Honored Breq, or One Esk, or Justice of Toren, is a unique character in that she has a human body, but artificial intelligence. What led you to this choice, and what were some of the challenges and opportunities it presented?
Breq on her own wasn’t nearly as challenging as Justice of Toren, or even just One Esk. Depicting what that must be like—to have not only a huge ship for a body, but also hundreds, sometimes thousands, of human bodies all seeing and hearing and doing things at once—the thought of that kept me from even starting for a long time. How do you show a reader that experience? I could try to depict the flood of sensation and action, but then the focus would be so diffuse that it would be difficult to see where the main thread was. On the other hand, I could narrow things down to only one segment of One Esk, shortchanging one of the things that really intrigued me about the character, and also making it seem as though it was more separate from the ship than it was.
But a character like Justice of Toren also sees a great deal, and so it can act as an essentially omniscient narrator—it knows its own officers intimately and can see their emotions. It can witness things happening in several places at once. So I could write in straight first person, while also taking advantage of that ability to see so much at one time whenever I needed that. It was a nifty short-circuit around one of the more obvious limits of a first-person narrator.
You have shown us elements of Radch culture in great detail, and reading ANCILLARY JUSTICE, one gets the sense that you know far more about this civilization than appears in the novel. Can you tell us a little about what inspired the Radch?
I’m not sure I could say truthfully that any particular real-world example inspired the Radch. It was built piece by piece as time went by. That said, some of those pieces did come from the real world. I took a number of things from the Romans—though their theology isn’t particularly Roman, the Radchaai attitude toward religion is fairly similar, particularly the way the gods of conquered peoples can be integrated into an already-familiar pantheon. And the careful attention to omens and divination—though the Radchaai logic behind that is quite different.
The Romans have provided a lot of writers with a model for various interstellar empires, of course, and no wonder. The Roman Empire is a really good example of a large empire that, in one form or another, functioned for quite a long time over a very large area. And over that time, there was all sorts of exciting drama—civil wars and assassinations and revolts and bits breaking off and being forced back in, even a pretty big change in the form of government, from Republic to Principate. There’s tons of material there. And they loom large in European history. It wasn’t so long ago that any educated Westerner learned Greek and Latin as a matter of course, and read Virgil and Ovid and Cicero and Caesar and a host of other writers as part of that education.
But I didn’t want my future—however fanciful it was—to be entirely European. The Radchaai aren’t meant to be Romans in Space.
Though ANCILLARY JUSTICE is your first novel, you have published a number of short stories. Do you have very different approaches to writing, according to length? What can you share about your writing process?
When I first started writing seriously, I found that I was naturally producing very long work, and writing shorter was very difficult. Some of that was just being a beginner, but some of it was a product of the way I write. I might start out with the bones of an idea—the next step will be figuring out the setting. Setting, for me, is very much a part of my characters, and to set those characters in motion without also giving those details that make those characters’ actions meaningful makes for thin work, at least when I do it.
People are who they are because of the world they live in, and the world is the way it is because of the people who live in it. If you’re writing something set in the real world fairly close to our present time you can evoke setting and historical context with a few words. But I tend to write secondary-world fantasy, or far-future space opera, and evoking the history and culture of those worlds can be a bit complicated. It takes a bit of elbow room, or else incredibly efficient exposition.
I personally like working with a big frame, I like the feeling that the world extends well past the edges of the story, and odd, neat little details are one of the ways you do that.
But in a short story, there’s very little room to work. Often new writers are advised to make sure every scene in a story is doing at least two things, but I’ve found that when I write short, two is too few. Every scene has to be doing as much work as it possibly can, and each sentence has to have a justification. If I can cut it, and the story remains comprehensible, then it pretty much has to go. Even if it’s doing two or three things.
And then, of course, some ideas are suited to large-scale handling, and some wouldn’t make more than a thousand words of story even if you jammed as much extra stuff in as you could. So I found that if I wanted to write short fiction, I needed to learn either to pull out a fragment of a big idea, or else compress something sweeping into a smaller space.
Your main character is known for her encyclopedic knowledge of song, and for her enthusiasm for singing. Is this an enthusiasm you share, and if so, were there any pieces of music you found particularly inspiring when writing this novel?
I love singing! I especially love singing with other people—choral singing is a blast. I think it’s a shame that so many people I meet have such an ambivalent, fraught relationship with singing. It’s such a personal kind of music, one nearly anyone can make, but there’s often a feeling that only certain people are allowed to do it. I’ve met way more people who claim they can’t sing than actually can’t. And I’ve met lots of people who actively discourage anyone around them from singing. Why is that? I wish people felt freer to sing, and freer to enjoy people around them singing.
It’s one of the things I love about shape note singing—there’s no audition, no question of whether or not your voice is good enough, or whether anyone has talent. You love to sing? Come sing! There’s no audience, we’re just singing for the pure joy of singing. Granted, the music itself might be something of an acquired taste. Still, if the idea intrigues you, visit fasola.org and see if there’s a singing near you.
I didn’t know right away that One Esk would want to sing. But the moment I realized that it would be able to sing choral music all by itself the idea was pretty much inescapable.
As for music that I found inspiring, there would be two different sorts. Music that I listened to while writing or plotting, and music that I included in the story itself. Of the latter, there are three real-life songs in Ancillary Justice. Two of them are (shockingly enough) shape note songs—“Clamanda” (Sacred Harp 42) and “Bunker Hill” (Missouri Harmony 19). They’re songs that, for one reason or another, I connect with these characters and events.
The third is older than these two by a couple of centuries, but it shares their military theme. It’s “L’homme Armé,” and it seems like every late fifteenth-century composer and their pet monkey wrote a mass based on it. I exaggerate—I don’t think we have that many surviving Missas L’homme Armé by pet monkeys. But it was a popular song in its day.
Music I listened to—I find that projects tend to have their own soundtracks. Sometimes particular scenes do. The list of music I used while writing would be long and dull, but at least one scene wouldn’t have existed without a particular piece. The bridge scene was a product of listening to Afro Celt Sound System’s “Lagan” way too many times.
ANCILLARY JUSTICE is the first in a loose trilogy. What can we expect from the next books?
Now Breq has a ship, she’s got one priority—to make sure Lieutenant Awn’s sister is safe, and keep her that way. But she can’t do that without getting involved in local political and social maneuvering at Athoek Station, and can’t avoid the chaotic and dangerous consequences of civil war breaking out across the Radch. And once the people in the territories surrounding Radchaai space realize what’s going on, they’re going to take an interest, and it’s not likely to be a friendly one. And not all the neighbors are human.