Little Orphan Ancillary

Spoilers below!

This is a post where commenters can discuss Ann Leckie’s “Imperial Radch” trilogy without having to skate around the revelatory details.

Ann Leckie receiving the Hugo Award in 2014. Photo by Henry Harel.

Ann Leckie receiving the Hugo Award in 2014. Photo by Henry Harel.

89 thoughts on “Little Orphan Ancillary

  1. [ticky]

    First fifth!

    I just started Mercy so I can’t say anything just yet, but I’d like to hear what other people have to say. I don’t mind spoilers.

  2. I love how Breq solves the problem of the Radch by founding the Culture. Kinda.

    The passage toward the end about dying made me almost tear up a little.

    Translator Zeiat and the Sphene Ancillary were each hilarious.

  3. Overall, I loved the book. But I don’t understand the purpose of the Sphene and extra cores storyline. Sphene got a lot of screen time, but contributed very little to world building, plot or character development- it really seemed like she was being introduced for a future book.

  4. I did love it when Breq suggested freeing the AIs. In one way, it was the obvious thing to do, I must have read a hundred stories where that happens. But Leckie had gotten me so deep in the setup of this world that it was a total surprise when Breq did that.

  5. It’s interesting what it says about Radchaai as a constructed language and Radchaai society’s enculturation that the idea of freeing the AIs is so novel. We debate AI personhood right here in River City, and we don’t even have ’em.

  6. But I don’t understand the purpose of the Sphene and extra cores storyline.

    Sphene is the ship on the other side of the Ghost Gate, the one that was doing business with Sword of Atagaris. Breq knew there was a ship there, in Sword, but it’s never mentioned which ship. She gets that ship to not attack.
    The extra AI cores are a threat: Anaander was planning to replace Station and the ships with those cores.

  7. And now those cores are just sitting around.

    Can Breq use one to turn back into a ship?
    Can they be reverse engineered so that the AI species can reproduce?
    Did Breq sing all 1000 verses of the song?

    These questions are killing me.

  8. One of the small pleasures of this series is the quirks of smaller characters. Lieutenant Tisarwat as an example of a baby lieutenant (both before and after her, um, augmentation), Kalr Five and her concern with her captain’s dishes and tea set, and her palpable pride in the porcelain. In this book I enjoyed the comic relief provided by Translator Zeiat and Sphene, especially the running gags of fish sauce and hating Breq’s singing respectively. I love fish sauce but the idea of eating that much gives me the heebie jeebies. And this book beats “99 bottles of beer” by a factor of 10!

    Even in the humor there is food for thought though. Things could have turned out very differently if the translator had been Dlique rather than Zeiat. It’s fortunate that Breq was able to convince the translator who she was. Which is yet another nod to the question of identity central to the series.

  9. bookworm1398 on October 9, 2015 at 8:00 pm said:
    Overall, I loved the book. But I don’t understand the purpose of the Sphene and extra cores storyline. Sphene got a lot of screen time, but contributed very little to world building, plot or character development- it really seemed like she was being introduced for a future book.

    I suspect the next Radchaai book won’t involve Breq but will involve the Ghost System and Sphene.

  10. The AI cores are an actual existential threat for entities which are otherwise almost immortal. Even Sword of Atagaris, which would be loyal to the Tstur Anaander, is not too keen on the idea that she might be killed if deemed unloyal.
    Sphene is a ship that is already independent – she precedes Anaander.
    I don’t think Breq can ever become a ship again. She can become a distributed consciousness like Anaander Mianaai (if they had the technology for growing connected clones, but they don’t) but I can think of reasons she might not want to.

  11. One thousand clicky standing on the wall. Click! Click! Nine hundred and ninety nine clicky standing on the wall…

  12. @Anna

    I actually dropped my tablet because I was too busy laughing at the “We’re not cousins anymore” line.

    Gods this was good. Also, I would pay real money for an episodic series of short stories regarding the misadventures of Translator Zeiat.

  13. bookworm1398 on October 9, 2015 at 8:00 pm said:
    Overall, I loved the book. But I don’t understand the purpose of the Sphene and extra cores storyline. Sphene got a lot of screen time, but contributed very little to world building, plot or character development- it really seemed like she was being introduced for a future book.

    I noticed that, too. Aanaander is also left hanging (what happens to this iteration, is there a third or more sides in the civil war, Sphene still wants revenge). There’s also Breq introducing Sphene to Queter at the end as a potential captain. I can see a very interesting possible storyline with just those elements. (Hope, hope, hope…Please, Anne?) ;-p

    I don’t agree that Sphene adds little to the story, its comedic schtick with the Translator added a lot to the slapstick atmosphere, imo, especially at the end. OTOH, some other character could probably served the same purpose, so it’s plausible that Leckie is singling out a potential new central character. At least I can hope.

  14. And nine-hundred Ninety-seven clickety clicks on the wall…

    ETcorrect my number on the wall.

  15. @snowcrash
    “Gods this was good. Also, I would pay real money for an episodic series of short stories regarding the misadventures of Translator Zeiat”

    A possible fanfic goldmine?

  16. I thought the point of Sphene was how it got that way: Sphene’s captain sacrificing herself to prevent Aanander’s forces from replacing its AI core. That illustrates that the question of AI Significance isn’t some recent innovation – it goes at least three thousand years back.

    In fact, it made me wonder precisely what the Notai were fighting about. It is certainly interesting that a Notai captain interpreted a promise to spare them as including Sphene’s AI and Aanander’s forces did not.

  17. The other aspect that occurs to me about the relationship between Ships and Captains is that the Ships are very long-lived. The Captains, probably not so much.

    Also I do wonder how Sphene is communicating with her ancillary. It is some method that is apparently untraceable, even when her ancillary is aboard Breq’s ship. It also doesn’t appear to suffer from lightspeed lag.

    But I did love the range of “human–nothuman” reactions we get from the non-ancillaries, through Breq, Sphene, and Zeiat. I kept interpreting Zeiat’s actions as kidding or done deliberately to be weird, because I just couldn’t mentally model an entity that would do those things seriously.

    And I found Breq’s reaction to the fish rather interesting (along with it still being alive, which argues that Zeiat is not internally human either, whatever her original genetic material may have been.)

  18. bookworm1398:

    But I don’t understand the purpose of the Sphene and extra cores storyline. Sphene got a lot of screen time, but contributed very little to world building, plot or character development- it really seemed like she was being introduced for a future book.

    Sphene – both the ship and ancillary – ended up playing a less important role than I expected. But its presence as an independent ship – with no allegiance to the Radch or Anaander Mianaai – and its ancillary’s interactions with Translator Zeiat is a big part of the founding of The Republic of Two Systems, and of getting AIs accepted as a Significant Species.

    Cat:

    Also I do wonder how Sphene is communicating with her ancillary. It is some method that is apparently untraceable, even when her ancillary is aboard Breq’s ship. It also doesn’t appear to suffer from lightspeed lag.

    I assumed that the ancillary was (mostly) on its own while it was in Athoek system. But theres a lot of things about radio communication, gatespace, lightspeed lag and so on that’s pretty vague and that I just decided was best left to suspension of disbelief.

    ***

    Also, I haven’t noticed that the covers line up so nicely. Even though I had Justice and Sword simultaneously on loan from the library earlier. That’s a nice touch. (But what’s with those things that look like jet fighters? There’s nothing like that in the book. Gosh, it’s almost like you can’t judge a book by the covers any more.)

    And I think I have to enter “Republic of Thousand Eggs” in the Location box the next time I create an online account somewhere.

  19. Also, I haven’t noticed that the covers line up so nicely. Even though I had Justice and Sword simultaneously on loan from the library earlier. That’s a nice touch. (But what’s with those things that look like jet fighters? There’s nothing like that in the book. Gosh, it’s almost like you can’t judge a book by the covers any more.)

    I think they are Mercys against the hull of a Justice.

  20. One of the nice things about reviewing a series, especially when the spacing is just right, is that I get to frame and re-frame my understanding of what’s going on in them.

    I don’t know how much of the entire trio Leckie had figured out, or in what degree of detail, when she finished Justice, but what she has built especially starting with Sword seems to be organized less around revenge (which was my first-approximation Post-It identifier for Justice) than other matters. In retrospect, I would say that even in Justice, “revenge” provides a narrative framework within which to move through a series of sociocultural settings that raise questions about identity, authenticity, and agency (to take the abstraction level up to nosebleed heights).

    Certainly one of the crucial issues of Mercy–the possible personhood and autonomy of AIs–is raised at the end of Justice, when Breq wonders why a ship can’t be its own captain. Mercy surrounds Breq with entities with multiple varieties of personhood–another ophaned ship-mind, an alien-built ambassador, AIs pushing against the constraints of their programming, a couple of subordinates suffering from different degrees of alienation and damage, nominally independent humans bound to their jobs and their superiors by loyalty and duty and even affection. I called Sword an “intrigue of manners” because it seems to me that Jane Austen casts a long shadow across these books–as she does across those of, say, Patrick O’Brian and Walter Jon Williams.

    And note that by the end of Justice, even the notion of “revenge” has to be revised in the light of the question of exactly what entity deserves to be on the receiving end. Breq’s drive for revenge morphs into one for an accounting, an assessment, which leads to a possible critique of the entire project of Radch hegemony. (Also signaled by the critique embodied by the Presger and their notions about significance.) From one perspective, the whole series is about perspectives–everything from the literary-viewpoint and linguistic-gender-identifier features to the pattern of pushing Breq (a unique outsider) into contexts that she has to puzzle out–a pattern that strongly echoes that of Cherryh’s Foreigner series (and lots of SF forever).

  21. I thought the line from Mercy of Kalr that

    I’ve concluded that I don’t want to be a captain. But I find I like the thought that I could be.

    is one of the most powerful in the book. It speaks to the foundations of identity and freedom.

  22. revenge (which was my first-approximation Post-It identifier for Justice)

    It feels to me like justice and mercy are big ideas in this set of books.

  23. @Ravi
    “I thought the point of Sphene was how it got that way: Sphene’s captain sacrificing herself to prevent Aanander’s forces from replacing its AI core. That illustrates that the question of AI Significance isn’t some recent innovation – it goes at least three thousand years back.

    In fact, it made me wonder precisely what the Notai were fighting about. It is certainly interesting that a Notai captain interpreted a promise to spare them as including Sphene’s AI and Aanander’s forces did not.”

    That’s an interesting point that I didn’t catch/consider, the possibility that part of the Notai vs Miannaai conflict was over AI status. I haven’t reread Justice recently, but when did the AIs get reprogrammed to have less emotional attachment to their captains? Was that just after the Notai defeat or much later?

    I read that Leckie wrote Justice as a stand alone because she didn’t know if there would even be further books, so I wonder if she would have included a subtle ‘historical’ point like that in Justice or if I’m making connections that aren’t there.

  24. @Cat

    re: Translator Zeiat

    I had a similar reaction, thinking her actions were some psychological game encouraged by the Presger for some yet-to-be-revealed plot point AND/OR that there was a statement being made about humans growing up in non-human cultures being warped in odd ways by the experience for some plot point. The realization that she really was an alien in a human-shaped sack was a shivery, delightful discovery. Having her look human made her actions more alien.

  25. I think maybe the translators are not so much actual aliens as simulations or approximations of humans, built by aliens–I recall that they are assembled from human parts or materials, presumably supplied those unfortunates who have been disassembled by the Presger. (I’m too lazy to go find my marked-up copy of Mercy, but that process is alluded to in one of the conversations with Zeiat.) One gets the impression that the Presger got around to thinking, “So what are these critters about, anyway? Let’s reassemble some and find out.” That the results have produced both Dlique and Zeiat suggest that the Presger grasp of human nature is perhaps a bit distant. (And Zeitat’s robust digestive system suggests that their physiology is an approximation rather than a precise rendering.)

  26. Zeiat feels even more alien than Dlique. I can’t help wondering if Zeiat is actually a Presger in a human-shaped body. (That line about the guns not harming Presger is worth a second thought.)

  27. I think the Translators are some sort of Presger-human hybrid, maybe built out of human parts but Presger enough to be counted as Presger by the Presger gun.

  28. Sylvia Sotomayor:

    I think the Translators are some sort of Presger-human hybrid, maybe built out of human parts but Presger enough to be counted as Presger by the Presger gun.

    Yes, that seemed a pretty important clue about the translator. And a bit easier to parse than the discovery that the translator was able to barf up the oyster in its shell, the live fish, and the game counters.

    I was also intrigued that Breq immediately called for somebody to save the fish.

  29. Yes. I am also intrgued that Breq called for someone to save the fish. Of course, Breq does not like to see living things (especially people) die needlessly, and the Translator did ask, after touring a fish sauce manufactory, “Why do the fish do this?” implying that the fish have some volition and choice.

  30. And the more I think about it — about the Presger not understanding divisions in humans, and not understanding other distinctions — I think the Presger are some sort of hive mind. Like the AIs, they may have individuated sections, but they are all one being. Maybe.

  31. “And the more I think about it — about the Presger not understanding divisions in humans, and not understanding other distinctions — I think the Presger are some sort of hive mind. Like the AIs, they may have individuated sections, but they are all one being. Maybe.”

    I read that Leckie intends to keep the Presger mysteriously off-stage. I think that gives all of us carte blanche to imagine them any way we want (as though there was any stopping us 😉

    I was thinking of the Translators as more like bio-robots/AIs made by the Presger as the interface with other aliens. I wonder if they have similar critters for the Rrrrrr or the Geck? Another question, and possible future story element, is if the Translators are considered Significant?

    ETA: Yeah, hive mind sounds like a good possible.

  32. @Mike Glyer
    “I was also intrigued that Breq immediately called for somebody to save the fish.”

    I wonder if her concern for that little fish (although she didn’t prevent the original ingestion) in some way represents Breq’s character journey from overseeing the mass murder of many thousands of humans to refusal to allow the least lifeform to die. Or I’m overthinking it?

  33. @junego:

    Having just taken a look, the references in Ancillary Justice to the times when ships were more emotional are suggestive. It is clear that ships still had strong emotions at the time of the Notai war – Breq is clear that ships went mad and/or destroyed themselves then. In at least one place, context implies that the “ship reprogramming” was immediately after the war, but this is not explicitly stated. The most interesting nugget is when Justice of Toren says the oldest ships were nearly three thousand years old. We know Anaander Mianaadi had ships and AIs before that, so…

  34. I was struck by how the translators seemed to view themselves as a distinct species (not human or Presger) that owed their existence to the treaty, making them devoted to preserving it. Was that something instilled by the Presger (because they’re very, very serious about the treaty)? Or was it an emergent property of the Presger-human hybrid?

  35. junego:

    I wonder if her concern for that little fish (although she didn’t prevent the original ingestion) in some way represents Breq’s character journey from overseeing the mass murder of many thousands of humans to refusal to allow the least lifeform to die. Or I’m overthinking it?

    There is an inconsistency about the attitude toward the fish. At the moment I am charging it off as authorial symbolism which needs an interpretation. So I don’t think we’re overthinking. Your suggestion is a good starting point for discussion.

  36. It wasn’t Breq who gave Zaiat permission to eat the fish (one).
    In other news, I wonder how long it will be before Breq becomes vegetarian, to Karls’s despair

  37. I was struck by how the translators seemed to view themselves as a distinct species (not human or Presger) that owed their existence to the treaty, making them devoted to preserving it. Was that something instilled by the Presger (because they’re very, very serious about the treaty)? Or was it an emergent property of the Presger-human hybrid?

    I interpret it as a property of the hybrid – and the reason for making the hybrids. Zeiat says something like “I understand that, but I can’t explain it to them” several times. I took that to mean that the human part of Zeiat’s ancestry makes him capable of understanding things other (real) Presgers can’t grasp. IIRC there’s also a mention in one of the earlier books that humans couldn’t talk to Presger at all until the translators showed up.

    And one of the things Zeiat says the Presgers have a hard time understanding is that there are more than one type of humans, that humans can be at war with each other, and that their treaty actually is actually with the Radch (one faction of humans) and not Humans. I also interpreted that as pointing to the Presger being a hive mind.

  38. I re-read the first two volumes before starting Mercy. They held up pretty well. A few short observations:

    The characterization got better and better. I don’t think she had the skills to have pulled off Zeiat and Sphene in the first book.

    The Translator Zeiat and Sphene were both integral to the plot while being very different sorts of comedy relief. Well-done.

    Seivarden is still self-centered little ass, but at least he’s working on it. It remains to be seen if he’s actually getting better.

    The trilogy as individual books worked for me because each book told a story and had a conclusion. The trilogy as a whole worked because the themes came together.

    If neither Seivarden nor Breq were to show up again in other books set in that universe, I would not be upset. Their stories are told, let ’em go.

    Some of the bad guys (especially the head priest in Mercy) were just two-dimensional.

    Kudos to Leckie for not trying to tie up every loose end. And while I’d love to see more stories in this universe, I’d also love to see what else Leckie can do at novel length. I hope she takes Steve Brust as an example and produces both in-series and individual novels.

  39. I think that the translators aren’t really to translate language, but concepts, hence the commentary on how the humans don’t always understand what the translators are really talking about, and how explaining things to the Presger is really difficult. The concepts seem to be around identity and identification (such as in the cakes conversion) which certainly fits the idea of the Presger being a hive mind, although it could easily be something weirder.
    Breq is herself a walking question about what identity is.

  40. @Ravi
    I suspect that the Translator’s enthusiastic support of the treaty is emergent from the fact that if the treaty goes away, so do they. The prospect of being hanged in the morning tends to bring focus.

  41. I, too, found the Sphene/Zeiat combo hi-larious. I laughed out loud several times in my all-too-fast read, something I hadn’t done with the previous 2.

    A few plotty questions:
    – I thought it was pretty clear that the AI pods were from (at least) a 3rd AM faction. Omaugh AM didn’t seem to know about them, and young AM def didn’t. Thoughts>
    – The argument that the AM split might’ve been inadvertently caused by the Presger seemed logical. Did anyone check on hints for this?
    – I thought it was hilarious that the anti-armor gun was just a side effect of its intended, much more powerful effect.
    – Are the Presger able to create spaces larger on the inside? The shuttle seemed TARDIS-y at the end.

  42. – Are the Presger able to create spaces larger on the inside? The shuttle seemed TARDIS-y at the end.

    Indeed. They definitely have some, well, different way to deal with space. Notice also Dlique’s ability to go wherever she pleased and Zaiat’s showing up at Mercy of Kalr without having travelled the intervening distance.

  43. @Mark “I think the AI pods dated from the much older war that Sphene had fled?”

    Sphene fled a war 3000 years ago. The station was only 6 or 700 years old.

  44. In Ancillary Justice it seems that the emotions weren’t changed or reduced at all, because essentially the love an AI has for their people is how you get an AI to do anything that isn’t entirely self-serving and removing that would make AIs both worthless and incredibly dangerous. Anaander just made the ships want to trust and obey her more than their captains. More than one Anaander screwed that system up and that combined with her habit of doing dreadful things to AIs favourites broke the conditioning for AIs like Breq and, later, Station and Atagaris.

  45. PS. All of that is talked about in the section at the end where Breq finally confronts Anaander Mianaai. Page 527 onwards on my iBooks, but who knows what page on Kindle, hardcopy, or otherwise.

  46. @emgrasso

    Ah, right, there are two historic references to AI cores: one from the old battle where Sphene was threatened with being replaced, and one from when an attempt was made to build a station in the ghost system about 150 years ago. The cores hidden in the station must date from the latter.

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