Review: Ancillary Sword

“I find forgiveness overrated. There are times and places when it’s appropriate. But not when the demand that you forgive is used to keep you in your place.”

Ann Leckie

So a shit thing happened in the UK today. I’m not writing about it here; it’s late and I don’t really have anything to add to the conversation.

But I *am* writing. I’m keeping on writing about sexism and racism and heteronormativity and ableism and privilege and all the shitty things floating around in our cultural discourse because I believe (like Mosca Mye) that you should never stop thinking, and that thinking about these things is a step on the way to making them better, the first step and the most important one.

And that’s all. And that’s enough, for now.


ancillaryswordIn Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Ancillary Justice, Breq, the ex-spaceship turned Fleet Captain, is dispatched by the Lord of the Radch Anaander Mianaai to the out-of-the-way Athoek system, ostensibly in order to protect it from the ripples spreading across the Radch empire after Mianaai’s disastrous personality split. Local politics soon sees Breq and her small retinue visiting Athoek planet, where much of the Radch’s tea is grown; there, Breq comes face to face with the terrible shadow of imperialism, as she witnesses first-hand the treatment of indentured tea-pickers shipped in from annexed planets.

So the book, like Ancillary Justice before it, is invested in exposing the flipside of imperialism; the human cost of huge SFnal armies floating across summer blockbuster screens. It’s a work of subversion, in other words, reimagining a familiar genre to delve into the assumptions (of maleness, of whiteness, of rightness, of singleness) at the heart of it.

Unfortunately, in doing so it runs right into the genre’s structural problem: which is, of course, using an institutional, strategic view to think about individual human issues.

What do I mean by that? Breq is a very, very senior member of military personnel, who was, moreover, literally built to enforce and represent Radch superiority. Her worldview is one which contains tactics, politics, high-level analysis. It can’t really encompass the plight of the unprivileged individual, the debt slave whose brother is being blackmailed into performing sexual favours for the daughter of the plantation owner. The result is that the slaves all the way at the bottom of the ladder, those who are so insignificant as to be visible from Breq’s military viewpoint only en masse, are flattened into a faceless body which is being wronged, utterly passive, there only to shed light on their owners’ characters.

And so, when we have a super-powered individual like Breq swooping down onto a planet to make things better for the slaves, and swooping away again when she’s done, we get a distorting effect which effectively erases two important dimensions to slavery (and, remember, Leckie’s project is precisely to probe slavery, to reveal how military SFF distorts our worldview): firstly, the experience of those suffering it – so we get a White Saviour narrative – and secondly, the fact that slavery is always institutional, and not solely caused by a few unpleasant individuals. Because Breq has significant political power, she can work as an individual to change the system. But because she’s a representative of that system, she makes it look as though the system itself isn’t the problem.

So Ancillary Sword fails; but it’s an ambitious failure, a failure that is at least reaching in the right direction. It keeps, quietly, insisting that gender doesn’t have to matter to readers of traditional genre narratives. It does, at least, recognise that guilt and responsibility are not clear-cut in situations of oppression: Breq has had a hand in enabling oppression throughout her career as a military vessel, and the slave who commits an act of violence against her employer is guilty as well as being a victim. Ancillary Sword makes an attempt where most novels are pleased just to rest on their laurels. And, some days, that’s all you can ask.

The Once and Future King

“It seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.”

T.H. White

Arthurian legend is so interesting. The tradition is probably unique in English literature: a collection of linked stories, the basics of which almost always survive in retellings, a single story arc which retains its peculiar flavour even as it’s rewritten, made to bear different meanings, altered and exaggerated and re-emphasised. Unlike classical mythology, which has embedded itself so ubiquitously in European culture that it’s more or less impossible to watch it being transmitted, the Arthurian cycle can be traced chronologically through a line of major writers: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Layamon, Anonymous (of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, obvs), Malory, Tennyson. The line of descent is absurdly easy to follow, which in turn makes it absurdly easy to watch what each writer does with his forbears’ work; what they choose to emphasise or leave out or change, and why.

T.H. White is, of course, the latest of these major Arthurian writers (unless the BBC’s Merlin TV series turns out to be remembered for generations, which seems unlikely), and he’s no exception to the above. In fact, The Once and Future King, a composite of four revised earlier works, is actually very explicit in its riposte to Malory’s Arthurian romance, riffing off the Middle English writer’s old-fashioned notions of chivalry and his distance from the characters he praises so fulsomely. Certainly the earlier books of The Once and Future King – “The Sword in the Stone” and to some extent “The Queen of Air and Darkness” – read almost as parody of Malory: “The Sword in the Stone” is a story of Arthur’s early life and education under the watchful eye of his famous tutor Merlyn, as he meets Robin Hood, fights fairy queens, and gets turned into a wondrous range of different animals (including a kind of communist ant). In some places this is very funny: the story of King Pellinore and his Questing Beast is simultaneously hilarious and utterly adorable.

But the book takes a darker turn as it heads into more recognisable Arthurian territory: the Grail Quest, the Lancelot/Guenever affair, the Mordred plot. And it’s here that White’s reasons for re-writing this nation-plot (because there are always reasons, usually nationalistic ones) come to the fore. White is writing, as so many did, about the World Wars. In his Arthurian story he locates the shift from chivalry – in which war is a game, like cricket or football – to total war, which is deadly serious. And his question is: which was worse? His King Arthur saves the peasantry, the little folk, from pointless death in ritual battles fought for sport by great lords; but he also ushers in the age of factions, of plotting behind the throne, of dishonour and unhappiness; an age of New Orders and red badges and anti-Semitism. (Subtlety, it has to be said, is not chief among White’s virtues.) Is mankind doomed to senseless war? Or can we keep in mind, like a candle in the wind (White’s phrase, not mine), the possibility of something else: peace and justice and the rule of law?

Though watching White’s intertextual games is great fun (The Once and Future King is best read after an encounter with Malory), and his endowment of Malory’s archetypes with actual psychological reality is interesting, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it that much. It wasn’t terrible. It didn’t annoy me. I was never tempted to throw it at the wall. But equally it never swept me up into its story. It was interesting rather than involving, a thing to be analysed rather than enjoyed. Though I can see myself dipping into it occasionally, I don’t think I’ll read it right through again: it’s a little too long, and a little too joyless, for that.

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven; or, An Open Letter to Steven Moffat

“They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn; at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

Laurence Binyon

Dear Mr. Moffat,

As a Whovian, blogger and general Person Who is Interested in Things, I have a number of suggestions for you, based on a viewing of Peter Capaldi’s first series as the Doctor, and especially of the final episode, Death in Heaven. And, because I am a thoughtful person, I have provided them for you in the shape of a handy cut-out-and-keep (or, alternatively, print-off-and-keep) List. Isn’t that nice of me?

  1. First off, a fairly easy one. Stop giving our favourite monsters stupid upgrades. Not only does it make you look stupid (and, to be honest, I think we could all live with that), it makes the show look stupid too.
  2. On a similar theme, can you please stop messing with beloved characters. It is not acceptable to kill off Lethbridge-Stewarts without drawing at least some attention to the fact. Nor should you attempt to bring them back from the dead.
  3. Please don’t try to write any more romantic relationships; you’re terrible at it. Just telling us that people are in love does not make it so. Can I also remind you that even Rory shot Amy when he got turned into a robot. And Rory and Amy were, like, a thousand times more believable than Clara and Danny.
  4. Doctor Who is a science fiction show, not a fantasy. Any and all scripts featuring voices from beyond the veil, Mary Poppins impersonations, reincarnation and the like should be summarily burned.
  5. It’s in shockingly poor taste to air an episode in which the dead are resurrected as evil Cybermen on the eve of Remembrance Sunday. Not cool, Mr. Moffat. Not cool at all.
  6. Read some science. Any science, really. GCSE physics will do.

I would, however, like to congratulate you on the wonderful shot of the dome of St Paul’s opening out to release hordes of Cybermen into the sky, which was my favourite part of the episode.

Pity about the Nethersphere, though. Can you use that again sometime?

If you do, I may even watch the next series.

Yours Whovianly,

The English Student

On Faustus, the Smith Administration and the Queen

“God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save the Queen!”

So the other day the University Gang went to see a garden production of Doctor Faustus. This post was originally going to be a review of that, but actually, it being a student production, it would have had absolutely no relevance to anyone outside of the University Gang. So this is going to be a Miscellaneous post instead, containing a few general thoughts on Faustus as well as a couple of other things.

Doctor Faustus is a 16th-century play by a certain Christopher Marlowe about a man who sells his soul to the devil in order to gain twenty-four years of “power” (which, in fact, manifests itself, rather underwhelmingly, as a megalomaniac demon and a handful of magic tricks).

My main gripe with Doctor Faustus is that the good doctor is clearly an idiot. There is literally no other way of explaining exactly why he decides that it is a good idea to sell his soul to the devil. The usual argument is “He was seduced by power”. Well, I wasn’t convinced. He did not look like he was having enough fun to want to damn his soul for eternity.This, in my view, is a major flaw. Despite the amazingness of the language and the rather impressive acting (Mephistopheles the Megalomaniac Demon, especially, was genuinely scary), Faustus never seemed like a real person because there was no real reason for him to do what he did.

Talking of good doctors, the BBC released a statement last night to the effect that Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor, is leaving Doctor Who at the end of the year. Although this is something of a surprise, given all the recent soothing words from the BBC about the secure future of series 8 and the Eleventh Doctor, I can’t actually bring myself to care that much, beyond a vague hope that the departure of the Smith Administration will somehow make Doctor Who better again. Although Stephen Moffat shows no signs of leaving, so I do not hold out much hope of that. My only worry is about the whole 13-regenerations thing: although it was apparently refuted in an episode of The Sarah-Jane Adventures, it’s still, apparently, a canonical fact that the Doctor may only have 13 regenerations, so there are only two Doctors left. I realise this is a fairly insignificant thing to worry about. But I do.

On a more cheerful note, happy Coronation Day to everyone! Today is the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in Westminster Abbey, which is quite amazing when you think about it. Long may she reign, indeed. (This is the reason why the British National Anthem has taken the place of my Quote for the Day. In case you hadn’t realised.)

Merlin: Lancelot and Guinevere

“I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.”

William Blake

Yes, I do know that Merlin finished at Christmas, but as I was browsing through BBC iPlayer (as you do) I found an episode that I had not in fact seen before, since there was a whole series that I abandoned in despair at the awful CGI, enemies who conveniently attack one at a time, and general stupidity of main characters.

Anyway, the net result is a lot of backstory that I don’t know, and this episode seems to fill some of it in – the History (with a capital H) between Lancelot and Guinevere, which, as everyone knows, is integral to the old Arthur legends.

Lancelot and Guinevere sees Gwen captured by Mercian soldiers, standing in full view, I might add, in what is not so much an ambush as a case of gross negligence on the part of the knights of Camelot. Arthur rides off in heroic fashion to go and get her back, but Lancelot has already appeared at the Mercian court to help her. Tensions arise: who will Gwen choose?

From there the episode degenerates into a weird mix of Star Wars, The Princess Bride and slightly iffy scriptwriting.There’s a scene in which someone gets devoured by a monster in a manner similar to what happens in Jabba’s court in The Empire Strikes Back, except that the monster is suspiciously similar to those animatronic Rodents of Unusual Size from The Princess Bride. These monsters are supposedly blind, but Arthur still feels the need to extinguish his torch in order to hide from them. How on earth he survived until series 5 with brains like that I don’t know. God save England if he ever does come back.

But this episode did remind me of all the reasons I enjoyed watching Merlin: it’s funny, it’s sentimental, and very good for venting sarcasm.

On an unrelated, but patriotic note: today is the 87th birthday of Queen Elizabeth of England, so my Quote for the Day comes from William Blake’s “Jerusalem”. In case you were wondering.