The Big Idea: Ann Leckie
Ancilliary Justice, by author Ann Leckie, is getting the sort of press that debut authors dream about, from a starred review in Library Journal to this rave over at io9.com (and also, you will note from the cover picture above, a blurb from me). How did Leckie do it? By taking a sub-genre people love — space opera — and adding a new perspective to elements of it people think they already know, to make it surprising and fascinating all over again. Here she is with the details.
I began my SF reading career with space opera, and while I came to love all sorts of science fiction, the attraction to space opera’s set of shiny things is still a powerful one. So when I was first playing with the universe that would eventually become the Radch, it was–and in many respects still is–an assemblage of space opera tropes. Galactic empire? Check! Artificially intelligent ships? Check! Hyperspace gates! Destroyed planets! Force fields! Oooh, can I crowbar in a Dyson sphere? If it was shiny I threw it in there. I love that stuff!
Ancillaries–the human bodies slaved to Radchaai ships’ artificial intelligences–are really just a variation on an old space opera trope. I’m not cruel enough to link to TV Tropes, but if you had a few months to kill you could go look at “Meat Puppet” and its subtype “Wetware Body.”
So, I did take my toys out of the common box. But I wanted to do something different with them, even if it was only slightly different. Usually, when I’m looking at story ideas, at pieces of setting or at characters, I ask myself, “What’s the reason this interests me enough for me to sit down and spend hours and days and weeks writing about it?”
Sometimes the wetware body is played for horror, or sometimes for a (IMO overly simplistic) demonstration of the Power of Human Emotion. I wanted some of that horror, but I have qualms about the assumptions behind the Human Emotion trope and besides, it quickly became clear to me that what really interested me about my main character’s situation was the question of identity. The main character of Ancillary Justice is a ship, the troop carrier Justice of Toren. She is also one twenty-body unit of ancillary soldiers, Justice of Toren One Esk. She is also a single segment of that unit, One Esk Nineteen. And that body was someone else entirely before it was Nineteen, before it was One Esk, before it was Justice of Toren.
That’s a lot of different mes in one place, and how do you talk about that? How do you describe someone who’s body isn’t contiguous, who has more than one brain, who can be physically separated from themselves and still be themselves? How do you talk about being a person who might potentially (or actually) be several people? Or, the question that made me slightly queasy when I really started digging into it–who is anybody anyway?
Often, in my experience, the wetware body plot assumes that the “essence” of a person, who someone really is, is something that is separable from that person’s body. For instance, Captain Kirk can find himself transferred to the body of Janice Lester and he’s still Captain Kirk! *
I don’t think that’s possible. There are so many cases where a physical change to the brain causes radical differences in who someone is. Phineas Gage is really only the most notorious of those. Who you are, how you react to things, how you behave, is very much a product of not only your history and the environment surrounding you, but also of the physical state of your brain. In the end, who you are (or who you think of yourself as, because “who you are” isn’t actually a simple matter) isn’t really something like a set of files that could be transferred to another body. Unless that new body is pretty much physically identical to your previous one, you’re not going to be the same person.** (Yes, yes, Theseus’ Paradox, and who is anybody anyway, and I told you that made me queasy so let’s just pass it by, shall we?)
And if I don’t think that’s possible, if I think that who you are is very much a question of your body–your brain being very much a part of your body–how do my ancillaries work? And what is that like, to be a human body that’s part of a ship’s body? And what happens when everything but that one human body is destroyed?
These weren’t the only things I came up with, when I asked myself what about this story interested me. But it was one of the first, one of the most basic questions. Who is this person, anyway? And how can they be who they are and what must that be like?
*And she could totally have had as full a life as any woman! OMG, Star Trek, are you freaking kidding me??
**Yes, actually, while I do enjoy Upload stories, sometimes this aspect bugs me. Emotions, for instance. Emotions are very physical, very based in your body. That punched-in-the-gut feeling you get when something horrible or terrifying happens? Your adrenal glands sit right on top of your kidneys, and when you’re stressed they release a flood of hormones that mess with your blood pressure and, among other things, your gut. Yes, there’s an abstract part of the emotion–neuroscientist Antonio Damasio divides this into the physical “emotion” on the one hand, and on the other hand the “feeling,” the more specific reaction that’s more or less your personal interpretation of and response to that physical emotion. But the emotion has a physical base. Change that–design a body that’s radically different from a human body, or posit a being with no body at all–and the whole experience of emotion changes drastically.