Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013) 386 pages (other stuff plumps this out to 409 pages)

AJ Leckie

You know, I was all set to do a post on Baxter’s Proxima, but then I read this book and someone asked me to pass it along, so I’ll write this up now. (I have the paperback, but how do you pass on an ebook? A lot of them are still in the “cloud” somewhere. What have you really bought beside the right to access some squiggles and bits from a reader somewhere? We’ll talk about that when I get to Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. For now, just wonder how your collection of “rare” first-edition ebooks gets bequeathed to anyone.)

I read Anicillary Justice because the blurb I saw (who knows where? Or when?) played up the AI aspects of the story. That alone sold me, because I don’t usually like the way that AI is presented in modern fiction. A lot of them, like Douglas Preston’s The Kraken Project (and I read all of Preston and Child’s books), just posit that the computer is thinking and acting and behaving just like a human, and that’s that. I give Leckie a lot of credit for actually working on the AI implications. I don’t want to sound like a crank: I’ve done doctoral work on AI, although I’ve struggled to keep up with the latest trends…more on those books later.

I realized recently that I enjoy a lot of science fiction written by women. I have no idea what that means, or might mean. But I’m not sure it has to mean anything more than a lot of books I like are written by females. And that is that.

So is there anything here about the actual book we’re talking about? Yeah, here goes: you want a whole universe to get lost in, you got one.  As Peter Mendelsund points out in What We See When We Read (my first post), we all start a book as dislocated and somewhat lost explorers, and science fiction and fantasy books emphasize this. Some books let you feel at home early and some books later, and Leckie’s book was definitely a slow build for me.

One reason it took so long, I think, is that there are interlocking and alternating narratives in the odd and even chapters, although eventually they merge. One strand is in the here-and-now of book-time and follows the narrator’s adventures on an ice world and a rescue and nicely done chase scene, ending with a shootout. It’s a nice action start and continues in the odd chapters. The other strand, some 20 years before, begins the story of how the narrator got to be on the ice world in the first place. These even chapters are filled with empire-related politics and the diplomatic consequences of “annexation” (which sounds better than “subjugation” I guess).

Once the stands merge, they propel the reader to a very suspenseful conclusion. This is a story where you see terms you do not know constantly and trust that you’ll pick them up as you go. For example, the absolutely essential concept of the book’s gods, temples, offerings, “omens,” and so on are first outlined on page 33, where the four “emanations” from good old Amaat are enumerated. The essential history and connections of the other characters are not announced, but slipped in here and there, and one big issue (how the heck is the narrator so rich?) is not answered until page 374.

The narrator, posing as a human named Breq, is really the consciousness of a vast space battleship named Justice of Toren. She is the last “ancillary,” which is a human form vacated to make room for the shared group consciousness running the ship – officers in the book actually go “Ship, do X” when they want something to happen  – left over when the Justice is destroyed by the evil emperor. One reviewer called this a “space opera” and there is a constant lure to see the empire of the Radch (which in my head sounds like “Radish”) through the lenses of Star Wars. If so, fight that force (sorry). This story deserves to stand on its own.

Leckie does a really good job of narrating the experience of being a multiple person who can be here and there at the same time, reporting what’s happening on the street as other AIs are on guard duty or carrying on a conversation. It sounds wild, but it works.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself so engaged in this tale. I have a stack of books abandoned before the ending – which I like to think is because I am such a picky reader, but maybe it’s just laziness. I was also happy to see that such a stately, Asimov-ian (two people talking) narrative could not only be popular, but win major prizes in this day and age (and in first person, and in simple past tense). No vaporized bad guys, no flowing space battles for a change! Instead, we have lots of tea drinking, something I can appreciate more than barroom brawls (which happen, like other forms of mayhem in the story, off-camera).

Once I had penetrated the mysteries of the text (everybody is “she”? That’s cool. The humans are people or AIs? OK…), I realized that the story was a fairly straightforward alternating of chapters between the narrative present, as I said, involving the saving of a drug-addled former officer, and events twenty years before. These events all culminate in a satisfying climax that closes one door and opens another: this is, after all, a trilogy.

Overall, the book is much like a roller coaster ride. There is a slow build to an initial peak, then some up and down hills before the finish. I have to admit there were places in the mid-200s where I resorted to reading the dialog and scanning the descriptions, which are good but seemed to bog down the story for me in places. That was where I sort of gave up puzzling out all the nuances of the world. There are humans (the ancillaries apparently count as human bodies, but with fake minds) and aliens (some weird Presger beings play a large role, and the Rrrrrr (really) are mentioned, but there is not a lot of description to go on as far as their appearance. Details are lavished mainly on internal mind states, which is fine because that’s what counts in the end.

I have to say, I’d hate to have to narrate the audio book version of this book. I don’t know how the names translate to spoken English. Even the “Radchaai” gave me a hard time. Is it “rad-chi-ah-aye”? Or “rad-cha-ay”? And what about Seivarden? Skaaiat? Anaander Mianaai? See what I meaain?

I liked the ending, but one thing bothered me. Breq is portrayed as “not really human” and occasionally is dismissive of her own being as “not worth saving” or some such. Now, perhaps as an AI, you can just load them up again: but this is not true of Breq, the story says. She’s the last survivor of the group-consciousness – 20 of them – of the destroyed Justice of Toren. Yet in spite of this, Breq is human enough not only to carry the story, but appear to be the most humane of the humans, especially when it comes to the rescued drugged-out former officer. How did the AI that is Breq come so far? If the answer is in there, I missed it.

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride By Cary Elwes (with Joe Layden) (Touchstone, 2014) 259 pages

AYW Elwes

I have a confession to make (two, actually): I had never heard of The Princess Bride movie (let alone William Goldman’s book) until I met my wife Camille in 2000. Second, when she showed it to me for the first time, sprawled around the TV, both of us on chairs with dogs, I was so tired that I fell asleep as Westley and Buttercup ran down the path to the Fire Swamp. Problem solved, princess rescued. When I woke up, the credits were rolling and my wife asked “So, wasn’t that great?” I, of course, replied that it was very, very good (I liked the sword fight, which I thought was cool) and that I had once met Andre the Giant. I didn’t find out until years later that I had missed more than half the movie, and that the story had really just begun. Forgive me, Camille.

Now, I am the first to admit that certain movies and books are acquired tastes, and that as much as other people really want you to like and appreciate what they like and appreciate, there are films and stories that leave some people flat. So if you are one of those eye-rolling not-that-stupid-story-again people when it comes to The Princess Bride, you can still read this book for what it reveals about the art of making movies. Movie-making is something people know little about, I think, and today it seems that all you have to do is capture some people with sensors moving around and add all the rest with CGI.

But there are still movies made the old-fashioned way, and The Princess Bride is one of them, although it took shape in 1986 (the Star Wars movies, of course, had changed everything not long before). The mountains and scenery are real, the flames are real, even the sword-play is very real. In fact, Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin (as Inigo Montoya) were taught to fence by the same guy, Bob Anderson, who did the Stars Wars light-sabre routines. The sword scene was one of the last to be shot because they both needed every minute of practice to make the scene (described as “the greatest sword fight in history” in the book and script) as convincing as possible. The training was complicated by Elwes’ broken toe (which shows up in the movie in several places, once you know where to look for it) and another accident he suffered on the set (when the evil Prince Humperdinck bops Westley on the head with his sword at the exit of the Fire Swamp, that’s 100% real and drew blood and knocked Elwes unconscious).

No one should let the fairy-tale-ish and admittedly juvenile aspects of the film deter them from enjoying the movie and this book. Enjoy Vizzini’s “inconceivable” portrayal by Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant’s struggles to be mean instead of his usual amiable self (and with a sore back yet!), Mandy Patinkin’s noble quest to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the evil Count Rugan (Christopher Guest), and Bill Crystal’s completely unrestrained and over-the-top turn as Miracle Max. Then read the book and find out what really happened behind the scenes and during the scenes. The movie thrives because all of the parts thrived (Elwes admits that it is nearly impossible to tell during production how it all will turn out: the entire cast is seldom even in the same place at the same time and this can lead to very uneven performances). Rob Reiner, the director, was probably one of the few who could turn out this movie and have it appear as such great fun.

The book is peppered with boxed quotes from other cast members remembering the production. Patinkin’s are the most touching. He knew the movie was magic, and Montoya’s convincing grief at losing his father grounds the entire second half of the movie, especially considering that Westley spends a large part of it “almost dead.” Rob Reiner’s thoughts are always enlightening, and Robin Wright appears to have enjoyed making the movie as much as anyone else. However, Wallace Shawn’s few quotes are oddly pedantic about the experience. Instead of reinforcing his reputation as an intellectual, or just reveling in the silliness going on, his comments are more appropriate for some fuddy-duddy professor (Rob Reiner laughed “hysterically” at Billy Crystal’s scenes, but “That didn’t happen during my scenes,” Shawn grouses on page 155). Then again, Shawn was convinced that he was about to be replaced by Danny DeVito (page 157), an idea reinforced by Shawn’s agent(!).

The book includes a very helpful timeline in the chapter headings so you can see how long (and how short) different shots on location, at the castle, or in the studio took. I won’t go into the quotes form the movie, mainly because there are whole wed sites devoted to them. The Princess Bride is not just a book or movie or anything else: it is a cultural phenomenon and a product of a certain time and place. No one would try to duplicate it today without big names and explosions and so many special effects that the characters fade away.

As good as this book is, if you ever have a chance to see Cary Elwes in person, by all means do so. (Elwes went to Sarah Lawrence College, and my professor of Ancient Greek taught there, so (see?) we’re connected!) My wife and I saw Cary Elwes at Dobson High School in Mesa, Arizona, on December 19th, 2014, where he appeared as part of his book tour sponsored by Changing Hands book stores (they now have two: I should talk more about this extraordinary bookstore here, but for now you can just go to changinghands.com). It was part Christmas present to my wife Camille, and the auditorium was nearly packed to capacity. I don’t know how many seats the auditorium has, but the enrollment is over 2,700 (Dobson is the 11th largest high school in the state) and if I have to guess, I’d say the auditorium seats more than 1,000 (I think the 84-acre campus has more than one). Elwes spoke for about an hour and answered question form the audience for about an hour and a half more, a very unique thing among the authors I have seen in action. As much as the poor moderator form the Arizona Republic tried to call for “one last question,” the author plunged into the audience, microphone in hand (the first was “almost dead,” someone in the audience quipped) and posed for pictures, hugged, and joked with anyone who caught his attention. I give Cary Elwes very high marks for patience, good humor, and all around relaxed and relaxing demeanor.

What else? Let me try to relate the book and movie The Princess Bride experience to what I’ve learned from my other reading this year.

After seeing Cary Elwes and reading his book, I immediately went back and watched the movie. The Christmas day marathon helped too, and I never tired of watching poor Westley try to sit against and rise from that tree stump when “Dread Pirate Roberts” is finally revealed as Princess Buttercup’s beloved Westley.

This reminded me that we don’t record a movie or a book in our heads when we encounter it, a point made by Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read. So in spite of my sleepy first encounter with the movie, and seeing Cary Elwes talk about the book before I actually read the book after Christmas (it was wrapped up under the tree, after all), I can still enjoy the book and the movie over and over again. Whether you read in a foxhole (see When Books Went to War) from a battered and stapled paperback, or read in bed form a tablet, the story – and you! – are different every time.

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

When Books Went to War By Molly Guptill Manning

WBWTW Manning

To balance out the theory of books and reading, What We See When We Read, this week I give you the practice of books and reading, When Books Went to War. This is story of the books that US soldiers read during WW II, with the emphasis on the Armed Services Edition (ASE) of popular books and classics (the subtitle is “The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II”). I have to admit, in spite of my experiences with books and publishing, and my father being a WW II veteran, I had no idea these editions existed. But this is a large part of the adventure of books: finding a book about something you don’t know at all and then learning what the author has to say about it. (The flip side, of course, is that you tend to know only what the author of the first book you read thinks about the topic, until you dig deeper.)

If my father was in the army during WW II, how on earth did I not know about these paperback editions of hardcover books? Well, my father served in the Pacific, and most of Manning’s book concerns the war in Europe due to the Nazi’s burning the works of certain authors (all 565 banned authors are listed in an appendix starting on page 198). My father also read mainly magazines and newspapers. I have to say, I never saw my father with a hardcover book, and only a handful of paperbacks. In my family, my mother was the book reader and maintained the family bookcase.

OK, back to the Manning’s book. To set up the whole “books going to war” thing the author covers the Nazi book burning on May 10, 1933. She points out what a great party this was, and how the reaction in the US and the rest of Europe was kind of feeble. It’s hard to get people stirred up when the victims are books. In Germany, the feeling seemed to be “Well, people shouldn’t write books that piss off the authorities” (blaming the victims is always a popular approach, even today). I did learn something I didn’t know, or didn’t recall: the famous “crystal night” attack on Jewish businesses on November 9, 1938 was triggered in part by the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by a Polish Jew whose family had been expelled by Germany and stranded on the border with Poland (page 9).

Manning points out that one of the key weapons in WW II, for the first time, was a book: Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Naturally, other books would be called into the struggle. And the banned books, all 4,175 of them (not listed) ended up in a Library of Burned Books in Paris founded by H. G. Wells. Oddly, when the Nazi took over France, the collection was not destroyed. Select German scholars were allowed to peruse the collection (page 13), but not foreigners.

This might seem like a long setup, but the story of the book burnings set the stage for the US answer: make the spread of ideas and the free reading of texts part of the military response to the Nazis. But when it came to censorship, the US was guilty to a small degree. But instead of deleting passages to make certain books acceptable, the Victory Book Campaign (VBC), which ran the ASE effort, just passed on distributing such works – there were only a few – to servicemen and sailors (page 140). These works were all available to the public, of course, and soldiers could read them, but not necessarily for free.

After a long journey through early WW II book drives (they collected 10 million books by May 1942 (page 49)), the author gets to the reasons for the light-weight ASE books. Books then were mostly hardcovers, so that’s what they got. These were heavy and hard to carry into the field and so ended up in base libraries. That was bad enough because when you moved around, you couldn’t always finish book, but few people donated the kinds of popular fiction soldiers wanted.  People donated what they did not want, books like How to Knit, An Undertaker’s Review, and Theology in 1870 (page 70), none of which probably got passed around many foxholes.

It was the search for an “expendable,” light-weight, small, popular form of book that resulted in the creation of the ASE format in September of 1943 (page 75). Every cover reproduced the original hardcover edition; a nice touch, I thought. The books were stapled (bugs ate glue), printed on light paper (but better than newsprint), and in two squat columns (easier to read while simultaneously trying to stay alert in the field).

Manning points to books such as The Great Gatsby were considered flops when they first came out. It was as ASEs that many readers first came to books like that and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (one of my mother’s favorites). ASE books exposed the military, most of whom were draftees, to ideas and situations they would not ordinarily encounter – much like warfare. But not everyone was happy that this happened. Controversial books like Strange Fruit (interracial sex and pregnancy – gasp!) and Forever Amber (a woman using sex to climb social, the book was banned in 14 states as porn – double gasp!) withstood serious efforts to ban them as ASEs(page 123). A legislative effort to enforce US censorship (Title V) in 1944 was turned back (thankfully) because it resembled Nazi efforts too closely for comfort (page 140). Control is always tempting to those in control.

Although the VBC made the books, the military distributed them. Requests sent directly from soldiers and sailors to the VBC were routinely denied. But on page 122, some exceptions are cited. A grateful Dutch host was sent a copy of Tarzan of the Apes to give to a US soldier on his birthday, and several baseball books were sent to an Australian soldier who had fallen in love with a US soldier’s copy of Lou Gehrig.

The book is filled with little things that stick in my head (or get “starred” and written down in a note for further use). For example, librarians went from being 80% male in 1870 to 80% female in 1900 (page 54), a breath-taking flip-flop in a generation that saw women moving into teaching, health, and industry (telephony and secretaries) as well. (This emergence in turn fueled efforts to free women from an unending cycle of pregnancies and a life as unpaid servants for their husbands, but that’s a book I read last year. J)

One story near the end of the book closes the circle that began with the Nazi book burnings. At Nuremberg, the Nazis on trial got to read books in their cells. A US major reading Henry Hough’s Country Editor was asked by a captive Nazi if he had finished reading it so the prisoner could read it. The prisoner was Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister (page 169).

The book ends with a complete list of ASE books starting on page 202. You can get them on eBay, some much more expensive than others.

The legacy of the ASE book is that millions of servicemen (oddly, magazines were deemed to be enough for women serving in the war) came home looking for something good to read. Even today, seeking “a good book” is seen as a somewhat higher activity than finding “a good movie” or “a good game” or “a good TV show,” although reading is usually as much a distraction as the others. Then again, how could I write these entries and argue with that attitude?

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

WWSWWR MendelsundWhat We See When We Read By Peter Mendelsund (Vintage, 2014)

This quirky book – there are as many pictures as words, it seems – is the product of one of New York’s top book cover designers. You can plow through it in a couple of hours, at least until you came across an idea or section and go “Whoa! I never thought of the reading process that way.” Then you stop and really think about the ideas the author is presenting for consideration. For example, he writes on p.9 that when we read, we can be submerged (at least in good books) so deeply in the text that we are unable to “bring our analytical minds to bear upon the experience.” It’s like trying to bring up the light fast enough to see the darkness (a phrase he borrows from William James). We really are remembering the act of reading, he says, so this memory is a “false memory.” (I think this is a good thing: otherwise, if the experience of reading a book were burned into our memories for all time, how could we ever enjoy reading a book all over again? And how could it be better or worse the second time around?)

The book startles when it shows us how much we as readers bring to a book. He mentions Flaubert (famously, as he says) changing the eye color of Madame Bovary (page 46): “blue, brown, deep black…” but apparently not subtracting from the character at all. We all clothe characters if not provided with their dress, give them ears big or small, and provide them with a stature fitting their role (the small, furtive, thief; the tall, dashing hero…). We imagine the whole usually, but do not see the parts: how many buttons on the pirate’s shirt? Is his sword curved? We have to “look” inward to find out.

As someone struggling through a novel-writing program right now, Mendelsund has a good point about how “All books open in doubt and dislocation” (page 60). You have to orient the reader immediately. You can transport the reader to a far-off place, as in a fantasy, or open with a sly wink at the reader’s willingness to render the reading process present, but invisible. For the latter, Mendelsund quotes the opening of Nebula Award winner Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler with great approval: “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.” The cloud in this case covers much of page 63. (In the epilogue to Moby-Dick, Mendelsund reminds us on p. 290, Ishmael tells us he is “…floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it…”, and this ever-present margin is much like the dividers of panels in a graphic novel or comic strip, he says.)

Speaking of fantasy, which I imagine I write, on page 235 the author mentions books like Lord of the Rings in which reading involves immersion into a world very different that our own. These books, he says, demand scholarship. The well-done worlds seem “endless” and convey the feeling that the reader can wander off and have their own adventures without the author’s help at all (hello, fan fiction!). A map, he says, is a sure-fire tip that we are entering a book that is really a “compendium-of-knowledge” as well as a story. Readers expect a given level of richness, and the author must provide it.

These are kind of gems you will find in the pages of Mendelsund’s book. The collected points form a scaffold for the book, not like a bridge from one shore to another, but to build upwards into our minds as we read. It’s light, breezy, not pedantic, and all the more effective that way.

Some of the ground he covers will be familiar to those who have studied literature before. Character descriptions are not like wanted posters (and gosh, they shouldn’t be), so readers are free to imagine Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina (his two favorites for this activity) almost any way they want, including eye color. He offers a pictorial array of Madam Bovarys on p. 259. Which is the “real” one? When we read, he claims, images are plucked from our experiences. Mendelsund’s Stalingrad of WW II is mapped onto Lower Manhattan (pages 212-213). And how many people have substituted the Classics Illustrated versions of Captain Ahab and Ishmael (conveniently reproduced on pages 288-289) for Melville’s descriptions of the same?  I have to admit, try as I might to alter the image, the Pequod always resembles the famous war frigate USS Constitution, which I toured in Boston harbor. (He raises much the same point again on page 330.)

This book defies attempts to provide a linear summary. As the eye saccades around the page, gulping in groups of words because the eye cannot focus on text while it is in motion, the book jumps from sections like “Openings” to “Time” and “Vividness.” It ends with “It Is Blurred,” an admission that our world through the fragmented experience of reading words is necessarily incomplete and highly individualistic. Does your lighthouse in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse have windows spiraling up the structure? How high is railing at the top?

I was surprised in the section called “Sketching” to find out how many authors were also visual artists, producing drawings of the characters in their books. These include Poe (portraits), Hesse, the Bronte sisters, Kafka (he insisted that the creature in the “Metamorphosis” could not be illustrated as a real cockroach), and more. On page 177, he has a great story in a footnote about James Joyce giving Matisse permission to illustrate Ulysses. But Matisse apparently never bothered to read the text, because he illustrated Homer’s version instead. I hope this visual skill is not a prerequisite for good writing, because I could never match the pictures that Kipling, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner drew…wait a minute! I’m never going to match their writing either, so why am I worried? J

All in all, the main point is how the act or reading is an act of reader participation in the narrative. We add details, supply continuity when there is none (if the character eats dinner in a restaurant and leaves, we assume that they paid for the meal – and left a tip! – although this is not stated), and so on.

I told you one of things I wanted to do here was connect the books I read, whether fiction or nonfiction, with other books. It’s a bit hard to do in the first post, but here’s how I connect this book with other stuff I think about:

There is another reason I found this book particularly fascinating. I did an ABD (All But Dissertation) PhD program in AI (Artificial Intelligence) at New York Polytechnic (the merger of NYU School of Engineering, where I started as an undergraduate, and Brooklyn Poly). So I am always interested in how human minds process “information.” I’ll talk more about AI and consciousness in other posts, because I read a lot about science and technology. It’s one thing for a machine to read and assimilate text. But when you ask an AI entity to tell you about a book it has read, I’ll be impressed when the AI doesn’t just split back words and phrases from the review or blurb or text itself, like the Rogerian therapist in the early Eliza program (more on all this later).