Saturday, February 10, 2018

Ann Leckie and the Imperial Radch Trilogy

It was such a pleasure to have Ann Leckie come on the show! Her series is one of my favorites, and I was really looking forward to getting her behind-the-scenes insights.

The first thing I asked her was how to pronounce "Radch." Her answer was great - she pronounces it with an affricate, but believes that since the region is so large and has so many different language groups, any way you pronounce it is probably considered correct somewhere in the Radch. So, effectively, say it as you'd like.

I asked her about her process in designing this universe. She said it was a "long and piecemeal" process, where she'd find interesting ideas and ask herself, "How would that fit?" She believes there's no such thing as a monoculture, so every group she represented had to be three-dimensional. She estimates the design process for the Radch universe took ten years at least.

The character of Breq was one of the first pieces of this universe. She imagined a character with multiple bodies, and a character who was a starship. She spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to represent the required head-hopping in her narrative, and finally decided to do it in the simplest way possible.

I asked her about Breq and her emotions, because the text always depicts her as having emotions, but a lot of readers have responded by calling her a "soulless machine." Ann said that she always intended her to be deeply emotional, but a person who would never knowing show those emotions to others. She had to depict Breq's emotions a bit through other characters' reactions and hope that people would become accustomed to Breq's dry delivery. She worked very hard to get those emotions on the page without having Breq say anything about it. She is a character with rigid self-control and extreme competence. If she were to show her emotional states, it would be much easier to take advantage of her.

People who are not in positions of power can't let their feelings out because it might be dangerous to them. They end up super-controlled, but when they really need to say things they tend to get understated and sideways about it. Kat remarked that in Japanese, things get implied and said in interstices, so Breq's expression felt very real to her, as if she had "emotional continence," i.e. control over when she emits emotion and when she doesn't. In the US we tend to say we want free expression, but only the powerful and the privileged can actually achieve this.

Breq is under the control of others, but also in control of many people. One of Ann's goals was to show that you can be oppressed and also be an oppressor.

I asked Ann how she designs her character voices, and she laughed. She tries to keep the voices distinct, but says, "I see the character, and I try and hear them."

I asked when she decided to use the pronoun "she" for all the characters referred to in the Radchaai language. Ann explained that her first NaNoWriMo novel, which she called "really bad," assigned binary genders, and she was really unhappy with the result. She wanted do depict a situation where people really didn't care, but couldn't figure out how to deal with it. She tried doing a short story that used all masculine pronouns, but wasn't exactly happy with that either. Then she thought, "What about 'she'?" She imagined it would sound funny, but figured that the worst that could happen would be that she wouldn't like it, and she could put it in a folder. However, "The more that I tried it, the more that I liked it."

Ann mentioned how LeGuin had made the choice to use mostly masculine pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness, but had regretted it in some respects and later had experimented with feminine pronouns in a short story.

She said that she expected Ancillary Justice was unsellable, but, she says, "You send stuff out. Rejecting it is not your job." An agent said he "wasn't too sure about the pronoun thing," and Ann worried that she would be losing her chance at representation, but she'd decided before she started the process of agent-hunting that the pronoun question would be a deal-breaker. She sent him a five thousand word explanation for why the pronouns were important, and he said, "OK." Then the editor at first said the first chapter had issues, but later decided it was "fine." The moral, Ann says, is that it's okay to fight for something in your work!

I asked her when she made her decisions about portraying the skin color of the people in the Radch. She said this was an early conscious decision. Far future space opera always seemed exceedingly white, so she thought, "I may as well go completely the other way." She made a similar deliberate decision in depicting Station Administrator Celar. Station Administrator Celar is fat, and "the hottest thing going." Standards of beauty are interesting, because people talk like they are biologically ordained, but it's mostly culture.

I asked Ann how she chose tea as the main drink. She said it was partly because she loves tea, and partly because C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series had used tea. Book two then ended up with "lots and lots of tea," and a tea plantation. She did research to decide what kind of tea it was. She says having a good sensory feel of what you're writing helps it come across on the page. One of the side effects has been that people bring her tea. They always seem uncertain about whether she will like their gift tea, but as Ann says, "I've had the kind of tea I like." She wants to try the kind of tea other people like.

I asked her about whether she felt pressure to raise the stakes when she was writing sequels to Ancillary Justice. Ann explains that you don't have to up the stakes, just change them. After Ancillary Justice, the stakes weren't going to get higher. So she left the larger stakes the same, and found different interesting stakes at the lower level. "I kind of like that more personal level." She mentioned how in Patrick O'Brien naval adventures, there's lots of waiting for battles, and in those periods, lots of personal stuff plays out.

We spoke about the character Kalr 5, and how she got developed. Ann said that Kalr 5 needed business to perform, and reasons to go from one place to another, so Ann sent her after dishes, and suddenly her character became a connoisseur of teacups. The concept grew even further at the moment she actually gets a chance to bring out the real good dishes. Some people really like dishes! Kat said she loved the tea and dishes, in part because of the Japanese view on dishes, where there are seasonal dishes, and dishes are supposed to match or complement food colors.

I also asked Ann about the gloves. Ann said that part of it came in really early - people were wearing gloves - and she had to retcon a reason for it. Why do we all wear pants and not skirts? We used to.

When something has significance in one place, it generally should have significance everywhere.

The idea that hands were yucky or inappropriate and had to be covered by gloves made sense because of the way we will sometimes label things yucky and needing to be covered up, as when some cultures (like the US) demand that shoes be worn all the time because feet are dirty.

What you have to cover is very cultural. Hands are about the dirtiest thing on us!

We then talked about the translation problem, and Ann's depiction of the Radchaai language vs. the other languages in the books. Breq's difficulty with other languages is one of the most fascinating parts of the story for me (yay, language geekery!). The other languages are useful because having them allows you to get perspective on what the Radchaai language is doing with its pronouns. Also, when English speakers try to speak languages with gendered nouns, they will often forget the gender of nouns. Hungarian doesn't have gendered pronouns for people, so Hungarian speakers can forget to gender pronouns when using English. Mandarin also has a personal pronoun which does not vary in sound for male and female. Even though currently there are radicals used in the written form to indicate male, female, or neutral, that wasn't true historically.

Any time you have a grammatical distinction in one language that isn't used in another language, translating between them will be hard. Japanese recognizes birth order - it's marked in the lexicon, where there are different words for older brother and younger brother, older sister and younger sister. Kat told us a story about how she'd been using the words for older siblings as though they were unmarked (i.e. just meant sibling), and had her mother ask her whether all of her friends were younger siblings (they weren't).

Translating becomes an issue when a category must be specified in the second language that doesn't exist in the first language.

Translating these books, Ann says, is very tricky.

Ann, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your insights about these wonderful books. Thanks also to everyone who attended.