly picked up Ancillary and was overjoyed at the novelty and the boundaries it pushed up against. It was reminiscent of the Left Hand of Darkness, with the gender confusion but added a wonderful objective perspective. I might as well add a question, Peanut butter or Nutella?
ann_leckie: Oh, Nutella! Defnitely. :D

On Being Made to Fly:

remsimple93: I’m planning on becoming a spaceship when I grow up. Do you have any advice for a budding spaceship? I just love the idea! I’m planning on reading your book soon, can’t wait!
ann_leckie: Hah! I do not have any helpful advice, but I wish you lots of spaceship adventures and happiness. :D

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