Rob Brackett had recently finished the third book of the Imperial Radch trilogy, and raved about it. Given that Susan also spoke highly of the book, I added the book to my library hold queue, which always sets a deadline for "Read before the loan expires!" So, I read this one curled up on my bed at Mom's, giving her alone time as I had my alone time.
This book confused me until I had read enough of the book to understand the world Leckie built. The lack of gendered pronouns is both fantastic (I love the use of "she" instead of our world's default "he" as the gender-neutral pronoun) and confusing (which gender do I imagine this character?). I worked through a large part of the book trying out the opposite gender that I had originally imagined, which was a great treat. Worth trying.
While I was expecting this book to be mostly brain candy, I was delighted (and in hindsight not surprised) by the social commentary in the book. The world has the dominant class (ruling class, aristocracy, privileged class, rich class, oligarchy, victors, call it what you want), which believes that being born into the class makes them by default superior to everyone else.
How familiar. How... human.
The commentary isn't overt, but it is consistent in the book. The book's plot, the plot's action, and the main character's (Breq's) development all pull the reader along quickly, making this an enjoyable read. That it won Hugo and Nebular and Clarke awards just means I'm late to the reading.
Left to her own devices she would find herself another hit or three of kef, and she would find her way into another place like that grimy tavern and get herself well and truly killed. If that was what she wanted I had no right to prevent her. But if she had wanted to die, why hadn’t she done the thing cleanly, registered her intention and gone to the medic as anyone would?
If someone wants to be done, why not let them? Imagine a world where, instead of preventing said death, those arround allows it, and eases that pain.
How is it that this idea is consistent in Utopian and Dystopian futures, and seems impossible in ours?
All wore the jewelry that few Radchaai would ever give up — gifts from friends or lovers, memorials to the dead, marks of family or clientage associations.
“I know what Seven Issa, or at least those like them, do to people they find on the wrong side of a dividing line. Five years ago it was noncitizen. In the future, who knows? Perhaps not-citizen-enough?”
"Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew."
Things happen the way they happen because the world is the way it is. Or, as a Radchaai would say, the universe is the shape of the gods.
The smallest, most seemingly insignificant event is part of an intricate whole and to understand why one particular mote of dust falls in one particular path, and lands in one particular location, is to understand the will of Amaat.
I had once had twenty bodies, twenty pairs of eyes, and hundreds of others that I could access if I needed or desired it. Now I could only see in one direction, could only see the vast expanse behind me if I turned my head and blinded myself to what was in front of me.
How amazing would this be, to be able to see from twenty different viewpoints? Or even just more than one?
Sometimes even the head priest of Ikkt would come — that god, like Amaat, not demanding that its followers refuse to acknowledge other gods.
For I, your god, am a jealous god.
“When you shoot a person, you say why and do it, without excuse. This is how the Radchaai are. But in the upper city, before you came, when they would shoot Orsians, they would always be careful to have an excuse."
“And of course,” interjected Jen Taa, oblivious, “they see what we have, and don’t understand that you have to work for that sort of life, and they’re envious and resentful and blame us for not letting them have it, when if they’d only work…”
This comment was made by a character in the ruling class, by those who were born into the ruling class, and fed the abused, poor, and lower class the bullshit that work hard and you'll succeed, it's not our fault you are poor, when, actually, yes, the system works to keep the poor poor, the abused from finding help, and the ignorant uneducated.
Hate this line of thinking. Which, I think, is part of what Leckie is trying to say.
"And you don’t like my saying that, but here’s the truth: luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience.”
“When you grow up knowing that you deserve to be on top, that the lesser houses exist to serve your house’s glorious destiny, you take such things for granted. You’re born assuming that someone else is paying the cost of your life. It’s just the way things are. What happens during annexation — it’s a difference of degree, not a difference of kind.”
“Awn, my good friend. Don’t trouble yourself over things you can’t help. Things are as they are. You have nothing to reproach yourself with.”
Said one of the lucky-born to another of the lucky-born.
"She’ll come around in time. They all will.”
“And the dead?”
“Are dead. No use fretting over them.”
“You are where you are,” I said, in an even tone, “as a result of decisions you made yourself.” Her spine straightened, her shoulders went back.
“You don’t know anything about me, or what decisions I have or haven’t made.” It was enough to make me angry again. I knew something about making decisions, and not making them.
“Ah, I forget. Everything happens as Amaat wills, nothing is your fault.”
“Ships have feelings.”
“Yes, of course.” Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions."
"And then one day someone tells you maybe you were mistaken. And your life won’t be what you imagined it to be.”
“Happens to people all the time,” said Strigan, rising from her seat. “Except most of us don’t delude ourselves that we ever had great destinies.”
Not this world. Most people do delude ourselves into that belief.
“I don’t believe in any god,” she said, with a slight vehemence. “Still. Things will happen as they happen.”
But the idea of shooting citizens was, in fact, extremely shocking and upsetting. What, after all, was the point of civilization if not the well-being of citizens?
She had mostly stayed in her quarters talking to me — Justice of Toren–me, not One Esk–me, but she had asked One Esk to sing for her. I had obliged with a Valskaayan piece. It had been ninety-four years, two months, two weeks, and six days before, shortly after the annexation of Valskaay. I opened my mouth to say so, but instead heard myself say, “Two hundred three years, four months, one week, and one day ago, my lord.”
Imagine this emotion. You know the truth, you know the answer, and yet, you answer something else. The torture with this, the puzzlement, the conflict, why did I answer that way when I know the answer is this other?
Information is power. Information is security. Plans made with imperfect information are fatally flawed, will fail or succeed on the toss of a coin.
Welcome to Big Data!
If I answered Strigan’s question—if I answered it fully, as she would certainly demand—I would be giving her something she could use against me, a weapon. She would almost certainly hurt herself in the process, but that wasn’t always much of a deterrent, I knew.
I know this feeling.
I was left with blind chance, a step into unguessable dark, waiting to live or die on the results of the toss, not knowing what the chances were of any result.
“You, and anyone else they found undefended. Lieutenant Awn did what she could to prevent bloodshed last night. It wasn’t her fault she failed.”
“It was.” Her back was still to me. “God forgive her for it. God forbid that I may ever be faced with such a choice.”
“People often think they would have made the noblest choice, but when they find themselves actually in such a situation, they discover matters aren’t quite so simple.”
The world is not black and white. In the moment, we aren't the heroes of the story that we thought we would be.
“Everything else would have fit, they could ignore that. They’ll ignore anything that doesn’t get them what they want. And what they want is anything they can grab.”
If you’re going to do something that crazy, save it for when it’ll make a difference, Lieutenant Skaaiat had said, and I had agreed. I still agree. The problem is knowing when what you are about to do will make a difference. I’m not only speaking of the small actions that, cumulatively, over time, or in great numbers, steer the course of events in ways too chaotic or subtle to trace. The single word that directs a person’s fate and ultimately the fates of those she comes in contact with is of course a common subject of entertainments and moralizing stories, but if everyone were to consider all the possible consequences of all one’s possible choices, no one would move a millimeter, or even dare to breathe for fear of the ultimate results.
If you’re going to do something that crazy, save it for when it’ll make a difference. But absent near-omniscience there’s no way to know when that is. You can only make your best approximate calculation. You can only make your throw and try to puzzle out the results afterward.
“It’s easy to say that if you were there you would have refused, that you would rather die than participate in the slaughter, but it all looks very different when it’s real, when the moment comes to choose.”
“Virtue is not a solitary, uncomplicated thing.” Good necessitates evil and the two sides of that disk are not always clearly marked.
“Virtues may be made to serve whatever end profits you. Still, they exist and will influence your actions. Your choices.” Strigan snorted. “You make me nostalgic for the drunken philosophical conversations of my youth. But these are not abstract things we’re talking about here, this is life and death.”
“It bothers you, that the Radchaai don’t have the freedom to destroy their lives, or other citizens’ lives.”
"Any doctor could have helped him, if he’d wanted it. But that would mean admitting he had a problem, wouldn’t it? And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really a fiction?
It makes the history hard to convey. Because still, “I” was me, unitary, one thing, and yet I acted against myself, contrary to my interests and desires, sometimes secretly, deceiving myself as to what I knew and did. And it’s difficult for me even now to know who performed what actions, or knew which information. Because I was Justice of Toren. Even when I wasn’t. Even if I’m not anymore.
“I just think you worry too much about it. Who cares what people like that say?”
“It’s easy not to care when you’re rich, and the social equal of people like that.”
“That sort of thing shouldn’t matter,” Lieutenant Dariet insisted.
“It shouldn’t. But it does.”
Holy f--- it matters. Some seriously stupid people have money, and do some seriously stupid things with it.
Speak and your possession of an opinion was plain, clear to anyone. Refrain from speaking and still this was proof of an opinion.
She was silent for five seconds. “I’ve been sitting here, thinking. I accused you of hating me because I was better than you.”
“That’s not why I hate you.” She ignored that.
“Amaat’s grace, that fall… it was my own stupid fault, I was sure I was dead, and if it had been the other way around I’d never have jumped to save anyone’s life. You never knelt to get anywhere. You are where you are because you’re fucking capable, and willing to risk everything to do right, and I’ll never be half what you are even if I tried my whole life, and I was walking around thinking I was better than you, even half dead and no use to anyone, because my family is old, because I was born better.”
“That,” I said, “is why I hate you.”
“No! I swear I didn’t.”
I didn’t answer.
“You don’t believe me. I don’t blame you. You can check, as soon as your hands are free.”
“Nothing quite clarifies your thoughts like thinking you’re about to die.”
“The effect is often temporary.”
You’re thinking that any fool knows better than to speak up and criticize a government official for any reason. And you’re thinking that if anyone who speaks up to criticize something obviously evil is punished merely for speaking, civilization will be in a bad way.
Unity, I thought, implies the possibility of disunity. Beginnings imply and require endings.
Thoughts are ephemeral, they evaporate in the moment they occur, unless they are given action and material form. Wishes and intentions, the same. Meaningless, unless they impel you to one choice or another, some deed or course of action, however insignificant. Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing.
Waiting for the airlock to cycle, I felt my aloneness like an impenetrable wall pressing around me. Usually one body’s off-kilter emotion was a minor, easily dismissable thing. Now it was only this one body, nothing beyond to temper my distress.
I had been thinking of all the ways things could go wrong, starting now, starting the moment I stepped off the ship and confronted the dock inspectors.
How classically Stoic.
“And surely,” added Seivarden with a slight sneer, her mask finally cracking, “it’s always safe to complain about lower houses and provincials.”
“You’d think,” said Rose-and-Azure beside me, mistaking Seivarden’s intent. “But we are sadly changed, Captain, from your day. It used to be you could depend on the aptitudes to send the right citizen to the right assignment. I can’t fathom some of the decisions they make these days. And atheists given privileges.”
This conversation is one of the core messages of the book, about privilege and power and being born into a life instead of a level playing field, and arrogance associated with said privilege.
“The point is, it was mutiny. Mutiny winked at, but one can’t make a plain statement of fact about the dangers of promoting the ill-bred and vulgar to positions of authority, or policies that encourage the most vile sort of behavior, and even undermine everything civilization has always stood for, without losing business contacts or promotions.”
“I don’t know if that unit leader did the right thing. But I don’t know what the right thing to do would have been. And I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to die for that right thing if I knew what it was. I mean…” She paused. “I mean, I’d like to think I would. There was a time I’d have been sure I would. But I can’t even…”
"The noblest, most well-intentioned people in the world can’t make annexations a good thing. Arguing that ancillaries are efficient and convenient is not, to me, a point in favor of using ancillaries. It doesn’t make it better, it only makes it look a little cleaner.”
“It’s so easy to go along with things, isn’t it?” Skaaiat said. “Especially when, as you say, it profits you.”
The Security officer gestured ambiguity. “I couldn’t say, citizen.”
Gestures are mentioned in several sci-fi books I've read recently. We have gestures, shrugs and hand gestures like halt, forward, so-so and the like. I like the idea, however, of having larger, more-defined gestures that could convey entire conversations.
The omen Stillness had flipped, become Movement. And Justice was about to land before me, clear and unambiguous.
I was done pretending. It was terrifying, because I knew I couldn’t live long past this, but also, oddly, a relief. A weight gone.
The end of struggling brings its own relief.
Anaander Mianaai stopped, turned to look at me. “That wasn’t me. Help me now, I’m fighting that other me even now, I’m quite certain. I wasn’t ready to move openly, but now you’ve forced my hand, help me and I’ll destroy her and remove her utterly from myself.”
“You can’t,” I said. “I know what you are, better than anyone. She’s you and you’re her. You can’t remove her from yourself without destroying yourself. Because she’s you.”
“Pain is a warning,” said Anaander Mianaai.
“What would happen if you removed all discomfort from your life?”
As Seneca commented, “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
“And if I had wings I’d be a sail-pod.” Ifs and would-haves changed nothing.
“Half your anger is for yourself.” She ate the last bite of pastry and brushed her small gloved hands together, showering fragments of sugar icing onto the grass. “But it’s such a monumentally enormous anger even half is quite devastating.”
“Justice of Toren,” said Mercy of Kalr from the console. The name caught me by surprise, started exhausted tears. I blinked them away. “I’m only One Esk,” I said. And swallowed. “Nineteen.”