#FridayReads: The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie

cover for Ancillary JusticeJust yesterday I finished reading the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. I enjoyed every second of it, and am excited to learn that a new entry in the series comes out in September, right after my birthday!

I’ve felt a bit out of the sci-fi loop for not having read this series since it made the awards circuit in 2014–and all of them are well earned, that’s for sure.

Science fiction has been asking the question, “What makes us human?” since its earliest days, and this trilogy continues that tradition with its own take. It also explores themes of colonization, empire, class, and gender.

The trilogy consists of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. In this universe, military spaceships and space stations are run by powerful, intelligent, and emotive AIs. Many of these AIs have ancillaries, which are human bodies essentially wiped of their consciousness and tied into the AI’s consciousness. It’s a brutal process that involves the death of the person inhabiting that body.

cover for ancillary swordThe leader of the expansionist Radch empire, Anaander Mianaai, has hundreds of clone bodies and has ruled Radch space for thousands of years. Several incidents with various alien species has caused her to split into multiple factions, which leads to the destruction of the ship Justice of Toren, minus one ancillary, who now goes by Breq.

The Radchaai language doesn’t distinguish genders, so all characters are referred to as “she” throughout the books, and we learn (some of) their genders through interactions with people who speak languages that do distinguish gender. Interestingly, we’re never explicitly (that I remember) told what gender Justice of Toren’s last remaining human body is. It doesn’t matter, though, and that, I’m sure, is Leckie’s point in concealing the gender.

cover for ancillary mercyBreq has set out on a mission to kill Anaander Mianaai, and thus sets in motion the trilogy’s plot. Leckie balances the demands of writing an overarching plot for the trilogy while also giving each book a true beginning, middle, and end. There’s a lot of internal tension, which balances well against the bursts of action and violence. This is definitely intellectual science fiction more than action-adventure-type sci-fi, though there’s plenty of action.

The trilogy is all about revenge, but I appreciate that the revenge Breq exacts involves out-maneuvering rather than outright killing the Lord of the Radch–which would be almost impossible, because of her many many of clone bodies (though Breq does try to kill as many bodies as possible anyway, and who can blame her?).

I could probably write at LEAST half a dozen critical essays on the way Leckie handles class, colonialism, and humanity in general, but I’ll leave this review here: If smart, well-written, character AND plot driven science fiction is your thing, you’ll enjoy these books. I can’t wait for the next one!

Punk Rock Gardner

Johnny Jump Ups

Johnny Jump Ups remind me of gardening with my mother as a kid.

Working in the garden is meditative. There’s the endless pulling of weeds, checking vegetables and flowers for signs of insect infestation or fungal infection, repairing damage done by small animals or the weather, pulling more weeds.

I like the physicality of these tasks: the strain in my back and shoulders, the flexing of muscles, the slight soreness the next day when I try to do too much in one go. I would be happy to do this work in silence, with only the local birds as accompaniment, but this is often not possible.

Shelling peas

Shelling peas climbing a trellis.

My neighbor likes to blast country music from the backyard of his boarded-up house (why he decided to board up the windows I can only imagine). It’s not that I hate country music–indeed, I grew up listening to it–but it feels like the wrong sort of background for what I’m doing.

So I listen to punk rock, lots of Bad Religion, some obscure Japanese stuff, The Interrupters, Flogging Molly, multiple girl bands with “Betty” in the name. This too may seem incongruous, but growing my own food sometimes feels like an act of rebellion against agribusiness and companies like Monsanto who’d rather I spend my garden money on pesticides and grass fertilizers. Punk is nothing if not one long, loud, scream of rebellion.

A white peony.

The first peony of the spring. They smell wonderful.

Bad Religion has one song in particular that I listen to over and over again. “Kyoto Now,” off their album The Process of Belief, pleads with the listener to stop denying climate change and environmental destruction and take action now to save this ball of earth and water and gas that we call home.

I didn’t start off with the intention of listening to only punk while I garden, but that’s the music I find myself turning to more and more these days, and now it’s become A Thing–even when my neighbor isn’t blasting country music, I still put in my earbuds and crank the volume just high enough that I can lose myself in the noise and the work.

This act of listening to punk while I garden is my meditation on cultivation, destruction, and the intersection of the two. It is my meditation on the mundane and why the mundane is magical and worth saving. It is my meditation on power and abuse and resistance. It is my meditation on how to save the world, one tomato at a time.

#FridayReads: Finishing School

I read Finishing School: The Happy Ending to that Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done awhile ago, but have been too caught up with life to write about it, which is ironic in a sad, pathetic way.

Here’s the thing, though–I didn’t need to read this book. Sometimes I struggle to finish things, but I do finish them. I’ve written two books plus three novels for National Novel Writing Month, so clearly I’m capable of finishing things.

photo of the book finishing school on top of a notebook

Here’s Finishing School on top of the notebook containing the almost-complete first draft of my novel-in-progress.

Even so, I’m always looking for ways to improve myself, my writing, and my writing process. Hence my obsession with self-help and time management books. And that’s what Finishing School is, really–a self-help/time management book for writers.

It’s written by writing buddy duo Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton, with alternating chapters in each of their voices. Sometimes this is annoying, but here I thought it was helpful to have two different perspectives on the writing process and its pitfalls.

The book’s premise is a simple accountability system geared toward writers specifically. You find a group of people (or a single partner) who are all working on a writing project. You set up a regular meeting time. At the meeting, you talk about your project, then pull out your calendar and schedule times you are going to work on your writing project. Then you go your separate ways, do your writing thing, and report back at the next meeting. During the week, you text or email your writing buddy to let them know when you start and finish your writing sessions. They do the same, and everyone (ideally) feels motivated to get their writing done.

You’ve probably heard over and over, in many different contexts, that having an accountability partner–for quitting smoking, losing weight, learning a new language–makes you more likely to succeed. So you don’t really need a book to tell you the same will work for writing.

That’s not all Finishing School is, though. It also explores the common writing hangups people get stuck on. Things like fear, insecurity, jealousy, despair, and all the other wonderful negative emotions that plague humanity.

Only after it goes through all the reasons you might not be writing does it get to the accountability stuff. This is smart, in my opinion. It’s the same in customer service: you have to deal with the upset customer’s emotions before you can address the root problem.

If you’ve been having trouble completing a writing project, you may want to give this book a try.