Dreamships

Dreamships
Melissa Scott

For me, Melissa Scott falls into that awkward hole of the 1990s mid-list. Too recent to be classic, too old to be a hot fandom topic, she joins far too many others from the era that I haven’t read. Fortunately, Ms. Scott’s name bubbled up in one or another genre conversation, probably Coode Street again, and I got her on to my TBR pile before she was swept away by the swift current of new releases and hot takes. Dreamships arrived from the library in late summer, as a thin and unintimidating volume of about 300 pages. “Should be a quick one,” thought I, but was woefully wrong. Scott writes dense, efficient prose and packs a great deal into not so many words.

The story is ostensibly about a spaceship crew that goes to find a rogue AI programmer, but is really about privilege and hierarchy in a dizzyingly complex society. I am always both excited and disheartened reading older SF – happy to see that we’ve been digging into socially progressive ideas for so long, but distressed that we are still fighting the same battles. Dreamships is no exception. It reads like a precursor to contemporary iconoclasts like Kameron Hurley or Stephanie Saulter, bridging the temporal gap between them and more historical voices like Delaney, Tiptree, and Russ. There are also hints of Swann’s Hostile Takeover Trilogy in particular, and cyberpunk in general, though there is a certain voice that identifies everything as “1990s SF.” I wish I could pin down what it is, but I can’t. Still, something about the book is very obviously from that era. Maybe it’s the tech, or maybe it’s the Gibson-esque, corporately dystopic setting. It may go down as one of cyberpunk’s last stands, before the dot-com boom and standard genre development swallowed the movement up into the mainstream.

It’s difficult to summarize exactly what is going on, but there are overlapping, even conflicting, dialogues occurring in the book over who should have what rights. Two ruling groups claim the planet involved, one governmental and the other corporate, each with its privileged and oppressed factions. On top of this, people are arguing over AI rights and development, unable to resolve the lines that an AI needs to cross to be considered “human,” or even if such a thing is possible. What we get are lines of attack and defense similar to contemporary real life, as we try to sort out gender, racial, and class equality. Rights themselves are not finite, but the time and resources we can spend on the fight are; none of us can advocate for every cause. Characters in the book confront this same problem.

Other things surprised me a bit as well. The viewpoint character is female, and is the ideal of the archetype in terms of strength, agency, and role. Indeed, things are split fairly evenly along male and female lines with no sense that this is anything but perfectly normal. Likewise, every relationship spelled out in the book is same-sex, again with the characters treating this as completely acceptable, even obvious. I recognize the value in portraying the struggles these groups have now, but also appreciate storytellers who present our ideals as attainable to the point that they are run of the mill for characters.

I am also forced to appreciate the era in which these are presented. Sometimes it seems like feminist SF, diverse SF, or LBGT-friendly SF is new and shiny, something we should be proud of ourselves for thinking up. Then I read back and find out that, hey, people were saying this exact same thing twenty, forty years ago and more. Perhaps we should back pat less, and fight more, since it seems like not enough progress is being made. (Has there been a stronger backlash recently, or am I just more conscious of it? I feel like the US-based Culture Wars that flared up post-Obama are a driver here, but maybe I am naïve and it was this bad in the early 2000s as well.) The fight is real, and we can’t let up. We owe it to those like Scott, who came before us and did their part.

Er, back to the book review. As I said earlier, Dreamships is dense and demanding. I expected to blow through this much quicker than I did, not knowing the meaty goodness in store. I will be reading more Scott books as I find them and urge others do the same. This one is recommended for those who like a more challenging read, especially one that digs into thorny social issues. Also AI development! Lots of Turing tests here to go with some hacking and anarchic mischief, so maybe something for everyone.

Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy
Ann Leckie

There is really only one question to ask about Ancillary Mercy: “Should I read this book?” The answer, without exception, is yes. This is all the reader needs to know about Leckie’s concluding Raadch novel, but ending the review here is perhaps a bit too easy. Though I will press on and say more, the gentle reader in a hurry can skip to the end, buy/borrow a copy, and wrap up arguably the biggest SF series of recent years. (Realistically, only The Expanse is close in terms of consistent delivery and related buzz. That’s, like, just my opinion, man, so feel free to disagree.)

For those living in a cave since 2013, Ancillary Mercy is volume three of the series that started with Hugo/Nebula/more winner Ancillary Justice and continued with last year’s award nominated Ancillary Sword. (Each of the titles is a play on starship classifications in the book, though one could also draw various symbolic connections to the plot, if one is so inclined.) I fully expect Mercy to at least join the others on end of the year lists, if not walk home with another Hugo. It may also win over doubters, since I know that many people bounced off of the first book. Mercy is the most accessible of the three, though only if one is moving through the series. It is not a stand alone by any definition.

Things pick up directly after the events of Ancillary Sword. Breq, our favorite starship-turned-human, is helping put things back together after everything went sideways in the Athoek system. Anaander Miaanai is still fighting a galactic civil war with herself, and nobody knows what’s going on with the Presger. (The last is an alien race that is both wholly inscrutable and wholly capable of squashing the entirety of the Raadch empire with barely a second thought.) The plot proceeds as it logically must, though somehow I still found myself surprised at things despite the inevitability in hindsight. I was probably not alone with some worries about this, as Leckie’s move from galactic adventure to small-scale political maneuvering caught me off guard in Sword. She again declines to pan back out to an empire-level panorama, but this is probably for the best. Breq was never about sweeping narrative momentum anyway. She would be the first to scoff at any grandiose assumptions, never having planned on anything greater than a small, personal revenge.

Yes, she. I know some readers were irked by Leckie’s insistence in using unconventional pronouns in Ancillary Justice, some to the point of taking over the entire conversation about the book. Mercy continues the pattern, though because this is in Raadch space, Breq is now just following that society’s convention. If any of my readers out there are so grumpy about adding an “s” to the beginning of third-person, singular pronouns that they can’t make it through the book, I will give them a grudging pass. Still though, it’s really not that big of a deal. If we can accept sentient spaceships, all-powerful aliens, faster than light travel, and AI’s that take over hundreds of bodies simultaneously and force them to sing antiphonal choir ditties, but then can’t deal with a society that defaults to feminine pronouns, I venture to say that the problem lies not with the author, but with the reader. Yes, I’m probably preaching to the (antiphonal) choir here at Two Dudes, but the subject annoys.

So, the book and why it is awesome. Oddly enough, Mercy is the most conventional in the series. Ancillary Justice took a lot of chances and, I think, moved the genre ahead. The daring bits weren’t the parts that generated the most focus, however, as the thematic focus of the books seemed to overshadow the technical and narrative experimentation. Conversations surrounding gender, consciousness, and imperialism are all fascinating, but not necessarily cutting edge. Gender especially has been going on for several decades now, but still seems to generate all the controversy. Hidden behind this, Leckie was toying with unconventional narratives, Breq’s parallel identities, ways of portraying multiple viewpoints simultaneously, and notions of who can be a narrator. I appreciate the bold thematic material, but for me the real excitement was under the hood.

The second and third books of the series are much more conventional. Breq is a single entity now, though Sword toyed with her relationship to and use of Ship to monitor multiple scenes. By Mercy, Breq is (unconsciously?) becoming more human and slowly embracing the limitations of a single body. There is almost no jumping around in time, limited location hopping (and reasonable explanations when it does happen), and a fairly mainstream story arc. The same themes apply, but without the technical experimentation the book is much more straightforward. It’s hardly boring or predictable though. I think readers who bounced off the complexity of Justice may want to check back in and see how Mercy works for them, as it provides all the crunchy ideas without the avant garde narrative. (I prefer the full range of craziness, but recognize that my tolerance for such is higher than some.)

I will admit that this series did not go where I expected it to. Leckie had the opportunity after Justice to open things out, letting Breq romp around the Raadch empire, joining forces with other ships, and fighting hordes of Anaander clones while the author pushed further and further out with multiple viewpoint techniques and decomposition of consciousness. Instead, she pulls back, sends Breq to a backwater, and maintains a careful pace of etiquette and manners. Mercy ramps things up a little, but only a little. The action is still confined to the Athoek system, Breq remains a singular personage, and the political theory is kept to a simmer. There is more with aliens this time, a bit more action, and bit more humor. AI gets its turn under the microscope as well, as Leckie (finally?) takes on a more direct interrogation of AI’s place in the Raadch empire. All in all, the arc remains a sort of space opera in miniature.

In the absence of authorial explanation, I wonder if the gradually narrowing focus isn’t all about Breq’s redemption. This didn’t occur to me until several weeks after I finished Mercy, because Breq is not a character obviously in need of redemption. Plenty of other characters are, but Breq comes across as supremely confident, totally under control of both situations and emotions, and utterly unconcerned with final outcomes. Breq is also the narrator, so naturally she is going to favor these sorts of reactions from people, but Breq is clearly superior in many ways to the mere humans around. And yet behind the curtain, the reader can see hints of turmoil. This is most obvious as Breq wrestles with how to handle the AIs and their emergence as equal voices, but I think I see it elsewhere too – notably Breq’s slow transformation into something resembling a human.

At one point in the book, the station’s security chief confronts Breq in the middle of a protest and asks for advice. Breq basically says, “Yes, I’ve been in these situations before, but you really don’t want to respond the way I did.” This is a one-off, and serves a far different narrative purpose, but it has started to feel like Breq’s summation of the entire book. As Justice of Toren, Breq subdued more than her share of rebellious planets and had no qualms doing so. Indeed, she is probably responsible for more war crimes than any of us really want to think about, no matter the motivation and final result of Raadch assimilation. (Whole ‘nother kettle of fish there, but not one that Leckie dodges either.) Now in Mercy, Breq is back in a similar pickle, with a restive system, a civil war on, and any number of ways to save personal skin and/or build a comfortable power base. Breq in the books that I planned on reading would just be out kicking butt and singing songs, but Breq in the actual trilogy may just be saving her own soul. Did Leckie plan this? I have no idea. She may read this paragraph and think I’m a loon. Still, I see a partially redeemed Breq at the end of things and wonder if this wasn’t the point all along.

Time to come up for air. There’s much more to say about Ancillary Mercy, but I may have to leave other questions for another post. If this wasn’t the best book I read in 2015, it will only because the standard has been so high this year. It will be on my Hugo ballot (assuming I can root around for that forty bucks somewhere) and the top of my recommended SF reading list. I’m very excited to reread the whole thing some years hence and relive all the fun.