It is a bit of a problem when friends are in town, and they have an evening flight, so you meet them for a long slow brunch – I say brunch, but what you do is drink a lot – so that before dusk you are nicely buzzed, and then you come home, make progress towards finishing a series, but the power goes out and what you have is a lack of internet connection. So, there. I thought I might just as well talk about the books I read last week, which I had planned to talk about much earlier.
When you go through days when you seem to keep encountering references to the same thing across different content, I wonder if it is because the thing is truly blowing in the winds, or because it has sunk into your subconscious and rings a chime whenever you encounter another mention of it.
In the case of the Imperial Radch books, it just kind of sank into my consciousness. I had heard about it when the first book came out, or so I think. And then earlier in the year, I think I had heard it mentioned in the context of the Hugo Award controversy. Mostly, what filtered in from the first few encounters was:
“blah blah galactic civilization blah blah gender not ‘important’ blah blah author choose to use the pronoun ‘she’ to emphasize the point.”
And I told myself, interesting but not what I wanted to read right now. And then finally it popped up in a language log post (which incidentally was prompted by Brad deLong quoting the Ann Leckie writing about “Debt: the first 5000 years” [That post is also interesting. Somewhere in the second book of the Imperial Radch, I encountered an word, mes, that I thought was mentioned in the first book. Finally remembered that she had mentioned mes in the blog post in the discussion of Sumerian view on prostitution.]).
The language log post wasn’t about the gender thing. It was a block of true weirdness from one of the books of the series. I read a couple of lines and thought, OK, time to read the trilogy, before I get any spoilers from this post.
So, I bought the first book. In about four days I was done with the series. It truely is magnificient.
The pronoun thing is interesting. This is what you need to know: “blah blah Radch empire has no focus on gender, and the language has no gendered pronouns. This cultural blindness to gender so intense that when the main character is outside the empire, she has difficulty distinguishing between males and females in human worlds that do emphasize the difference. To focus on this difference, the author choose to use the pronoun ‘she’.”
[OK, a comment to the language log post I mentioned earlier, that discussed the female to male pronouns in the books. (This was with reference to GK Chesterton’s apparent reluctance to talk about females – with male pronouns being about 90% of the total gendered pronouns.) The first book, which begin outside the Radch Empire and contains ‘translations’ from languages where gender is emphasized, the female pronouns account for 90% of the pronouns. The last book that has little speech not originally in Radchaai, there is 1 male pronoun. [I learnt this fact before starting the last book, but failed to spot the male pronoun.]]
This was an interesting choice. I didn’t realize quite how often I’d assume a character is male [I am very deaf to first names, so don’t always id gender based on names, plus the names were not very ‘Jennifer’ and ‘Bill’ type]. It was, for almost all of the first book (where, as I mentioned, there is a fair sprinkling of ‘him’ and ‘he’), to encounter a ‘she’ and realize the ruts in my mind.
[The edition of the first book that I read had the first chapter from ‘Trading in Danger’, the first of the Vatta’s War books by Elizabeth Moon. I went and bought that book and read it between Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. The main character of that was female, as were a significant number of other characters. So, it also had a lot of female pronouns, but it felt completely different from the Imperial Radch books.]
[PSA: It is not just about gender and language.]
However, the interesting things about gender/language are not just restricted to pronoun. It is explicitly understood that all speech is in one of a multitude of languages used in various worlds. Radchaai, of course, doesn’t have any gender related grammatical complication. However, it is implied that some of the language have pronouns/conjugations that depend on the gender (and perhaps, age, marital status, parenthood, etc). Richness that rarely comes up in English.
There are other weird and interesting clever things – if you want a spoiler, read the bit in the language log post.
It is a political book. I imagine it is exactly the kind of book that would make the puppies who want to return to the good old days of space opera with pirates and empires and intrigues (though this has all of that). Politically it makes an interesting contrast to the ‘Trading in Danger’.
[Did I mention I liked the ‘Trading in Danger’. It has been compared to ‘Vorkosigan Saga’, probably because both feature a person who had to leave a military training academy, and ends up building a mercenary army. I hate ‘Vorkosigan Saga‘, I don’t believe the worlds that were built. I gave up after the Cetaganda book(s). I don’t see how it could be stable.]
I liked Trading in Danger, but while it didn’t have 50 worlds all alike, it had a flatness to the worlds. Both Imperial Radch and Trading in Danger feature plantation planets (tea in the case of Imperial Radch! It so often is tea or spice.). But, while Vatta of Vatta’s War is from the family of the plantation owner, Imperial Radch has important characters from three or more levels of the plantation hierarchy.
Some of the political stuff feels a little naive, and there was this bit where I thought, [OK mega spoiler, so cut it out]. And I couldn’t imagine how Breq remembers everything. [The brain-machine interface is another plot point that is common to this series and Vatta’s war, though I suppose it is standard for all deep future stories. Did I forget to mention the brain-machine interface? Oh, well, you will find out when you read the books.]
[Edit: 2015-11-09 10:48]
Language hat quotes a post on translating Ancillary Justice, an interesting given how gender varies in importance across languages.
[Edit: 2015-11-17 14:08]
1) forgot to talk about first person pronoun
2) Ann Leckie about the books at scalzi.com