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Ancillary Mercy (Leckie) [Nov. 4th, 2015|09:05 pm]
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4/5. So I read Ancillary Mercy! And I really liked it, because it was awesome! I still think Ancillary Justice is the best, for a number of reasons, not least that AJ's set up in the best vintage SF-style to slowly reveal the worldbuilding, and by the time of AM we already know pretty much the important bits of worldbuilding.

I really, really loved how everything came together at the end. Like, two-thirds of the way through I started to think there was no way she could tie it all together. And then she did!

Also, Station is my Absolute Favorite. I especially loved the parts where Station just, you know, by-the-by happened to give out, oh, random pieces of information, perfectly innocent responses to queries you didn't actually make, that might be helpful! And, oh, yeah, don't know how that compromising interview happened to be broadcast through all local Radch space...

Although Tisarwat is a close second. She is totally going to be running things!

And Sphene, of course, is a delight. (Let me pause briefly here to note that I highly suspect Ann Leckie of being a fellow shiny-lover, because who else would have named a major character Sphene?) My favorite line is "You're not my cousin any more." HA.

A couple of minor quibbles:

-The first third of the book (in addition to the entire previous book) was setup for the second third, and I found it honestly quite slow. It didn't matter a whole lot to me, but it did take me quite a long time to get through it. Once I got through the first third, it was very fast.

-So one thing that kind of stuck out to me after reading Baru Cormorant was how... nice.. this book is. No one we like dies! (I guess a couple of the red-shirts minor not-terribly-sympathetic characters die, but that's about it.) Even any of the Anaander Mianaais! In fact, not only does no one die, but there's definitely this idea that everyone except for Anaander Mianaai takes for granted that Randomly Killing People Is Bad, which is sort of... weird? Since in AJ the whole idea was that Randomly Killing People Isn't Bad in the Radch?

That being said, I haven't been in the mood for super grim lately and I was really quite okay with that, even if it struck me as slightly... not in character for the Radch.

-Along the same lines, this book wasn't as bad as AS for Social Justice Wins the Day hijinks, but I did side-eye a little the part where Breq gives Seivarden an Intimate Relationships lecture. I mean... AJ!Breq didn't really strike me as an expert in that sort of thing? But on the other hand, I expect being a ship probably does make you an expert in intimate human relationships, after enough years of seeing your humans blunder through them.

(ricardienne, I am also dying to talk to you about this -- for one thing, I want to know what you think about all the the republic vs. dictatorship and colonialism stuff!)
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[User Picture]From: ricardienne
2015-11-05 08:29 pm (UTC)
-I should disclose that I recently made a tumblr for the express purpose of being being a dorky fan of the Ancillary books (mostly for the purposes of making as many Radchaai = Romans jokes as possible, but also for writing Homer and Aeneid pastiches...) So I am not in any way objective about this series any more!

Anyway, I also really liked it, although I agree with you that AJ is still the best of the three. I did feel that the ending was a little bit too neat and a little bit too dependent on the Presger as super-powered mysterious aliens ex machina. But on the other hand, all of the pieces were in play from the very beginning of Ancillary Justice, and it did thematically wrap up really nicely. I was glad that the focus went back to the personhood and perspective of AIs. And, it was also nice that while in a lot of ways Breq is on the way to Fixing Things in her corner of the universe, it's not by any means all clear sailing: at least two of the other AIs definitely don't seem to have the same views that she has (and, I mean, what's going to happen to the other Captain? Are they just going to force her to stay on her ship for the rest of her life?), Tisarwat is clearly going to be constantly trying to take over in her cute and earnest way, and so on.

-The not-killing didn't bother me! I interpreted AJ as that there's a really strong sense for Radchaai of who can be killed and who can't. On one side of the line, no big deal, but on the other side, it's an absolute taboo. It's the fact that Anaander orders her to kill people who are technically Radchaai (and that she complies) that breaks Lt. Awn in AJ, and even if technically any captain can execute anyone under her command at any time, I bet that it doesn't happen very often, in practice. And for most Radchaai who aren't in the military, I get the sense that they are really not used to ever encountering violence and people getting killed in real life. (Whereas, of course, Anaander Mianaai is the one person alive -- plus maybe some of the oldest ships-- who fought in a civil war and so, presumably, did kill quite a few fellow-Radchaai.) So it seemed actually quite plausible to me that most of the Radchaai on Athoek wouldn't think of killing people, and would be really shocked when Anaander did.
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[User Picture]From: ricardienne
2015-11-05 08:33 pm (UTC)
(...and I went over the character limit)


-Yeah, Breq and Mercy of Kalr trying to teach Seivarden how to check her privilege was not my favorite part, although I suppose that this is the one particular kind of relationship between her officers that Breq has pretty much fixated on fixing ever since Lt. Awn. That said, I liked that the moral the episode conveyed was not so much "don't say offensive things because they are objectively bad and you are a bad person if you say them" as "the point is to respect other people's feelings because of their intrinsic value as people, not to worry about whether or not what you said was objectively offensive or not". And I also was really glad that Leckie balanced Breq being self-righteous about Seivarden and Ekalu with Breq having to realize that she has massive blindspots about the things she takes for granted in her relationship with Mercy of Kalr.

(Although I think this could have been explored more with respect to Breq's soldiers. As far as I can tell, being a human soldier on a Radchaai ship is awful: you have no privacy, apparently no rights or recourse, and spend all of your days scrubbing the ship and waiting on the officers. Which, okay, is probably true of enlisted service at most periods in history. But the amount of power that Breq has over her crew -- or that a completely free ship would have over its crew -- is hugely magnified by the fact that she can practically read their minds. There's one bit where Breq says something to someone who calls her on this (Tisarwat?) to the effect of "did you not mind when it was Mercy of Kalr because you could command Ship?" But -- that's a legitimate difference! Maybe not an excuse for keeping AIs coerced/bound, but it does seem like a big part of how Radchaai cope with having no privacy from their AIs and being under constant surveillance is in the very fact the beings who know so much about them aren't part of their society or the hierarchies that govern it. And thats...sort of a fair position? Or at least, it's something that this new society is going to have to work through.)

-Sphene! The cousins line was also one of my favorites. As was the "I don't think that story conveys what you think it does" line, which was a nice gloss -- although a bit lampshadey? -- on the fact that it's a bit of a ridiculously recurrent plot point for Breq to think "This was the end. I had come this far, farther than I ever expected I would come, and it was only to be expected that at some point my luck would run out" when of course it *always* works out. (I think this happens at least twice per book? Which is possibly a few too many times.)
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[User Picture]From: charlie_ego
2015-11-07 05:40 am (UTC)
Yeah, I too wonder about the fundamental inequality between the AIs and the Radchaai -- I mean, it's not even just the privacy; the AIs have basically almost complete physical power over the Radchaai in their domain. (Okay, I guess Station didn't actually manage to kill Anaander, but not every citizen is going to have a Presger gun.) It's glossed over in the book when Tisarwat complains about it, in that they're like, oh, of course ships/stations love their inhabitants, but it's really a fair question. What if those safeguards weren't there? Somehow got weakened or removed? Can't the existence of that tendency to love also be considered as being coerced in some way? I just... I think they'll need to think this through pretty carefully, and it's certainly not going to look like any government we have on Earth. But I don't know what form it should/would take, and I want to! :)

Ahahaha, yes, Breq does keep thinking that it's the end, and then it's not.
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[User Picture]From: ricardienne
2015-11-07 02:36 pm (UTC)
Yes! I mean, on the one hand, I suppose that since Radchaai society seems pretty hierarchical and oriented around dependence-relationships, most people already live in some sense under the absolute power of someone -- a Captain, a system governor (? unclear how much power a station governor has for summary executions/brain-reconfiguring/other terrible things), or, ultimately, Anaander Mianaai -- and, for practical purposes are pretty well subjected to someone else -- a superior, the person to whom they're bound as a client, the representative of the government -- whom, in practice, they don't have a lot of appeal against.

On the other hand, I have this theory that, given all this, AIs who aren't accorded personhood actually serve a really important buffering function. It's in relationships with AIs that the fiction that Radchaai citizens are all equal qua citizens is actually true (well, on military ships not quite). And, of course, the constant, "objective" surveillance and nudging by AIs that are programmed to care for *all* Radchaai must go a long way to keeping the abuses of the hierarchy in check. In practice, independent, ruling AIs may still do this, but psychologically, the average non-elite Radchaai no longer has the tiny bit of control over some part of her life that is separate from the many many aspects where she's under the control of others.

Very broadly, I suppose, one of the points that the series makes is that societies rely on most people behaving as we are supposed to and not taking advantage of the system, that you go through life putting a ton of trust in your fellow citizens, because, the reason I'm not mugged whenever I walk down the street is not so much because everyone I encounter in my daily life is refraining from violence out of fear of the consequences as because it wouldn't occur to them to hurt me in that way. And most of Breq's social justice lecturing boils down to pointing out that when there has been an underclass of people (or AIs) who have been treated very badly, there's a tendency to assume that they have to be coerced into accepting the social contract because it's tilted against them, but in fact, if given an equal share of the goods of society they are as able as anyone to take part in that give and take of trust that makes up a society. Which is, indeed, an incredibly optimistic view and very anti-grimdark.

Edited at 2015-11-07 05:24 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: charlie_ego
2015-11-10 05:33 am (UTC)
Hmmmm, I see what you mean about trust. I mean, you could make the argument that (for example) men are generally on average stronger than women, but that doesn't actually mean that men and women should have different rights!

And most of Breq's social justice lecturing boils down to pointing out that when there has been an underclass of people (or AIs) who have been treated very badly, there's a tendency to assume that they have to be coerced into accepting the social contract because it's tilted against them, but in fact, if given an equal share of the goods of society they are as able as anyone to take part in that give and take of trust that makes up a society.

Yeah, I do think that is incredibly optimistic! I almost felt like there was a bait and switch: AJ was way more on the grimdark side of things, and then we get this happy optimistic view of human (citizen) nature. I think I got a bit of whiplash with AS (which is partially in consequence my least favorite of the three).
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[User Picture]From: ricardienne
2015-11-10 08:50 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. I think it's actually there in AJ, too. There's a consistent pattern of oppressed groups being extremely generous and peaceable and long-suffering and of violence/conflict coming entirely from the side of the oppressor groups. Which -- well, you can justify it in every particular instance as a necessary defense mechanism (especially since in each case you have the marginalized group having to confront the Radchaai/Breq, namely a group with still more power), but in the aggregate is more than a bit problematic! (I recently also read NK Jemisin's new novel, which takes the polar opposite tack and suggests that the only way to rectify a system built on oppression is to completely and utterly destroy it (not metaphorical, but as in, apocalyptic earth-cracking, all-of-civilization-annihilating destruction.) And that kind of (justified) destructive anger really doesn't get any place in Leckie's books -- except in Breq.


It's just that in AJ, there is no power to stop the bad violent grimdark side, whereas in the second two, Breq suddenly has power to put behind the generous, trusting, noble side. In practice, that means that there are fewer neat and tidy fixes in AJ, which is more satisfying, in a way. (I think that if Queter and Sirix had been developed more as characters in AS, it would have helped a lot, and I'm still mad that Leckie loaded Sirix with about a billion different, complex motivations, then kept her a minor character, gave her a bizarre and barely-comprehensible role as a traitor (see: a billion complex motivations and not enough space to develop them) and sort of dumped her offstage in the beginning of AM.)
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[User Picture]From: charlie_ego
2015-11-13 05:02 am (UTC)
Yeeeeah, I'd forgotten that AJ was like that too, since as you say it turns out grimdark since the oppressed groups don't get a say. But I agree that it is... a very optimistic reading of humanity as a whole.

Huh, did you like the Jemisin? I read 100K Kingdoms and remember thinking the bad guys were really unbelievably puppy-killing bad, but it's possible I'd like her newer stuff better?
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[User Picture]From: ricardienne
2015-11-13 07:09 am (UTC)
I really liked Jemisin's Dreamblood series (I liked 1000 pretty well, too, although I see your point about the evil empire being unbelievably evil. It worked okay for me in the context of the "things people become accustomed to doing when to people they don't consider human" theme, I think -- back to that common concern of Leckie and Jemisin.)

Overall, I did like the new one (although Jemisin always seems to write the same type of super-powerful, tortured male love interest and I am just never that into the as characters). It was at least as heavy-handed on the social justice themes as Leckie, but, on the other hand, they were more explicitly central to the whole book and the whole of what Jemisin seems to be trying to do with it. On a craft level, there's a neat interlocking of three different stories set at different times (but their sequence and relationship only gradually becomes explicit); one of them is written in the 2nd person present, which is a choice that I would never have said was a good idea, but actually is done really really well and works!
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[User Picture]From: ricardienne
2015-11-14 10:29 am (UTC)
ETA Re: the optimism/social justice-ness

I mean, again, in-universe I can buy it as characterization of Breq, because she's been built, basically, with Radchaai ideology programmed into her: namely, that all citizens are good people worthy of protection, equal rights, services, opportunities, respect, and a share of the community; that there are no significant differences between Radchaai; that differences in power and status are used for the benefit of everyone. And, of course, she's Justice of Toren. (And, actually, Justice of Toren probably never spent much time around Radchaai who weren't military and involved in the process of conquering non-Radchaai. So she doesn't necessarily have a lot of experience with how things actually are in the empire) So it makes sense to me that she would have this incredibly strong, semi-naive insistence on social justice and believe implicitly that it can be effected. In this weird way, I suppose, AIs actually uphold the values that Radchaai claim to base their society on better than the Radchaai do. Which makes sense and is a clever point, in a way.

But politically, the fact that the oppressed people are always virtuous and good is really dangerous, because it naturalizes the idea that oppressed people deserve justice *because* they are virtuous, and that, therefore, people who aren't sufficiently virtuous don't deserve justice... Which. Well. Leckie really could have tackled this faulty assumption, really should have, and she didn't.
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[User Picture]From: charlie_ego
2015-11-07 05:30 am (UTC)
OMG your tumblr is AMAZING. TOTALLY AMAZING.

Yeah, I know what you mean about the ending being a bit too neat, but oh man, I am a sucker for all the pieces coming together like that. Significance!

Re: killing: Hmm, I think maybe I just didn't remember AJ very well!
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[User Picture]From: ricardienne
2015-11-07 05:30 pm (UTC)
I'm really torn, because it did feel Super-Aliens Ex Machina. But it was also one of those solutions that was so obvious in retrospect, and so carefully set up from the very beginning with all of these slightly random-seeming elements of world-building that Leckie insisted on (like the Rrrrr, and the Treaty with the Presger, which felt like a ton of world-building backstory to add into what was, for the first two books, an anecdote of a single Radchaai soldier making a principled stand against unjust authority).
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[User Picture]From: charlie_ego
2015-11-10 05:34 am (UTC)
Yes, and making it even more Aliens Ex Machina was that we never did figure out what the Presger were or what was up with them, they were just Mysterious Alien Figures.

But also I just really like Translator Zeiat :)
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[User Picture]From: ricardienne
2015-11-10 08:33 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm conflicted because on the one hand everything that was important about the Presger and their role in the resolution was laid out in the early chapters of the first book. So Leckie played completely "fair" and, in retrospect, it was so so brilliantly obvious that of course it would go that way. And having Dlique in AS and then Zeiat be a pretty constant character in AM helped keep it from being too distant from the rest of the action. On the other hand, when you feel slightly dissatisfied with a 'deus ex machina' in Euripides, it isn't because you don't know that the gods might show up and do things perfectly in line with what gods do (I mean, they were probably in the prologue as well!). The Presger are basically a force with rules that Breq figures out how to manipulate to work for her. And that's fine -- especially in a sff novel! -- but it's not as satisfying to me as a resolution that relies on messy, interpersonal workings-out. (Which wasn't really going to be feasible, given on how massive a scale Leckie had set up the Radch to exist.)
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[User Picture]From: charlie_ego
2015-11-13 05:06 am (UTC)
Hm, I think the thing I like about it is that there are rules, even if it is kind of cheating for the author to set up the rules in exactly such a way that her characters can win. Deus ex machinas tend to especially annoy me when there are no rules, it's just "...oh, and then this character is powerful enough to solve everything." Which is kind of what's going on here, of course, but the cleverness of Breq being able to manipulate the stated rules makes me happy :)

(Which wasn't really going to be feasible, given on how massive a scale Leckie had set up the Radch to exist.)

Which was actually kind of neat to me, as I was expecting a large-scale solution, and to find out instead that there was this small-scale solution was... I wasn't expecting it!
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