It would probably be faster to list all of the awards Ann Leckie didn’t win for her 2013 novel Ancillary Justice. Her trilogy-launching debut (the sequel, Ancillary Sword, is out now) received—deep breath—the Hugo, Nebula, British Science Fiction Association, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards for best novel, nearly filling her Bingo card of top genre honors in a single go (I won’t even mention the few she was only nominated for). It’s the kind of out-of-nowhere success that hasn’t been seen in years (or, by some reckonings, ever), and that only put more pressure on her to pull off the sequel (don’t worry: it delivers). On the eve the release of Ancillary Sword, we chatted with Leckie about how to follow up the first book in a series, what it means to write “relevant” sci-fi, and how becoming a writer turned her into a tea snob.
In 2014, you won ALL THE AWARDS. So, how does one come down from having written arguably the most lauded debut novel since Neuromancer?
I don’t know yet! I’ll tell you when it happens.
Ancillary Sword is, in many ways, a very different novel than its predecessor—it has a more straightforward structure, and a much more limited scope. Was this an intentional pause? How did you approach it as “book two” in the series?
Yes, it was intentional. For one thing, the double-stranded narrative wasn’t necessary, since there was no crucial past moment that was moving things forward—or, there was, but it had already happened in Ancillary Justice. And it’s a more limited scope partly because of that, as well. And partly because I didn’t want to write the same novel twice.
Honestly, I just tried to go forward from where book one ended. But of course I was also trying to keep in mind that I want to be able to more or less tie things up in book three, and I think like most writers, I’ve got all sorts of models, conscious and unconscious, of what the second book of a trilogy ought to be like.
For me, the limitations allowed the themes to flower in a way that was sometimes obscured by all of the action and newness in Ancillary Justice—I took much stronger note of the ways you dealt with gender, identity, and psychological trauma this time around, even though all those elements were in the first book.
I think that science fiction and fantasy often do really well in longer forms because of exactly that. Occasionally I hear grumbles about everything being a series or a trilogy, but apart from the question of them maybe selling more books, I think that there’s a real problem in trying to introduce a new world or a new concept while also getting your reader to pay close attention to your characters and themes. Not that it’s impossible, of course; it’s just, you’re handing your reader an awful lot to think about at once. And readers want to think about these things, but with the best will in the world, most of us can only juggle so much at one time. One of the nice things about a second book is that your readers already have so much of the introductions on board, they don’t have to put all their attention into figuring out the world and can more easily let that play out as a background to the other things you want to do.
On a purely technical level, I love the way you’re able to use your A.I. protagonist Breq’s networked brain to break the rules of the novel, giving us a first-person point of view that borders on omniscient narration. Yet you also run the risk of losing the reader in shifting perspectives, or by allowing Breq to know too much—how do you keep a balance?
Mostly by feel. I tried to very carefully keep things grounded in Breq’s POV, so that it never got confusing, and I tried to keep very close track for myself of what Breq ought to know, and ought not to know. But it’s definitely a balancing act.
Both of the books have hinged heavily on a single act of violence carried out by someone acting under orders—Breq’s guilt unspools her previously ordered life (with galaxy-shattering consequences). Were you reacting to the lack of weight violence is given in a lot of genre writing?
Hmm. That’s an interesting thought. Not consciously? But it’s true there’s a fair amount of genre work—both written and filmed—that use violence just for the sake of action, without thinking about what that actually means. I have to admit, those are often a lot of fun, but yeah, when you stop to think about it, it can be a bit disturbing.
Ancillary Sword seems to me to be a book that’s all about power—what those who don’t have it do to resist those who do, and the ways those who do often don’t even realize it. It’s easy to draw parallels to the slavery and oppression in our past, but also present economic inequality and injustice. Do you see these themes as serving the story first, or was it important to you to write a book that dealt with what we’re facing today?
Story first—except I’ve come to the conclusion that “story first” isn’t really an uncomplicatedly apolitical thing. Science fiction in particular is often assumed to be about the future, or about some abstract technological or philosophical idea, or just about “adventure,” but writers can’t build worlds out of nothing. We use bits and pieces of the real world to assemble our fictional ones. And a writer who just picks things they think are shiny or seem to fit, without regard to what kind of a statement their assembly might be making about the real world (or their assumptions about the real world), is still going to be making that statement. “Story first, no politics!” is a political statement in favor of the status quo.
So it’s not so much that I feel it’s important to write a book that deals with things we’re facing today, but rather I think it’s impossible not to, and I’d prefer to deal with those things consciously, rather than be surprised (perhaps unpleasantly) when I saw what my story actually said.
I also think that narrative is actually very powerful. It’s how we organize our lives, and how we process the huge amount of information the world throws at us. We very often will plug things into a narrative where they don’t actually fit very well. And we nearly always do it without really even thinking about it. Over time, the mass of stories we read and hear add to our personal store of templates that we use to figure out the world, or else reinforce ones we already have in inventory. So given that, I would much rather try to provide a template that, say, doesn’t perpetuate one or more toxic narratives I wish people would use less often.
But I don’t start out saying, “Now I will provide the world with a politically or ideologically better narrative.” I start with characters and a story, and then ask myself what it is those characters, and that story, might be saying about what I think about the world.
Along those lines, I see your books as being at the forefront of the current dialogue about gender representation in sci-fi writing and fandom today, and your choice to use only female-gendered pronouns is a defining aspect of the series. Were you intentionally reacting to, and adding your voice to, this discussion?
Not at the very beginning. But of course, in deciding to play with the pronouns, I got interested in how those pronouns work, and interested in how different people reacted to different pronouns, and in the various gender-neutral pronouns that are out there in English. And that got me more interested in questions of gender. And since I am a woman who has read science fiction since I was small, and who writes science fiction, the discussion about representation is one that is directly, personally important to me.
But again, I didn’t start out wanting to make a statement about representation. I started out wanting to tell the story, but of course the discussions about representation affected my thoughts about why I wanted to tell this particular story in this particular way.
You written extensively on your blog about your narrator’s obsession with singing, and your invented society’s pre-occupation with tea. Are these your own interests coming through, or did you have to do a lot of research to provide the necessary verisimilitude? Also, you’ve got me eyeing my cup of bad coffee with disdain.
The singing and the tea are both personal interests, but they both did require some amount of research. One of the awesome things about being a writer is that I can research nearly anything—tea? Bubblegum? Ants? Neurology? Chocolate? Textile production? It doesn’t matter. It’s all productive work. Oh, dear, my research calls for me eating a whole bunch of new, delicious kinds of foods! It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Right? So on the one hand, yes, I did a bunch of research into tea. On the other hand, a lot of that research was “buy lots of different sorts of tea and prepare them in different ways and drink lots of delicious tea as a result.” Win! Or “listen to recordings of lots of different sorts of choral music.” More win! I was going to do that anyway but now it’s Getting Important Things Done. Right?
Someone, I don’t remember who, said that being a writer was like having homework assigned for the rest of your life. Except it’s the fun part of homework, like when your seventh grade teacher tells you to write a one page report on the Aztecs and you go to the library and get to reading and then think, “Only one page? But this topic is huge and full of awesome!” And then you don’t actually have to do only one page, or a report really, and you can put in anything else you want. And if you’re lucky, someone will give you money for it. Much, much better than actual homework.
Incidentally. I’ve become something of a mild tea snob in the course of my research, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that the trendy, snobbish disdain for the “wrong” kind of coffee or tea or the “wrong” way to prepare it is as much about being a geek about the process as it is being a geek about the tea or the coffee. There’s a fair amount of disdain, for instance, for the Keurig, and I see folks talking about how much better their Aeropress is, or how superior coffee is when properly made in a french press or whatever. But the thing is, the Keurig is so very easy to use, and so many people just want a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. And is Aeropress coffee enough better than that to outweigh the fiddly stuff you go through to use it and clean it? Maybe it is—if you’re a person who actively enjoys the fiddly stuff. Which is absolutely fine, I find I generally enjoy the fiddly stuff of making tea, myself. But I can’t help but think that in the end, the best cup of tea or coffee is the one that tastes good to you, that you didn’t have to put a lot of unwelcome work into getting.
Without spoiling too much, what is your favorite part of Ancillary Sword? What parts of the novel do you have the most fun writing?
Oh, probably predictably they’re mostly things that involve spoilers! The revelation in chapter 3 of what’s been obvious to Breq from the start was fun to write in a way that writing certain kinds of mayhem is fun—that might be only understandable to other writers. And I also really enjoyed writing that scene in the Gardens near the end, where, you know, that stuff all happens. See? I can’t even mention any of it clearly without spoilers!
My favorite parts tend to move around, but generally they’ll be scenes with a high action or emotional component. Those are always fun to write and read.
And of course, I have to ask what’s next—how is work going on book three, Ancillary Mercy? Anything after that?
Ancillary Mercy is… going. After that, I don’t know! Something fun, though, I hope.
Are you planning to read Ancillary Sword?