Hello everybody! A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting down with SF Master Ann Leckie whose new book Provenance is out now, to chat about her books, life, the universe and everything else.
Check it out!
The Book Smugglers: First of all, thank you so much for chatting with us about your books and your career.
Ann Leckie: Thank you for having me.
The Book Smugglers: We’ll start with a few questions about Provenance, your new book that just came out. Before reading it I didn’t realize that it was actually set in the same world as the Ancillary books. It’s set far away from that story although you can still feel the repercussions of what’s happening with the artificial intelligence and with the Empire. In Provenance, you see a different set of people with a different set of traditions and a different use of language. Were you always planning to go back to that same world, but to tell different stories – how did this one came to be?
Ann Leckie: I absolutely always intended to come back to that universe because I spent so much time building it. And even before I started writing Ancillary Justice I had written a little bit of short fiction set in that universe, and so then I would build up more things, and so I spent so much time building that it seemed silly to just leave all of that behind. And it’s such a big universe, really, that I can do any kind of story in it, so I said “Well, I’ll just take advantage of the construction I’ve already done and kind of build a little addition off in this direction”. I started out thinking “Well, what’s my favorite space opera tropes?” right, and one of them is ancient alien archaeology, like that’s one of my favorites, the space opera stories where there’s the ancient artefacts. Of course, that doesn’t end up in the book. There’s hints of it, because the glass was meant to be much more important to the plot when I began, and it ends up not being important to the plot, it ends up being scenery, but it also kinda fits into the thematic.
But so I said alright, well, what do I do when I want to write about a thing, I go and read about the history of it and how it has worked in the real world, and how it’s affected the real world. And I started to read about, I said “Well, archaeology. When did archaeology start to be done? And who does archaeology and why?” And of course people have been digging up old things for a very long time, and then saying “Oh, this is historic,” or “Gee, this is mysterious,” but archaeology the way that we think of it is very much a sort of colonialist and imperialist project.
And anthropology’s very similar. Anthropologists were working because they were curious about these other cultures that were—
The Book Smugglers: So “different” and “other”, right?
Ann Leckie: Yes, and so “primitive”—they had this idea that, well, there’s this idea of “progress”, you become more “advanced”, and so they wanted to see less advanced cultures and what that told us about our own past, which is super interesting. But they are also a source of intelligence for colonial governments, who wanted to come in and take political and economic control of an area, if you’re gonna go in you need information about the places you’re going. Well, the anthropologists are just funneling all this back, right? And that’s a thing that I felt very conflicted about because archaeology and anthropology, how can those not be cool and interesting, and wow, do they have a problematic history that’s not cool? And I know that anthropologists, it’s something that they’ve been sort of discussing and dealing with for a while now. So I ended up becoming much more interested in the history of museums. I started to look at the way that artefacts have been taken from other places and put in museums and I said “Well, where did museums come from?” and that is where I ended up, with thinking about museums and artefacts rather than ancient alien archaeology, so the glass ended up being not an important thing.
The Book Smugglers: Would you go back to that later though?
Ann Leckie: I hope so, because I really love the ancient alien artefact trope, it’s awesome.
The Book Smugglers: Yeah, and there’s scope for that, there’s so many different worlds and so many different things and the set-up is already there, so…
Ann Leckie: I put in the glass bridges in Nilt, which you may have noticed. And this is not a spoiler per se but an easter egg – There’s a moment in Ancillary Justice when Breq says the tourists come to Nilt and they buy these rugs that they think are handmade by the nomads, but in fact they’re made in a factory and they’re overpriced in the giftshops. So there’s a moment in Provenance, where Ingray meets Zat, and Zat says that she went to Nilt, and she saved up extra to buy this wonderful handmade rug, that was in beautiful colors, that was made by the nomads on Nilt, and that’s a couple of people who got advanced copies. I got a direct message from one person like “Ohh she got cheated!” [laughs] I’m like that’s – that’s just a little tiny easter egg!
The Book Smugglers: That is so cool, I missed it, oh my god, I’m so sad I missed that. But it’s been a while since the last Ancillary novel.
Ann Leckie: Year before last.
The Book Smugglers: [gasp] SURELY NOT.
Ann Leckie: I went a year with no book out. On purpose. I wanted the extra time to work on the book because I was like “I can’t just spit out a totally new—”
The Book Smugglers: So this is really interesting what you said, that you inserted an easter egg here from the previous book and of course there are similarities as they are set in the same universe. What are the differences and similarities that you see between the two sets of books? Where do they meet, where do they diverge? Are there some things that it’s easier for you to see and to detail?
Ann Leckie: Not a hundred percent easier for me to put in as I have more distance on it I might be able to see it better. I know that this is a very different book from Ancillary Justice. Very much so. You were saying earlier and I think you’re right, it’s closer to Mercy. But I kind of feel like I’m going along and that’s the mood I’m in, well that was the mood I was in finishing Mercy, so I was still kind of in that mood, I wanted to have some fun, y’know. So, it’s definitely lighter, I think it’s much lighter than the trilogy, and it’s intentional. Although it does it have its things that are kind of serious. Once I set up the idea about Vestiges, which comes very directly out of “Why do we keep particular things in museums and why do we go to see them? And what makes these things important and valuable?” That’s started me thinking about family. And so that tied in, and the trilogy, but it’s very much like a found family. It’s a lot more about you didn’t pick your family, and maybe everybody’s doing the best they can, but sometimes even with the best of intentions, your parents are doing the best they can, but maybe they can still, like—
The Book Smugglers: Fuck you up
Ann Leckie: Yeah, fuck you up! They can still be toxic even though they love you and they mean well. Because parents are human, right? And so, that’s a very different set of… Concerns than a trilogy.
The Book Smugglers: It goes well with the theme, the title itself, Provenance, of course, then it feeds into that idea: where do you come from, where do things come from, who is your family and how do you relate to your family, and how difficult families can be. From my reading of it, the main thematic core is obviously “provenance” and the idea of identity and where does the main character, Ingray, comes from and where does she stand alongside her brother and her mother. And then the really cool idea of the Vestiges for these particular people, the Hwae – it is so ingrained in who they are and that they worship those Vestiges so much and it’s really interesting how it is done too. If a person touched something that becomes much more important, and then of course, for those that are outside the Hwae, they know that most of those Vestiges are actually fakes. So I thought that this whole thread is really well done in the book, so I was really interested in asking how did you thread all of this together?
Ann Leckie: Often when I write, I’ll throw a bunch of things in the first chapter, like throwing things in a box. And then as I go along, I got those materials to play with and I just kind of play with them until I get a thing that looks like I want it to look. The risk of that is that I don’t end up where I’ve planned to go. For instance, the ancient aliens artefacts never happened. But those pieces built another thing. That was how I ended up… Where I went, I just threw a bunch of people who had problems with their family, and the Vestiges, into the first chapter, and then just kind of built off of that.
The Book Smugglers: That is really interesting because all of the main characters have problems with their families.
Ann Leckie: All of them are messed up. All of them have been screwed over by their parents.
The Book Smugglers: Yes, including the guy that is supposed to be kind of like the villain, the brother?
Ann Leckie: Yes!
The Book Smugglers: But he’s not as screwed up as his sister, right?
Ann Leckie: He’s pretty screwed up, and he’s been screwed over by his mother just as much as she has, but he also, I mean, she’s come out like a decent human being. Mostly. He has not come out a decent human being.
The Book Smugglers: He’s an asshole, yeah.
Ann Leckie: He’s got his moments, but you know, siblings can be kinda like that, right? Where you’re fighting and fighting and there’ll be that moment where you’re “Oh! We’re all in this together. Oh! Now I hate you.” But he is not a hundred percent terrible, like, y’know, moustache twirling villain. He had the same mother that Ingray and—she meant really well. But she had her own problems.
The Book Smugglers: Yeah, because the mother also came out of a family and a mother that wasn’t particularly nice to her and she – according to Ingray’s nuncle—She tried to get away from it, but.
Ann Leckie: But she couldn’t.
The Book Smugglers: She couldn’t completely. I am actually very interested in those types of stories, right, so I love that it’s science fiction, it’s futuristic and it has maps and really weird things– but at the same time it focus on people. I kind of like all types of stories obviously but this is for me the one that I can relate the most.
Ann Leckie: Exactly. And I’ve occasionally someone will say “How do you write such stories that are so epic but are so personal focused,” and – and I was surprised the first time someone asked me that because when I write I try and focus on the characters. If you put them in the situation and then treat the characters very carefully and honestly, you’re gonna have the story that’s that most readers are gonna find engaging because you’re looking at other people.
The Book Smugglers: Yes, exactly. And what you say about it being a personal story, like I was saying before, Ancillary Justice felt like this really huge book in scope, and it had a story that lasted hundred of years, right? And then it was a revenge story but also that had repercussions, it was big. In Ancillary Mercy,the scope felt like it was becoming… narrower and narrower with each book, and I don’t mean narrow in a bad way, but it’s like smaller and smaller, until you have like this really close nucleus of people and this found family. And even though what happened in Ancillary Mercy in the end had repercussions.
Ann Leckie: Has HUGE repercussions.
The Book Smugglers: HUGE repercussions, it still felt like the story was very personal, and I feel like Provenance is more to Ancillary Mercy than it is to Ancillary Justice in that way. And again you can still feel that some things that are happening here—
Ann Leckie: Are gonna have repercussions, yeah. It won’t be – it’s not quite the repercussions of Ancillary Mercy but of course the plot ties in to Ancillary Mercy, because the Geck are on their way to the Conclave. That’s gonna decide whether or not the Republic of Two Systems gets to keep its independence, right?
The Book Smugglers: Yes, and whether or not Artificial Intelligence can participate or not. Are they people or not, and…
Ann Leckie: Yeah, and that’s never going to, I mean that’s not settled in this book, and it’s not an issue in this book, but it’s very clearly going on in the background. But the things that happen in this book aren’t quite as – as world changing as the things that happen in the trilogy. But, I mean I had done a big world-changing thing, I wanted to do a fun adventure heist story!
The Book Smugglers: It’s perfectly fine, I love it. The other thing I wanted to ask about is the mechs. Because they are so interesting, and in some ways I feel like, could they be alive and themselves, so we keep being told that no, they are being driven by other people, right?
Ann Leckie: Right, but they are – there’s a lot of biological – the spider mechs in particular, a lot of the Hwae mechs don’t necessarily have a lot of biological components to them. Because the Hwaes feel and focus in that area of space, feel very uncomfortable with the idea of a living artificial intelligence, they just, they don’t like that idea. But the spider mechs, are very biological, they’re almost entirely biological, they do have some mechanical and, I don’t go in detail in the book. They’re grown, they’re built, so they’re not, y’know like creatures. And they have some automated functions.
So Tic could set a spider mech to clean a hallway and it would be like a roomba, clean the hallway. But anything more complicated it needs to be remote controlled. I feel like that tech has – that’s Geck, right, it’s Geck technology, that has a lot of repercussions for the future of the Republic of Two Systems. Because although I’m not planning to write that book, one of the big issues going forward is gonna be Ancillaries. For ships. And biomechs are a really useful way of solving that problem.
Where for instance, Sphene, that really wants to have bodies, could have bodies, without killing people. So down the line, that’s meant to sort-of hook up, that would be a technology that the ships and stations could use. Without causing – because you know Breq’s never gonna let, Breq is gonna blow everything up before she lets anybody start using ancillaries, right?
The Book Smugglers: And so the biomechs from the Geck could solve that problem, this is what I was wondering, whether you had an idea for them to develop into artificial intelligence themselves.
Ann Leckie: No. My thought is the other way around. The Republic of Two Systems will meet the Geck obviously at the Conclave and they’ll communicate, and the Geck who have been very isolationist until very recently are now more prepared to actually talk to other people.
I need to not get into spoiler territory. But nobody, nobody sees the Geck very much. Because they don’t like to leave their homeworld. At all. But by the end of the book, there’ll be sort of a change in outlook from the ambassador. She’ll be a little more willing to pay more attention to things going on. Out in the world.
The Book Smugglers: And it’s interesting because the ambassador is a “she” now, but—
Ann Leckie: She wasn’t necessarily at another time.
The Book Smugglers: Exactly, and so that kind of like feeds into our next topic of conversation, which is about gender. In the Ancillary books, you had a language topic that meant everybody was addressed as “she”, because of the language that was used and you don’t know what their biology is. And it didn’t matter. In this new book, you have a different society and a different language, and then you have three ways of looking at gender, more or less? More if you count kids?
Ann Leckie: Kids are their own gender, they’re ungendered.
The Book Smugglers: Exactly, yes, and then you have new uses of pronouns such as e/eir and how did it work for you, and how and why did you make this shift?
Ann Leckie: It was something I was sort of thinking about because I know a lot of people really liked the use of default feminine, in Ancillary Justice, and some folks even though they really enjoyed it, pointed out, and I thought they had a good point that using that erased a number of identities. So at the cost of what I accomplished by using all she, I erased any kind of masculine identities, non-binary identities, ignored the whole question of “Well, so we call it all this, but what’s a person’s personal identity like,” and what even is gender, right, which is not an easy question. And so I wanted to do something in the next book, but I don’t want to focus on it. I wanted to world-build and say “Yes there’s a bunch of different ways to approach gender, and this society’s going to approach it some other way.” And so I thought about it, and I said well, first of all, gender isn’t necessarily binary, even though that’s an assumption that we make as a culture, so I’ll just say, whoever this culture is they’re not going to have a binary approach to gender. I also wanted it to be one where gender was not linked to your physical form, so the focus on Hwae are entirely human, they aren’t really any different from us, although they have way more implants and stuff but I figured, so I said kids are genderless, when you get to your age of majority, you declare your gender, right? I also really wanted but there wasn’t really space for it, I wanted to also comment on, even so there are going to be people who feel like they don’t fit in this system but I didn’t really have the space to do that. I get to pick another pronoun, and I said I’ll use e, I know several people in real life who prefer e as a pronoun, and we could all stand to get used to using the neopronouns more than we do, and the more we use them, the more familiar they become, the easier they become to use in real life.
The Book Smugglers: Yeah, yeah, it’s so great and I love that it’s normalized, it’s just there. It’s not even in conversation, I think the only time that we have our attention directed to it is when we are told that it’s part of growing up when you choose your name, right?
Ann Leckie: When you choose your name, yeah.
The Book Smugglers: It’s just mentioned as Ingray’s friend recently chose to be a woman.
Ann Leckie: And she waited very late to do.
The Book Smugglers: And she waited very late to do it, and I actually really like that, I think there’s gonna be a romance there and I’m shipping them. Ingray just started to feel like “Oh, maybe she’s looking at me in a different way” and I was like “YES SHE IS!”
Ann Leckie: Oh yes, absolutely. I didn’t intend – I didn’t start out going “this’ll be a romance,” I just got there and there they were and I was like “Oh they’re so cute!”
The Book Smugglers: So are you prepared then, because this is a lighter novel, it has romance, and it’s funny. I love the voice, I love Ingray, she’s so like self-deprecating, but kind of like she doesn’t know how good she is but we’ll come back to this.
Ann Leckie: She has TERRIBLE imposter syndrome.
The Book Smugglers: We’ll go back to that point later, but are you prepared for the book to be called “not real science fiction”?
Ann Leckie: Oh yes!
The Book Smugglers: Do you know it’s gonna happen right? And it is bullshit.
Ann Leckie: Let me tell you! The people who call Ancillary Justice not real science fiction —
The Book Smugglers: Oh my god.
Ann Leckie: There were quite a few of them. Quite a few of them. And it – it, y’know at this point I’m like yeah, you know, I look over and there’s my shelf full of awards, I have the Arthur C. Clarke, and this is terrible because this is the kind of thing and it’d be like such an arrogant thing to say, right— but yeah, my shelf full of awards says this is science fiction. And I really don’t care what you think. You can have your opinion, everybody has a right to be wrong about my books. But sometimes the one – somebody, I forget who it was, said that they only looked at the first chapter, and they said well this is this is a terrible miscue if this is supposed to be science fiction, because it opens with a tavern in the snow and that’s like a signal for fantasy and so obviously—
A tavern in the snow, that means fantasy. And I was like y’know, once again, you get to be wrong about things. I’m sorry, if spaceships and artificial intelligences don’t qualify as science fiction, then whatever your definition of science fiction is is meaningless, and this new book even more so because, the tech is even less intrusive I guess, and because it’s funny. I meant for it to be funny.
And because it’s kind of lighter and there y’know people are gonna look at and “Oh it’s kind of girly,” y’know, it’s got a, a romance it, it’s an – y’know.
The Book Smugglers: I want to talk about Ingray and how she feels about herself. Her first actions in the book are the result of being brought up in a horrible household that foments competition between siblings and then there is this desperate attempt to prove herself. I find it interesting that as we read the novel, the more we realize that Ingray isn’t as incompetent, as inept, as she and her family think her to be, so imposter syndrome. And quite the contrary, actually, she proves to be really, really good at solving problems, even better than her brother, and so how is this about competition, or how much is internalized self-rejection, and how much would you say… Would you say this is to do with gender, as well?
Ann Leckie: Not gender so much in this culture, although there – there’d have to be some. I toyed with having people say “Well, obviously nemen are like this, and women are like this.” In SF I’m not gonna do that because it took attention away from where I was going, but I feel like Ingray’s situation is as much about where she came from before she was adopted. Because she and Danach are both adopted. But Ingray was adopted out of an orphanage, essentially. Danach wasn’t. Danach comes from another family that’s fairly wealthy and they’re fostering him out.
The Book Smugglers: A medieval kind of thing.
Ann Leckie: Yeah, there’s – I set up intentionally that this is a culture that has a strong culture of fosterage, so even if you don’t adopt a kid it’s not uncommon to raise a child, and send them back, y’know, to make connections between families. So Danach was adopted from a family that already has some wealth and standing in society.
The Book Smugglers: And Ingray is from a public creche, right?
Ann Leckie: She’s from a public creche, she’s from essentially an orphanage. And it sorta becomes more explicit later on, but even though Netano is saying “Oh I’m gonna give everybody an equal chance,” she’s looking at Danach and saying “Well he comes from this family, and he’s always had that certain something,” right? And of course Ingray does her best, and she does so very well, but she doesn’t shine the way that Danach does, and so it’s almost kind of about class more than about gender.
And it shouldn’t, you wouldn’t think it would affect a situation like that, because of course Ingray is very well educated and probably reads to anybody else in her culture, who picks up on it immediately, that she’s wealthy and raised in a high-status family, but her origins are still a problem. And the same for Pahlad, who similarly came from an orphanage, which is probably a spoiler but doesn’t last too long. And part of the reasons why e got treated the way e did in eir family was because e doesn’t have another family. Nobody cares if anybody does anything to Pahlad. The people who should’ve supported em were the people who were fucking em over.But Ingray’s not in that bad of a situation, Netano would not screw over Ingray that way, but she’s still screwing over Ingray. Partly because of course of where she’s come from.
And Ingray doesn’t have those other resources to back her up, and like Danach knows that if he gets if he doesn’t get what he’s after, he does have somewhere to go, he can go back to that family. It would upset him and he would really be unhappy and they would maybe be unhappy with him, but Ingray has literally no place else to go.
The Book Smugglers: Yeah. But I loved that even though that there is that element there, and she of course she has this self-rejection element, she’s still ambitious and she still wants to get there.
Ann Leckie: Yes, she does. She thinks “I’m never get there, but darn I’m gonna do my best.”
The Book Smugglers: Even in spite of the terrible, terrible plans and decisions that she makes—
Ann Leckie: Oh my goodness! She makes some really horrible decisions! The decision that starts off the story!
The Book Smugglers: It’s just so bad!
Ann Leckie: It’s such a monumentally bad choice!
The Book Smugglers: So bad! Where she goes through the plan inside, I was like “this sounds like a terrible plan, what a terrible idea.” She just loses all of her money, she just takes someone out of a prison! And she doesn’t have the documents to back it up, she goes to the ship without knowing what was gonna happen, it’s like “This is terribly thought through, girl.”
Ann Leckie: Yeah she did not think it all through! But she’s not bad in a pinch!Her plans are not necessarily good ones, but when it’s down to the wire—
The Book Smugglers: SO much fun!
Ann Leckie: All three main characters were really fun to write. The Geck ambassador was a huge amount of fun. I love her, she’s so hilarious.
The Book Smugglers: SO hilarious….I just want to want ask you a couple of other questions. We are almost done, I swear. Can we talk about, a little bit about expectations, you know that your previous series is multiple award winning, do you feel like that is weighing you?
Ann Leckie: Oh yes, oh yes. Absolutely. It’s pretty terrifying in fact. But at a certain point you have to, you know people who write fiction very often, you’ve got a little voice in the back of your head all the time, not everyone, but many people, just telling you you shouldn’t be writing this, it’s stupid, if anybody reads it they’ll know you’re stupid, don’t do this, and you have to learn to put it aside. It never shuts up. But – and it’s constantly, but you have to learn to just say yeah, I’m just gonna do it anyway, and so it’s the same with the – there’s no possible way people will like this as much as your trilogy, they’re gonna – there’s the imposter syndrome again – they’re gonna look at this and go “Oh yeah, she’s a fraud, it was an accident that first trilogy”. And so there’s that little voice saying all that and I’m like “Yep, I already learned what to do about this, I’m just gonna write anyway.”
So yes, that is definitely a thing. I mean the imposter syndrome is definitely a thing, when Ancillary Justice came out, I didn’t expect it to be received the way it was, and I was working on Sword, and then I became immediately super terrified because how could I live up to Ancillary Justice? Well I can’t. And at some point you just have to accept you’re not going to surpass that, you’re not going to live up to that, so just write the next book and turn it in.
The Book Smugglers: That does seem very wise, because it just literally won all of the awards possible.
Ann Leckie: How is that gonna happen again? That is not gonna happen again.
The Book Smugglers: It could!
Ann Leckie: It could, I could also be struck by lightning. Y’know. It could happen, but it probably won’t, and due to the nature of the way that people see things, is “oh how disappointing.” Well it’s not disappointing, it’s just that my first one was really unusual.
The Book Smugglers: – okay. So, Provenance is a standalone.
Ann Leckie:> Yes.
The Book Smugglers: I am super looking forward to whatever you write next after this. Okay, to wrap it up: for the people that love your books, what would you recommend they read? Like if you like X—
Ann Leckie: Oh, if you liked my books, try C. J. Cherryh. Try The Foreigner novels. Or an old fashioned and maybe not the best place to find great women characters, but awesome books? Jack Vance.
Ana Grilo: Okay, cool, fantastic. Thank you very much for this interview!
Ann Leckie: Thank you!
Ann Leckie is the author of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Award winning novel Ancillary Justice. She has also published short stories inSubterranean Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Realms of Fantasy. Her story “Hesperia and Glory” was reprinted in Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2007 Edition edited by Rich Horton.
Ann has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew, and a recording engineer. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.