Alien encounter

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I read Ancillary Justice, the first book in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series, at some point in the spring of 2014, and so I was not at all surprised to find Brad DeLong referring to her as "an extremely sharp observer […] author of the devastatingly-good Ancillary Justice", in a blog post "Ann Leckie on David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5000 Mistakes": Handling the Sumerian Evidence Smackdown", 11/24/2014, where he quotes at length from her blog post "Debt", 2/24/2013.

And if you haven't read Ann Leckie's trilogy, you should do yourself a favor and start doing so right away. But this is Language Log, not Science Fiction Book Review Log or Unreliable Economic History Log, so why am I bringing up Ann Leckie now?

Her novels have been on my to-blog list for a while, because of their interesting take on what Ancillary Justice's  tvtropes page  calls the Ambiguous Gender trope:

Radchaai citizens are this; their culture does not believe in gender differentiation in language or personal presentation. Also, pretty much every character, since Breq refers to everyone as "she" and complains that gender markers vary from place to place. 

This is obviously related to my recent post "The G.K. Chesterton Prize for Ignoring Women", since pronoun usage in Leckie's trilogy will be even more polarized in the direction of feminine pronoun proportion (100%) than Chesterton's novel The Man Who Was Thursday is in the masculine direction (99.3%).

But the linguistically-relevant aspect of Leckie's writing that has struck me most forcefully has been its relationship to Artificial Intelligence. And I don't mean her use of AIs as the "minds" of ships and stations, which is relatively conventional, or even the interpenetration of identities among AIs and humans that is implicit in the concept of ancillary.

What I have in mind is a problem that goes far beyond mere Machine Reading, which is the automated extraction of structured information from unstructured text. For example, I'll be really impressed by AI text analysis when it's able to understand, or at least speculate intelligently about, what is implied by Leckie's description in Ancillary Mercy of the advent of "Presger Translator Zeiat".

As background, there's been some prior interaction with Presger Translator Dlique, summarized by Leckie thus:

Translator Dlique, the sort-of-human representative of the mysterious— and terrifying— Presger. Who before the treaty with the Radch— with, actually, all humanity, since the Presger didn't make distinctions between one sort of human and another— had torn apart human ships, and humans, for sport. Who were so powerful no human force, not even a Radchaai one, could destroy them, or even defend against them. Presger Translator Dlique, it had turned out, could deceive Station's sensors with alarming ease, and had had no patience for being safely confined to the governor's residence. Her dead body lay in a suspension pod in Medical, waiting for the hopefully distant day when the Presger came looking for her, and we had to explain that a Sword of Atagaris ancillary had shot her, on the suspicion that she'd vandalized a wall in the Undergarden.

And then later, this:

The hatch clicked, and thunked, and swung open. Governor Giarod stiffened, trying, I supposed, to stand straighter than she already was. The person who came stooping through the open hatchway looked entirely human. Though of course that didn't mean she necessarily was. She was quite tall— there must have barely been room for her to stretch out in her tiny ship. To look at her, she might have been an ordinary Radchaai. Dark hair, long, tied simply behind her head. Brown skin, dark eyes, all quite unremarkable. She wore the white of the Translators Office— white coat and gloves, white trousers, white boots. Spotless. Crisp and unwrinkled, though in such a small space there could barely have been room for a change of clothes, let alone to dress so carefully. But not a single pin, or any other kind of jewelry, to break that shining white.

She blinked twice, as though adjusting to the light, and looked at me and at Governor Giarod, and frowned just slightly. Governor Giarod bowed, and said, "Translator. Welcome to Athoek Station. I'm System Governor Giarod, and this"— she gestured toward me—" is Fleet Captain Breq."

The translator's barely perceptible frown cleared, and she bowed. "Governor. Fleet Captain. Honored and pleased to make your acquaintance. I am Presger Translator Dlique."

The governor was very good at looking as though she were quite calm. She drew breath to speak, but said nothing. Thinking, no doubt, of Translator Dlique herself, whose corpse was even now in suspension in Medical. Whose death we were going to have to explain.

That explanation was apparently going to be even more difficult than we had thought. But perhaps I could make at least that part of it a bit easier. When I had first met Translator Dlique, and asked her who she was, she had said, I said just now I was Dlique but I might not be, I might be Zeiat.  "Begging your very great pardon, Translator," I said, before Governor Giarod could make a second attempt at speech, "but I believe that you're actually Presger Translator Zeiat."

The translator frowned, in earnest this time. "No. No, I don't think so. They told me I was Dlique. And they don't make mistakes, you know. When you think they have, it's just you looking at it wrong. That's what they say, anyway." She sighed. "They say all sorts of things. But you say I'm Zeiat, not Dlique. You wouldn't say that unless you had a reason to." She seemed just slightly doubtful of this.

"I'm quite certain of it," I replied.

"Well," she said, her frown intensifying for just a moment, and then clearing. "Well, if you're certain. Are you certain?"

"Quite certain, Translator."

"Let's start again, then." She shrugged her shoulders, as though adjusting the set of her spotless, perfect coat, and then bowed again. "Governor, Fleet Captain. Honored to make your acquaintance. I am Presger Translator Zeiat. And this is very awkward, but now I really do need to ask you what's happened to Translator Dlique."

I looked at Governor Giarod. She had frozen, for a moment not even breathing. Then she squared her broad shoulders and said, smoothly, as though she had not been on the edge of panic just the moment before, "Translator, we're so very sorry. We do owe you an explanation, and a very profound apology."

"She went and got herself killed, didn't she," said Translator Zeiat. "Let me guess, she got bored and went somewhere you'd told her not to go."

"More or less, Translator," I acknowledged.

Translator Zeiat gave an exasperated sigh. "That would be just like her. I am so glad I'm not Dlique. Did you know she dismembered her sister once? She was bored, she said, and wanted to know what would happen. Well, what did she expect? And her sister's never been the same."

"Oh," said Governor Giarod. Likely all she could manage.

"Translator Dlique mentioned it," I said.

Translator Zeiat scoffed. "She would." And then, after a brief pause, "Are you certain it was Dlique? Perhaps there's been some sort of mistake. Perhaps it was someone else who died."

"Your very great pardon, Translator," replied Governor Giarod, "but when she arrived, she introduced herself as Translator Dlique."

"Well, that's just the thing," Translator Zeiat replied. "Dlique is the sort of person who'll say anything that comes into her mind. Particularly if she thinks it will be interesting or amusing. You really can't trust her to tell the truth."

I waited for Governor Giarod to reply, but she seemed paralyzed again. Perhaps from trying to follow Translator Zeiat's statement to its obvious conclusion.

"Translator," I said, "are you suggesting that since Translator Dlique isn't entirely trustworthy, she might have lied to us about being Translator Dlique?"

"Nothing more likely," replied Zeiat. "You can see why I'd much rather be Zeiat than Dlique. I don't much like her sense of humor, and I certainly don't want to encourage her. But I'd much rather be Zeiat than Dlique just now, so I suppose we can just let her have her little bit of fun this time. Is there anything, you know…" She gestured doubt. "Anything left? Of the body, I mean."

"We put the body in a suspension pod as quickly as we could, Translator," said Governor Giarod, trying very hard not to look or sound aghast. "And… we didn't know what… what customs would be appropriate. We held a funeral…"

Translator Zeiat tilted her head and looked very intently at the governor. "That was very obliging of you, Governor." She said it as though she wasn't entirely sure it was obliging.

The governor reached into her coat, pulled out a silver-and-opal pin. Held it out to Translator Zeiat. "We had memorials made, of course."

Translator Zeiat took the pin, examined it. Looked back up at Governor Giarod, at me. "I've never had one of these before! And look, it matches yours." We were both wearing the pins from Translator Dlique's funeral. "You're not related to Dlique, are you?"

"We stood in for the translator's family, at the funeral," Governor Giarod explained. "For propriety's sake."

"Oh, propriety." As though that explained everything. "Of course. Well, it's more than I would have done, I'll tell you. So. That's all cleared up, then."

"Translator," I said, "may one properly inquire as to the purpose of your visit?"

Governor Giarod added, hastily, "We are of course pleased you've chosen to honor us." With a very small glance my way that was as much objection as she could currently make to the directness of my question.

"The purpose of my visit?" asked Zeiat, seeming puzzled for a moment. "Well, now, that's hard to say. They told me I was Dlique, you recall, and the thing about Dlique is— aside from the fact that you can't trust a word she says— she's easily bored and really far too curious. About the most inappropriate things, too. I'm quite sure she came here because she was bored and wanted to see what would happen. But since you tell me I'm Zeiat, I suspect I'm here because that ship is really terribly cramped and I've been inside it far too long. I'd really like to be able to walk around and stretch a bit, and perhaps eat some decent food." A moment of doubt. "You do eat food, don't you?"

It was the sort of question I could imagine Translator Dlique asking. And perhaps she had asked it, when she'd first arrived, because Governor Giarod replied, calmly, "Yes, Translator." On, it seemed, firmer ground for the moment. "Would you like to eat something now?"

"Yes, please, Governor!"




  1. V said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 8:55 am

    "This is obviously related to my recent post "The G.K. Chesterton Prize for Ignoring Women", since pronoun usage in Leckie's trilogy will be even more polarized in the direction of feminine pronoun proportion (100%) than Chesterton's novel The Man Who Was Thursday is in the masculine direction (99.3%)."

    There are one or two instances of masculine pronouns when non-Radchaai are speaking to each other in other languages.

    [(myl) Good point — maybe as much as a dozen masculine pronouns per novel. When I have a couple of space minutes, I'll run my scripts over the texts and get the actual MQ/FQ numbers, which might turn out to be quite like an inverted form of Chesterton's.

    Update — So in order, the three novels weigh in at:

    Ancillary Justice: 89 masculine pronouns, 3173 feminine pronouns, FQ = 97.3%
    Ancillary Sword: 9 masculine pronouns, 2975 feminine pronouns, FQ = 99.7%
    Ancillary Mercy: 1 masculine pronoun, 2490 feminine pronouns, FQ = 99.96%


  2. MattF said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 9:59 am

    Hilarious. When I finished Ancillary Mercy I started reading Ancillary Justice again. You can pick up things you missed the first time through.

  3. V said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

    MattF: I think even Breq uses masculine pronouns a few times — in the first book when she's trying to get out of (a?) dangerous situation(s?) and does not want to be exposed as Radchaai, and in the second book when she's trying to get the trust of the locals by being respectful about the local culture of Athoek. Both times she doesn't always guess the gender cues right, IIRC, both from physical appearance and social roles.

  4. V said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 3:11 pm

    Oh, and in the second book, she also struggled with whether to refer to someone as someone's sibling as brother or sistrer (grandmother or grandfather, etc.) in one of the local languages of Athoek.

    [(myl) The single masculine pronoun in Ancillary Mercy is in a piece of dialogue by Breq, where she is talking with Queter in the detention center:

    Asked, in Delsig, "How are you?"

    She didn't move. "They don't like me to speak anything but Radchaai," she said, in that language. "It won't help with my evaluation, they tell me. I'm fine. As you see." A pause, and then, "How is Uran?"

    "She's well. Have they been giving you her messages?"

    "They must have been in Delsig," Queter said, with only a trace of bitterness.


    "And when they… when they re-educate me? Will you be there?"

    "If you want me to, I'll try. I don't know if I can." She didn't say anything, her expression didn't change. I switched languages, back to Delsig. "Uran really is doing well. You'd be proud of him. Shall I let your grandfather know you're all right?"


  5. AntC said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

    And if you haven't read Ann Leckie's trilogy, you should do yourself a favor and start doing so right away.

    I don't know if quoting such long passages was supposed to show me why I should read this stuff; but sorry Mark it was already too much. There's no linguistic or literary merit I can see. There's no Form of Life [Wittgenstein].

    [(myl) De gustibus etc.]

  6. Rubrick said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 5:21 pm

    You must be very chagrined, Mark, to have recommended a series of books with no linguistic or literary merit! Whatever would Wittgenstein have thought??

    [(myl) "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."]

  7. Chris C. said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 6:15 pm

    As the person who undertook a major rewrite of the Wikipedia article on the mes back in 2006, including adding the list of them, I'm all a-quiver.

  8. Ken said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

    Linguistic and literary merit aside, at least it has conversations. Does it have pictures? I know some critics think "what is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?"

    [(myl) No pictures, other than the cover art, but plenty of conversations — properties these books share with, well, I leave the list as an exercise for the reader…]

  9. AntC said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 10:56 pm

    @Ken, that wasn't "some critics", that was Alice — which books are over-brimming with forms of life.

    Neither am I claiming to be a critic. My comment was clearly a personal reaction "[that] I can see". So Mark's De gustibus is entirely appropriate.

  10. Jonathan O'Connor said,

    October 21, 2015 @ 4:14 am

    The first two books are terrific, but I found the ending to the last book a bit lame. The passages with Presger Zeiat are often hilarious, but in the end she seems to have been a Deus ex Machina. I'll avoid spoilers for those who want to read the books, even if Wittgenstein might not.

  11. Dylan said,

    October 21, 2015 @ 6:01 am

    I liked the ending. @Jonathan, the (overwhelming) power level of the Presger was correctly protrayed throughout the series, so I don't think that fits as a Deus ex Machina (which just comes out of nowhere).

  12. Xtifr said,

    October 21, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

    Funny to hear someone complain about the book's supposed lack of literary merit, when there's a whole crowd of self-proclaimed "old-fashioned* science fiction" fans complaining that it's too literary and doesn't have enough "pew-pew!" :)

    I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I confess that without the linguistic elements, I think it would have been a fairly pedestrian example of Space Opera. Those elements really elevated it, though, and I think it definitely deserved all the awards it won.

    * Most of the complainers seem to have an extremely limited notion of old-fashioned science fiction—one that suggests they're not familiar with very many of what are and were generally considered the best SF works of the mid 20th c. But that's another story.

  13. Bloix said,

    October 21, 2015 @ 5:21 pm

    AntC – those of us who do not read science fiction should have the grace to be silent when in the presence of those who do. There are a great many things that give people pleasure that I don't enjoy, but I don't run those things down when I'm around those people. Often the people are obviously smarter and more accomplished than I am, so I don't even purport to have an opinion on the merits of what they like. As the Pope says, who am I to judge?

  14. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 21, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

    "I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I confess that without the linguistic elements, I think it would have been a fairly pedestrian example of Space Opera."

    But the linguistic elements are really cultural elements that allow Leckie a lot of latitude to metaphorically criticize our own culture.

    On the one hand, I've thought that many people don't quite see the scope of what Leckie has done in these three books, because a fair amount of her implicit critical commentary involves gender and power in our culture and most men are utterly tone-deaf to this stuff. At least half her readers are much less likely to be aware of the subtext.

    On the other hand, I've thought that despite the fact that the books absolutely are traditional space opera and very much in the style of what these reactionaries purport to prefer, the reason that they find the books so objectionable is that through various channels they are well aware of what Leckie is all about. That she's a woman; via social affiliation and who has praised the books; and even though the pronoun and gender identification thing is superficially and arguably one-dimensional and of apparently little significance, the simple fact of it implies a likely subcultural affiliation of Leckie's that puts them on-guard for whatever subtext is intended.

    But as readers in a culture with strong gender roles and pervasive gendered language, the books profoundly both utilize and play havoc with our biases and assumptions in ways that both force the reader to occasionally become aware of those biases and assumptions and that allow Leckie to deconstruct and criticize them.

    One point in this third book where I became aware of the subtext was how everyone was dealing with Lt. Seivarden's emotional fragility. In fact, this is an issue with both Lieutenants Seivarden and Tisarwat.

    Early in the first book the reader is informed that Breq is female and Seivarden is male, and I think that despite the female genders in the language, for the reader those identifications stick and remain important. I'm not actually certain of Tisarwat's gender, but I've assumed she was female. In both the cases of Seivarden and Tisarwat, this identification on my part — along with, I admit, their relative ages — had a very strong influence on how I responded to their different but similarly severe emotional fragility.

    Seivarden is very much a stand-in for contemporary American men, I think, and while the in-universe explanation for Seivarden's entitlement — including his expectation that his attachment to Breq and his inappropriate emotional responses will be catered to — is that he's an aristocrat. Leckie's subtext is saying a lot about how American expect women to relate to their emotional needs and behavior.

    Put more explicitly, were Seivarden to have been female in the reader's mind — had Leckie not made it clear that Seivarden is a man or if Leckie had made it clear that Seivarden is a woman, then the attachment that Seivarden has for Breq, the unrequited love for Breq and Seivarden's emotional dependency on Breq — all those things would have read very differently for much of the audience and instead of inspiring that "woman nurturing a powerful, damaged male" response, it would have inspired something very, very different.

    The books are filled with this sort of thing, if you have the eyes to see it. More obviously, everything about how the Radchaai understand their AIs (and how Leckie subverts the "AI yearning to be human" trope) is implicitly this sort of criticism and even more obviously, Radchaai imperialism.

    Because that's what good science-fiction or fantasy can do that other kinds of fiction cannot (or not so easily and deftly): it can build a world that is both like and unlike our own and make it a lens that facilitates a critical analysis of ourselves and which encourages insight. So it's not at all that this one linguistic element is exceptional and the novels are otherwise unremarkable; it's that this one linguistic element is the pivot around which turns much of what the novels really have to say.

  15. Xtifr said,

    October 21, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    So it's not at all that this one linguistic element is exceptional and the novels are otherwise unremarkable; it's that this one linguistic element is the pivot around which turns much of what the novels really have to say.

    I might quibble with some of the things you wrote, but I agree wholeheartedly with this conclusion. Taken in and of themselves, the linguistic elements, while entertaining, would not have raised the books from good to excellent. It's the way they were used, and the implications, which made it powerful. An outstanding example of "show, don't tell". (Which is a lesson many new authors struggle with, but Leckie seems to have a firm grasp of the principle.)

  16. AntC said,

    October 21, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

    @Bloix, Mark's recommendation was not to those "who do … read science fiction" (although actually I do read SF). It was to the general LL reader ("you"; "this is not Science Fiction Book Review Log").

    So Mark's recommendation was gratuitous; and so was my counter-recommendation; and his De gustibus was appropriate; and I'm not asking for my LL subscription to be returned.

    To get to a linguistics point … Does all that lengthy quoting justify a rather trivial observation about gender pronouns? (Which has already on LL received deeper analysis.) I think no more, pace @Keith M Ellis, than current trendy computer manuals that talk about "the programmer … she" when overwhelmingly programmers are male.

    To get to a literary point … I plain disagree with Keith and @Xtifr that SF or fantasy are somehow defter at building a world that is simultaneously like and unlike our own — compared to (say) Homer or Cervantes or Rabelais or Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy) or even Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf. Indeed the whole Hobbit/LOTR fantasy gig seems entirely void of gender or sexuality or anything like our own world — Tolkien's linguistic inventiveness notwithstanding.

  17. Jonathan O'Connor said,

    October 22, 2015 @ 3:45 am

    @Keith: I think I'll have to read the books again!

  18. GH said,

    October 22, 2015 @ 4:44 am


    It's not the purpose of every LL post to discuss some entirely novel linguistic phenomenon or insight. A lot of them are "just" amusing observations of new instances of a running theme (e.g. newspaper crash-blossoms, Chinglish).

    The excerpts and descriptions, what with the visiting envoy and the focus on translation, made me think of a bit from Asimov's first Foundation story (from 1942) that always fascinated me as a child. The passage is quoted here, but in summary: a small planet threatened by a more powerful neighbor has appealed to the Galactic Empire for protection, which sends a diplomat to negotiate. After long talks and the signing of a treaty, the planetary leaders are reassured, until the diplomat's speeches and assurances are converted into symbolic logic and analyzed rigorously, at which point they turn out to mean… literally nothing!

    I found it interesting to see how the assumptions and focus on what language means have shifted so dramatically between the two books.

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