Zan Romanoff | Longreads | February 2019 | 11 minutes (2,920 words)
“Stories can be risky for someone like me,” the narrator observes early in The Raven Tower, which marks highly decorated science fiction author Ann Leckie’s first novel-length foray into fantasy. The speaker is an ancient god named The Strength and Patience of the Hill, who goes on to explain a cardinal rule for gods in the world of The Raven Tower: “what I say must be true, and if it cannot safely be made true — if I don’t have the power, or if what I have said is an impossibility — then I will pay the price.” That price is the god’s own life.
It makes sense that four novels, two Locus Awards, one Hugo, one Nebula, and an Arthur C. Clarke Award in, Leckie is grappling with the power and potential of narrative and language; after all, one of the hallmarks of her writing has been the way she interrogates social and political power structures. Her first three books, which comprised the Imperial Radch trilogy, are narrated by an artificial intelligence system, Breq, designed to oversee a warship and the human bodies — called ancillaries — that have been retrofitted to serve it. Breq is therefore a single consciousness who has lived a multiplicitous existence; her native language has no words for gender, and she herself (Leckie chose to use “she” as a gender-neutral pronoun in the series) has no experience of it. The reader is thus immersed into a speculative critique of gendered language and storytelling; as is often the case with Leckie’s work, the trilogy is so thoroughly and thoughtfully original that it feels one step ahead of most of the rest of the genre (or the rest of the world).
The Raven Tower’s narrator also falls somewhere complicated on the continuum between single and multiple consciousness: The Strength and Patience of the Hill is a god, whose experience of self is markedly different than the humans its second-person narration is addressed towards. This set of unusual choices around perspective and point-of-view give the narrative a kaleidoscopic, sometimes almost hallucinatory quality that is uniquely and addictively immersive.
Leckie’s work is something new every time: always a surprise, and always a sly, smart delight. We spoke about gender, genre, religion and craft by phone while Leckie was at home in St. Louis preparing to go on tour in support of The Raven Tower’s release. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Zan Romanoff: Your previous books have been science fiction; The Raven Tower is your first full-length fantasy novel. When you think about your writing, do you see yourself as being a particular kind of author — primarily sci-fi, or speculative — or do you just think, whatever, I’m a writer?
Ann Leckie: I think of myself as a science fiction and fantasy writer. I have a fair amount of fantasy short fiction published, so I know a lot of folks who are only familiar with my novels think of me as suddenly swerving into something new; actually, I’m going back to something that I’ve been doing for a while. I don’t think the difference between science fiction and fantasy is quite as stark as some folks prefer to portray.
So when you started writing The Raven Tower, when did you decide that it would be fantasy? Was it that you felt like the story called for it, or did you decide, “the next one’s fantasy no matter what”?
I had already decided that I wanted to write a fantasy novel. And then there were a couple of different stories — let’s call them sources — that were already in existence, that I felt like fit together interestingly. I’m hesitant to say what they are, because I don’t want people saying, ‘well, it’s just that thing.’
I certainly could have taken all three of those and made them science fiction. But they’re all either very old stories, or set back in the past, and the flavor that fantasy has is that it tends to be set in the past. Where science fiction tends to be set in the future, or with a higher technology level. And since these stories were already older, I think they led me naturally to go fantasy.
Ever since I read Joanna Russ’s ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing,’ I’ve thought very consciously in terms of dissent, in terms of ‘I have these writer ancestors.’
It’s interesting that you worked from sources, because so much of novel writing, in my experience at least, is finding the right set of constraints. It’s like, you need to set up walls, and then all of your ideas have something to bounce off of.
I had my source material, and then I said, you know what would be really cool — because Nora Jemisin did it and it was awesome — it would be cool to write in second person. Once I figured out a way to do that, then that plus the constraints that the narrator is under, plus the sources — once you have a structure like that, it just makes it much easier to do something.
What was the process of finding your way into the second person voice?
I had to think very carefully about what the narrator could say. Because the narrator had to be someone who was semi-omniscient, and the only semi-omniscient voice in this universe is a god, and a god can’t say anything that isn’t true. So that character’s voice helped me write the second person narration.
But in some ways, it also made it very difficult to get characters onto the page. Because the narrator can never say, you thought this or you were afraid, because [the Patience of the Hill] might be wrong. So it can only ever say that when it’s certain, and it can otherwise only say, ‘I think you might have been afraid’ or ‘gosh, were you thinking of this?’
Trying to solve those problems was interesting, but it did mean that I was worried, especially at the beginning, that other characters wouldn’t be on the page as much as they needed to be.
But isn’t that exactly how we experience other people’s interiority in real life? We ourselves are not omniscient! We can only ever see other people act, and then guess about their feelings when they did.
There’s a comment I’ve seen a lot about the Imperial Rach trilogy that Breq was completely emotionless, and that there was no interiority there: it was just people doing stuff.
First of all, any reader has the right to have any reaction they have, so I don’t want to argue about that. But Breq is absolutely not emotionless. Her emotions are there in the story, but they’re not directly on the page. I thought it was interesting that some readers picked up on that really well, and quite a few readers didn’t.
And that got me thinking about the ways that we have conventions for conveying emotion on the page, and different genres and different sub-genres have different conventions. So if a reader who’s used to one set picks up a work that’s using a different set, it’s going to read as very flat and emotionless. When you’re used to a set of conventions you think of it as being natural, and as naturalistic, but it’s actually not: it’s just what you’re used to.
Which is funny, because isn’t the whole point of fiction supposed to be that it teaches us empathy? And then people get to a set of conventions they don’t understand and they’re like,’ oh, there’s nothing here!’ Being a reader isn’t enough. You have to be a generous and open reader.
I think it helps to have experience reading lots of different kinds of things. A lot of times we assume that good writing is one thing, and bad writing is another thing, and everybody can recognize it. But I think it’s a lot more pin-pointed than that.
Which is also related to this question of genre writing, because for a long time there was a stigma against it, and this idea that it wasn’t dealing with anything other than space ships or ray guns. That’s just clearly not the case — The Raven Tower, for instance, is about faith, and friendship, and power. I’m curious if or how you’ve experienced a stigma against being a genre writer. Do you feel like people outside the community understand what you do?
When I was a kid, my parents were very much of the belief that science fiction and fantasy were not worth reading and writing unless you were a kid. They thought those books were shallow. And my parents, who really wanted me to be a writer, really, really hoped that I would grow out of the science fiction and fantasy and begin to write real literature. Which, to them, meant detective novels. I’m not even joking!
But they were big detective novel fans, so because they knew the genre very well, they knew that mystery novels are capable of being great literature: that they can say very profound things. But because they didn’t know science fiction and fantasy very well, they believed that it was shallow. It wasn’t until it became very clear that I wasn’t going to give up on it that they were like, ‘well all right we’ll support you in this’ and they started trying to find highbrow science fiction for me to read.
I think that whole ‘anxiety of influence’ thing is such a privileged way of thinking.
From about the middle of the ’70s on up until today, science fiction became mainstream. I do think there is still some sneering from certain quarters, but I don’t think it’s the sort of thing most people need to trouble themselves with. It certainly never bothered me much.
I do recall — this was a while ago — when Phillip Roth wrote The Plot Against America, I was reading Time Magazine and there was a piece about it and he said, ‘This thing I’m doing, I had absolutely no literary models for it whatsoever and I had to completely invent it.’
I was like, it’s fucking alternate history! It’s a huge sub-genre! I can point you to a library full of books that are doing exactly what you are doing. No literary models. That irked me. But at the same time I’m like, he’s kind of old, and most of the writers coming up behind him already know about science fiction and fantasy.
It’s really cool that you were able to recognize early that there was no shame in reading and writing genre, because I feel like a lot of people don’t see that modeled for them, and they just can’t get there. Did you have science fiction writing role models, growing up?
Science fiction and fantasy have a long history at this point, and for all that people say woman are new to the field, there have been women writing science fiction and fantasy for a long time. And some of them were some of my favorite writers as a kid, so it was easy for me to find people to look back at and say, ‘okay, that’s a thing that I want to try and be.’ It’s amazing how much it helps to see that a thing is possible.
Ever since I read Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, I’ve thought very consciously in terms of dissent, in terms of ‘I have these writer ancestors.’ She talks about how devastating it is to erase the tradition of women’s writing from the canon, so that every writer feels like she’s starting over without any guides. And how important it is to look back and say well, I may not do things exactly like Andre Norton, but she was there, building a foundation for what I’m doing.
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It’s weird to think that what feels really hard as a female writer, thinking ‘there’s nobody for me to look to or be in conversation with,’ for men becomes a coveted privilege of originality — Phillip Roth bragging that no one’s ever done this before, and he invented it.
Who was it who talked about the anxiety of influence, how you feel like you couldn’t be better than anyone else if you couldn’t be original? Well, there’s also the anxiety of not having any past, where you have to be totally original, and you’re having to reinvent the wheel every time. I think that whole anxiety of influence thing is such a privileged way of thinking. ‘Oh poor me, I have to try so hard to be original because I have all of these supporting ancestors.’
Speaking of supporting ancestors, and looking to traditions — The Raven Tower is a lot about religion, and how and why we create ritual when we’re trying to talk to gods. Can you talk about your relationship to religion and ritual?
I grew up Catholic, but I am an atheist at this point in my life. But I retained a really strong interest in religion as a human activity: in the way that people construct religions, the way that people live religions in their daily lives.
I don’t believe any gods exist, but I don’t believe that in the future we’ll have realized better and religion will disappear because we don’t need it anymore. I don’t think that’s going to happen. There’s obviously something really strong and durable about that impulse in people, and it’s going to keep needing to be fulfilled in some way.
I also have sort of a hobbyist interest in anthropology, and one of the things I find really interesting is that if you ask an anthropologist to define religion, they’ll basically say, ‘Do you have a month or two?’ Because there isn’t really a good way to define it. A lot of definitions boil down to: my religion, your superstition. There isn’t really one thing that all religions have in common. I find that really fascinating.
I don’t believe any gods exist, but I don’t believe that in the future we’ll have realized better and religion will disappear because we don’t need it anymore. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
One of the things that intrigued me about this fantasy world is, what does the world look like when gods are unambiguously real? I don’t believe they’re real at all, but let’s theoretically say that they’re real, it’s certainly not unambiguous, or it would be obvious. You could say, ‘There’s a god, right there, unambiguously doing god things.’ And we can’t do that in this world.
But if you live in a world where gods are definitely real, that world is going to look very, very different. Also, religion looks really, really different, because here, in this world, religion is very much a matter of faith and belief — well, in our traditions, [because] in other traditions it’s a matter of practice. But if you’re in a world where you can measure a god, where you can say, ‘there’s a god!’ what does religion become? It becomes a very different thing. Much more practical. And the history of the world becomes very different.
In terms of ritual, I grew up Catholic, and so ritual is a really important part of how I think about religion. And so when I went to think about, ‘well, I have these unambiguously existing gods in this world, how are they going to work,’ I felt like, the common way of thinking about gods that really exist is to say that faith powers them. But I didn’t want to do that, partly because it seemed silly to have faith power a god that unambiguously exists. It’s like saying that faith powers my car.
I felt like, something had to feed these beings, and so ritual seemed like an obvious thing to me, partly because of my background. Probably something else would have occurred to a writer from a different background.
A lot of people look at ritual and prayer and say, ‘you’re just saying stuff, and you don’t even know if the person that you’re talking to is there.’ But the more I do it, the more I see that it’s not necessarily about the prayer reaching someone else — it can get me into a new headspace. The ritual may not be meaningful in and of itself, but it can also still be effective, it can still do something for you.
Exactly. It almost doesn’t matter if there’s a being listening, especially with meditative practices, like saying the rosary for Catholics. So the prayer isn’t even as much speaking particularly as it is getting you into that mind space, as you say.
In terms of headspaces — you are on Twitter, which feels really antithetical to the kind of long-form attention you need to write a novel. How do you deal with that when you’re trying to write?
Very poorly. Especially the past year or two. Writing has been difficult for a lot of people in the past year or two, for obvious reasons. The entire world has become is so attention-absorbing. It’s hard to look away. Not only is it like a car crash, it’s your car crash! Your house is going to be going down any minute now!
So that’s something I’m still working on. I probably need to cut back some — I have been cutting back some — but it’s hard to look away from that. In some respects, you can’t look away from it.
What are you going to be trying to concentrate on next?
Blessedly and luxuriously, I’m not working on anything right now. It’s on purpose. I will need to pick something up, because you can’t just not write, but ever since I had The Raven Tower completely turned in, I deliberately said ‘I’m going to take some months where I don’t have a deadline.’ And then I’ll start kicking at whatever the next project is.
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Zan Romanoff is a full-time freelance writer and the author of the novels A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART and GRACE AND THE FEVER, out now, as well as LOOK, which is forthcoming from Dial Books for Young Readers in spring 2020. She lives and writes in LA.
Editor: Dana Snitzky