WIRED Book Club: How Sci-Fi Author Ann Leckie Taught an AI to Sing With 20 Voices
You might think that every choice a writer makes is highly deliberate, part of a grand master plan that only she is entirely aware of. We certainly felt that way while reading Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie’s award-winning sci-fi novel about a spaceship AI that gets trapped in a single body and seeks revenge on her enemies. There are so many details embedded in the world-building—from a fixation on gloves and tea to the use of “she” for all genders—that Leckie surely had reams of unpublished backstory (or at least a yarn chart) to explain and keep track of it all. But as we found out in our WIRED Book Club conversation with the author, Leckie takes a far less structured approach when it comes to creating new universes. Read on for Leckie’s take on writing, the feminine pronoun as a shiny object, and—perhaps most importantly—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Was this series always a trilogy in your mind?
Absolutely. Though I’m not sure why, to be honest. I’m not an outliner; I’m very much what my friend group calls a pantser. But I felt very strongly that it was a trilogy. I suspect that people write the forms they’re used to reading. And the trilogy, of course, is such a basic form of fantasy and science fiction that I suspect my mind went, “This is a really good story, therefore it must fit into three books.”
What came first, the world or the characters?
People are who they are because of the world they live in. So I very rarely design a whole world and then pop characters into it, or start with characters and then build scaffolding around them. They come up together.
Do you go anywhere for inspiration?
If I get stuck on almost anything, I’ll go to the library—there are a couple of universities very near me—and walk down the anthropology shelves, pulling off stuff that looks cool and shiny. Very often when I write, I just throw a bunch of things into the box and move forward, and suddenly those things become significant as time goes on. Gloves for the Radchaai were kind of like that, for instance.
Yes, please explain the gloves.
Gloves for them are like pants would be for us. You wouldn’t go out of the house without your pants on—it’s just not decent. If you were to ask a Radchaai why they wear gloves, they would say, “Well, it’s decent. Hands are dirty.”
But you don’t spend any time in the book explaining that. Was that intentional?
It was. I feel like that adds a kind of depth to the world-building. If you think about our interaction with our own culture, we don’t know the reasons for a lot of the things we do. Every time we switch on a light, we don’t talk about the invention of electricity and Thomas Edison.
Were there any real-world societies or cultures you drew from?
The most obvious one is Ancient Rome. Rome was a fabulous model for an empire that covered a huge amount of distance with corresponding communities, lasted for at least a thousand years, and had tons of political drama. But I also drew, almost at random, from other cultures anytime I saw something shiny.
Would you consider your choice to use the feminine pronoun for all genders a “shiny object” you simply tossed in?
Basically, yes. I started out wanting to write about a society that cared nothing whatsoever about gender. But when I used typical gender pronouns, I found that I was actually assigning traits stereotypically in ways that were bugging me. So I said, How am I gonna short-circuit that? After a lot of thought, I decided to use only “she.” I honestly thought—and I was told by a number of my friends and thought they were right—that this would make the book unsalable, that nobody would want it. The thing about writers is, you have to keep writing no matter what, even though you get tons of rejection all the time. It really is a world-building detail. They biologically have their gender, they’re human, they have the same range of gender expressions as any group of humans would. But they don’t care. They think about gender the same way we would think about hair color. I knew some people were going to react really negatively. When my editor bought it, I was shocked. I almost cut myself when my agent called. I had to put the knife down.
Does it bother you that so many people fixate on that one aspect of the book?
It’s moderately annoying, because it’s not what the book is about. On the other hand, what it’s meant is that everybody and their pet monkey is talking about my book. And every time people get agitated in public about it, I sell more copies.
One fascinating result is that many of us have very different, sometimes divergent memories of character descriptions.
You know, when I started my first draft, I used “he” and “she,” and then I decided to go back and just use “she.” It was really interesting—my conception of those characters slipped around. They shifted from the way I saw them at first, just because I used a different pronoun for them. I was talking to a friend about Lieutenant Awn’s relationship with Lieutenant Skaaiat and how differently that relationship reads if you assume those are two women, two men, or one man and one woman. All of those permutations lead to very different impressions about that relationship. I’ve seen plenty of readers say, “Oh, I can tell what gender they are.” Really? It’s totally a Rorschach test.
OK, so can you tell us the original genders of Awn and Skaaiat?
Oh, I’m not going to say.
Then perhaps you can talk about their relationship—or about relationships in the Radch in general? They’re so hierarchical.
They are, aren’t they? It’s something I haven’t fully thought through for myself, but even when I removed gender from the equation, all of the relationships still had power imbalances in them. That was really interesting to me, because that’s actually a thing in real life that we don’t often think a lot about—partly because it would make a lot of our relationships kind of complicated.
Did choosing an artificial intelligence for your narrator affect your prose style?
Hmm, possibly. I made a very deliberate choice to write Breq as, on the surface, very emotionless, when in fact Breq is kind of the diametric opposite of emotionless. I think it’s only once or twice in the book where Breq says “I’m angry” or “I’m sad.” Her emotions are 100 percent implied. That was a very conscious choice—and I think part of that is because she’s an AI. But she was such a clearly traumatized character that it made sense that she wouldn’t speak openly or directly about the way she was feeling, or even be aware of it herself.
Can you talk about Breq’s singing and why you wanted to incorporate that?
I majored in music, and I love to sing, choral singing in particular. So when I was trying to think about what this character would do, I said to myself, “If I had 20 bodies, what would I do?” My first thought was, “I would totally sing choral music all by myself.” But I was reluctant, because music is not often handled well in fiction. It’s very hard to do. A lot of writers will try to use song lyrics, particularly for songs that you already know, to produce a soundtrack, to give a mood. We have a very visceral reaction to music, and seeing the words on the page doesn’t do that. The other pitfall, of course—which I see more often in fantasy novels—is that the singing and playing of an instrument is the awesome thing our awesome hero does. It shows how awesome they are, they’re so talented. That’s part of why Breq has a terrible voice. I needed to undercut that for myself. But I also felt like that added some texture. We almost all sing, but a lot of us don’t feel permitted to sing. I wish people didn’t feel so self-conscious about it.
What, exactly, is Anaander Mianaai?
I’ve seen a number of reader theories that she was originally a ship. That’s not what I thought of, but that’s kind of cool. She started out as a single-bodied human—a really, really, really ambitious single-bodied human. The split was going to happen no matter what. She’s been going along all this time going, “Well, you gotta break a couple million eggs to make an omelet.” But this is an awful lot of eggs. And when you do something really horrible, there are two things you can do: You can double down and say, “Not only am I glad I did that, I’d do it again,” or you can say, “I really shouldn’t have done that, and I better not do it again.” The split is a product of that particular dilemma.
Is her name a pun?
It is not! It wasn’t until after the book was published and somebody wrote a long complicated review analyzing everybody’s names that I realized “Mianaai” sounds like “me and I.” I didn’t do that on purpose.
Does her split speak to human nature—the fractures in our own consciousness?
Oh, absolutely. With split-brain patients, you can put headphones and goggles on them and show a particular thing to particular eyes and ears, so you’re only talking to one side of that person’s brain. You get results that make it look like you’re talking to two different people. It’s super creepy. Contemplating things like that, it becomes clear that our idea of ourselves as one, unified being may not be entirely accurate. To a large extent, Anaander Mianaai is that scaled up.
Breq seems socially awkward, almost autistic. Is that how you conceived her?
I was sort of surprised, not unpleasantly, by the number of readers who read Breq as autistic. I did not write her to be autistic. If ancillaries had expressions, they would be too human—that flat facade is a very deliberate choice on the part of the Radchaai when they make ancillaries.
But doesn’t she become more human over the course of the book? A “real boy”—or rather, real girl?
On the one hand, she becomes a very, very different being. After 20 years existing solitary, she has to. On the other hand, I’ll be honest, I really don’t like the “real boy” plot, for a number of reasons. One of them is a sort of political-ish reason that might unleash a rant, so I have to be kind of careful. A lot of times, robot stories are actually stories about oppressed populations. They’re stories about slavery. The idea that the good robot is the one who wants to be like the master is really unpleasant to me. That you become more like us just doesn’t sit right with me. It is true that Breq is not like other ancillaries anymore. She’s certainly grown, she’s certainly had a very long character arc, she’s changed. But I’m not sure that that arc is her becoming human. That’s part of the reason I very deliberately put in that moment when Skiaat says to her, “I don’t think of you as an ancillary.” She gets really angry, because she is an ancillary. To be told otherwise is saying, “What you are isn’t good enough, but if you’re one of us, you’re good enough.”
We have to ask about tea. Why is it everywhere?
Tea is one of those things that I threw in the box at the beginning and became a piece of material I could use to build things with. It was just a lot of fun and satisfying for me to investigate the sort of social meanings things like that can have. It becomes even more significant in the next two books, actually. People who don’t like the tea will begin to lose patience. There’s so much tea!
You’re not the first person to play with food and drink in genre fiction, of course.
I was on a panel a little while ago where people were talking about food, in science fiction in particular. I said—and I still believe this—there’s no food choice you can make that’s not political in some way, that doesn’t have some kind of political or cultural implications. The person next to me said, “Well, what about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” Oh, the implications of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! Are you a kid or an adult eating it? Is it natural peanut butter and whole-wheat bread? Or is it Wonder Bread and Jif? It says so much. It carries so much meaning.