Space Opera and the Question of Empire: From David Weber to Yoon Ha Lee

A new post over at Tor.com!

When I set out to write this piece, I had a grand vision for what I was going to say. Then I realised that in order to achieve that vision, I’d need to write myself a book’s worth of words. So instead of having an incisive and cutting post looking at approaches to imperialism and gender in space opera, you’re getting the shorter version: a sketch towards an argument comparing the space opera novels of Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee, David Drake, and David Weber, and how they treat empire.

Tor.com bonanza day!

I have two, count ’em, two whole posts over at Tor.com today!

First up, an essay I’m pretty proud of, on “The Politics of Justice: Identity and Empire in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy.”

 

From a certain angle, the Ancillary trilogy—and certainly Ancillary Mercy—is about the permeability of categories taken to be separate, and about the mutability, and yes the permeability too, of identities. Mercy of Kalr has no ancillaries anymore, but it (she) begins to use her human crew to speak through as though they were ancillaries—but not against their will. Breq is both AI and Fleet Captain, Radchaai and not, simultaneously a colonised body and a colonising one. Tisarwat—whose identity was literally remade during AncillarySword, both times without her consent—uses what that remaking has done to her to give Athoek Station and a number of ships a choice in what orders they follow: she allows them to be more than tools with feelings. Seivarden—learning how to live with who she is now—is wrestling with her own demons; Lieutenant Ekalu—a soldier promoted from the ranks to officer, a previously-uncrossable barrier crossed—with hers. Athoek Station and Mercy of Kalr and Sphene make laughable the Radchaai linguistic distinction between it-the-AI and she-the-person. (And numerous characters draw attention to the Radchaai linguistic quirk that makes the word Radch the same as the word for civilisation, while quite thoroughly demonstrating that Radchaai and civilised are only the same thing from a certain point of view.)

 

And my Sleeps With Monsters column this week is on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Hollywood’s Problem With Really Low Bars”:

 

[M]uch as I enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens—much as I was thrilled to see background characters who were women, women in the crowd scenes and in the cockpits of the X-Wings, women making up part of the world of people who do things—I have some serious problems with the portrayal of every narratively significant female character who isn’t Rey in The Force Awakens. (Quite aside from how hard it is to find Rey or General Organa in the merchandise for said film, which is a problem for another day.)

 

I can’t recommend the comments, though. (I may owe the moderation team the good beer.)

Ann Leckie’s ANCILLARY MERCY

Reviewed over at Tor.com:

This is generous book, and a hopeful one. It doesn’t handwave away the problems of imperialism and colonisation, but neither does it close down the possibility for the future to be better than the past. The Imperial Radch trilogy, as a whole, strikes me as a work with a central thematic interest in what you do with what’s done to you—among other things. Identity. Volition. Constraint. Right action.

Review copies arrived

Terrible photography AND unimpressed cat, aren't you lucky?

Terrible photography AND unimpressed cat, aren’t you lucky?

Courtesy of Oxford University Press, that’s Ulf Schmidt’s SECRET SCIENCE: A CENTURY OF POISON WARFARE AND HUMAN EXPERIMENTATION. Courtesy of Talos Books, that’s Loren Rhoads’ KILL BY NUMBERS (I want to read this trilogy, I do, I NEED MORE TIME). And courtesy of Orbit Books, we have Ann Leckie’s amazing ANCILLARY MERCY.

Review copies in the last while: Bennett, Brennan, and Leckie

I am a bit slow about doing stuff lately.

No, very slow.

Slower than that.

But at least there are pictures.

Books by Robert Jackson Bennett, Ann Leckie, and Sarah Rees Brennan.

Books by Robert Jackson Bennett, Ann Leckie, and Sarah Rees Brennan.

That’s Robert Jackson Bennett’s CITY OF STAIRS, Ann Leckie’s ANCILLARY SWORD (EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE) and Sarah Rees Brennan’s UNMADE.

Books in brief: Stross, Leckie, Kaveney, Lackey/Mallory, Hambly, Lackey/Edghill, Godfrey, Baldwin, Maddox

I have read over 150 books so far this year. Maybe I should slow down…?


Charles Stross, The Rhesus Chart. Orbit, 2014.

The fifth installment in Stross’s “Laundry Files” series. Rather more episodic than its predecessors, with an approach to pacing that staggers rather a bit in the middle, it never quite transcends the sum of its parts. But it’s a fun story with an interesting twist in the climax that clearly sets up some New Changes in the life of its protagonist, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword. Orbit, 2014. Review copy (electronic) courtesy of Orbit.

It is space opera, and could have been written JUST FOR ME. I love it as much as I loved its predecessor. Read this one for review for Tor.com: expect to hear more about it from me soon.

Roz Kaveney, Resurrections. Plus One Press, 2014. Review copy courtesy of the author.

Third in series, and what a fantastic bloody series it is. Kaveney isn’t afraid to make ambitious messes with mythology, genre furniture, and your own expectations. Structurally it’s not an entirely successful offering, but I love it incredibly much, and hopefully I’ll get to talk about it at length in a review somewhere else.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, The House of the Four Winds. Tor, 2014. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

A competent if not particularly exciting fantasy novel set in a version of our world sometime in the 1700s – with all the names of the countries changed, but still with things called “French doors.” It has pirates and the high seas, and doesn’t fuck up shipboard life entirely, but you can call the plotpoints in advance pretty easily.

Barbara Hambly, Crimson Angel. Severn House, 2014. eARC courtesy of the publisher.

The latest Benjamin January novel, and in my opinion one of the best. (Mind you, my two favourites are Graveyard Dust and Sold Down The River.) Here, death and threats and an old family secret lead Ben and Rose – accompanied by Hannibal Sefton – to Cuba, and thence to Haiti. A fantastic, powerful, atmospheric novel.

Sharon Kay Penman, The Queen’s Man and Cruel As The Grave. Ebooks.

Two mysteries set in 12th-century England from an acclaimed historical novelist. Fun mysteries, diverting but not particularly stunning.

Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill, Legacies, Conspiracies, Sacrifices, and Victories. Ebooks.

Four novels in a Young Adult series called “The Shadow Grail.” Which was fun, until it became reincarnated Arthurian mythos nonsense.

Shea Godfrey, Blackstone. Bold Strokes Books, 2014. Review copy (electronic) courtesy of the publisher.

Lesbian fantasy romance. The prose is competent enough, but there’s not a lot of plot to hold the attention in between fairly unimaginative sex scenes. It is probably fairer to describe this as “romance, subtype erotic” than anything else, and that’s not exactly my style.

Kim Baldwin, Taken By Storm. Bold Strokes Books, 2014. Review copy (electronic) courtesy of the publisher.

Lesbian romance. Bunch of Americans and a handful of other nationalities (who don’t have characterisation) get trapped in a train carriage during serious avalanches in the Swiss Alps. There is some interesting ice climbing stuff. Mostly it is more competent than not, although the lack of attention paid to non-USian characters is deeply annoying. Not particularly special, but good enough if you’re looking for more women having relationships with women while adventures happen.

Jaime Maddox, The Common Thread. Bold Strokes Books, 2014. Review copy (electronic) courtesy of the publisher.

Novel in which the lives of twins separated at birth come to intersect after a murder. The idea for the narrative is ambitious, but the execution is lacking. For all that, it is a perfectly readable book, if ultimately a little too… well, trite.

Some more links of interest

Ann Leckie on there not being any such thing as apolitical fiction:

Most times, when someone complains that they just don’t like stories with politics, or with a message, what they mean is they don’t like stories with messages or politics that disturb or confront their own assumptions about how the world is, or could be, or ought to be. This is worth remembering the next time you’re tempted to assert that Reader A only likes Work Z because it contains a fashionable or approved political message, while you, Reader B, value a good story, thank you, without all that political crap. Guess what? Those good stories you love are crammed full of that political crap–it’s just the politics are different.

Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) on Of Better Worlds and Worlds Gone Wrong:

My point, aside from remarking that both Tolkien and Le Guin are arguing that escape means hope, and hope is one of the great virtues of fantasy, is what Tolkien says at the end of the passage: they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Because I think that’s exactly it. The denigration of “escapism” comes from an implicit belief that it is brave and necessary and heroic to face “reality,” where “reality” is grim and dark and nihilistic (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as that tremendous pessimist Thomas Hobbes puts it), and that if you turn away from that “reality,” you are a deserter and therefore a coward.

There are a number of fallacies here, as Tolkien notes. One is the claim to the exclusive right to define “reality.” Second, if this is an accurate definition of “reality,” it is a fallacy to believe that it is even possible to desert from the front lines by anything short of suicide. Even if your consumption of fiction takes you away from “reality” for an hour or two, you’re always going to have to come back. Clearly, if we accept this definition of “reality,” “escapism” can only be the most tremendous blessing fiction has to offer.

Hugo Award Nominations 2014. Part IV.

I’m attending the 2014 Worldcon, and that means I get to nominate for the Hugo Awards. And, because I’m the kind of shy retiring flower who hesitates to share her opinions, I’m going to tell you all about my nominations!

But I’ll do it in more than one blogpost, because the Hugo Awards have a lot of categories. And one may nominate up to five items in each category.

First post here. Second post here.

Now, let’s talk about the final category: Best Novel.

The sheer size of the field means it’s impossible for any single person to read every novel published in it, much less every novel and a good proportion of the short work, and the related work, and grasp at least some of the art – rather like Jonathan McCalmont and Martin Lewis and Ian Sales, I’m pretty convinced the Hugo Award has too many categories. (But we run with the award we have, not the one we wish we had.)

So when it comes to the novels I read that were published in 2013, let’s not pretend it isn’t a more limited field than the field as a whole. And while I’m going to be picking the best of that, let’s not pretend that technically-best isn’t going to be playing up against favourite-things-best.

So, caveats aside, what novels did I find best of 2013?

Ann Leckie’s ANCILLARY JUSTICE tops the list. A debut novel, it is polished, powerful, doing interesting things with space opera, and kicked me in all the narrative squids.

Elizabeth Bear’s SHATTERED PILLARS comes second. It is an incredibly well-written book, and I really think its predecessor, Range of Ghosts, should have made more award lists last year.

Marie Brennan’s A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS is also on the list. I really like the world, the voice, and the narrative conceit of it, even if the pacing can be up-and-down.

Nicola Griffith’s HILD. I don’t care if it is fantasy, magical realism, or “merely” straight historical fiction. It is ON THIS LIST, because it belongs here.

I am torn over fifth place on the list. Nalo Hopkinson’s SISTER MINE? Roz Kaveney’s REFLECTIONS? Something else I haven’t got to read yet? Feel free to convince me in comments.