I read Ancillary Sword during the week that a jury failed to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown. I am writing this post on the day that a jury refused to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner. Justice is on my mind. Inequality is on my mind. Privilege is on my mind, as is a sense of helplessness. As it happens, these topics are all addressed in Ancillary Sword. Science Fiction uses metaphor to address real problems. It is up to us to move that metaphor into literal action.
Ancillary Justice was a book that (justly) won a ton of awards and had a huge amount of buzz. It introduces a character named Breq, who is the sole survivor of a spaceship. Breq was an Ancillary, meaning that she was part of a hive mind that included the ship. Breq spends the novel seeking vengeance on who or what had her ship destroyed. I reviewed Ancillary Justice here.
Ancillary Sword is the second book in the trilogy. At the start of this book, Breq has allied with part of her maker’s personality and has been assigned to Athoek system. This book continues to upend expectations about gender by having Breq, the narrator, refer to all characters by female pronouns. The book also paints a picture of a world in which some lives have more value than others. Breq refuses to believe in the concept of the expendable person, and this puts her at odds with the governing body of the system she’s supposed to be stabilizing.
Ancillary Sword is very much about inequality and justice. An ethnic group is forced to work on tea plantations. They are not given access to education, other job opportunities, or adequate, respectful medical care. They are paid wages, but forced to spend them at the equivalent of the Company Store at which all commodities are over-priced. Thus they are always in debt and of course they can’t leave without paying their debt. It’s a form of covert slavery that is all too familiar (if you are unfamiliar with some of the forms of forced servitude practiced in the US today, you might start your research with This Article From The Atlantic).
Meanwhile, in the book, when new worlds are colonized, the planet’s inhabitants are captured and put into suspension until they are needed as Ancillary bodies. These people are disposable – their bodies are more useful than their selves. And the Ancillaries they become are equally disposable, because you can always download a new mind into another body.
On Athoek Station, there’s a level that is densely populated but utterly ignored. Medics allow people to bleed to death because there’s no point in going someplace that no one is supposed to be in – despite the fact that people are quite clearly living there. For the same reason, the lifts are broken, there’s no plumbing, no services of any kind. One of the plot threads involves an aristocrat who frames these underworld residents for various crimes – knowing that they will always be blamed. Because of the aristocrat’s status, she will never be accused of a crime, even when she is filmed at the scene. It can’t be her because she is who she is and people like her are never blamed, never punished, Q.E.D. That means someone else has to be punished – and they are punished for minor crimes by having their bones broken and in some cases by being shot.
Science Fiction has always been a realm that tackles tough topics by using metaphor. Sometimes these metaphors are heavy-handed. Remember that episode of Star Trek: The Original Series in which war was fought between people who had black and white faces, but one guy had white on the left and one on the right? The episode was “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and it was unforgivably unsubtle – but it was able to talk about racial prejudice in a way that other shows simply could not get away with. Sometimes the metaphors are deployed more gracefully. The fact remains: science fiction can address hard things by disguising them as something else, or at least by pretending that they are happening to someone else, somewhere (and sometime) else.
On salon.com, Sonia Sariya wrote a searing article titled “Mockingjay’s Eerie Echoes of Ferguson: Our Real Dystopian Nightmare.” In this article, she discusses the way protestors around the country and the world are using imagery and slogans from “The Hunger Games” trilogy. “The Hunger Games” portrays a dystopia in which the lives of children, most specifically poor children, are expendable. Sonia points out that most of the victims of police brutality and other violence have been not only black but also young. “The Hunger Games”, she says, are happening now.
The frills might be different, but the basic underlying hypocrisy of “The Hunger Games”’ Panem and the present-day United States is the same: Some children matter more than others. Mike Brown was eight days out of high school when he was gunned down. Trayvon Martin, 17. Cameron Tillman, 14. Tamir Rice, shot the same weekend “Mockingjay” premiered, a mere 12 years old.
And these are all children killed by the state. At what point do the fine distinctions between “Hunger Games peacekeeper” and “American police officer” break down? At what point does the knowledge that black teen boys, aged 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement not sound like dystopia? How profound must this feeling of disenfranchisement be, that these young people in Ferguson would even for a moment consider equating Panem and America? So profound, apparently, that for them there is no significant difference. The odds, as the rebels scrawl with their graffiti in “Catching Fire,” are never in their favor.
Ancillary Sword addresses what happens when some lives count more than others. It also addresses our terrible failure to see and acknowledge what is in front of us. Police brutality against people of color is not new. Neither is the kind of racial violence that has made the news in the last few years, such as the shootings of Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin. White people seem astonished to discover that to be a black person is to live in danger, and some white people seem determined to dismiss this reality rather than acknowledge their role in allowing it to continue.
Mallory Ortberg, in The Toast, said of the jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo,
Eric Garner died unarmed. He died on the ground. He died because of an illegal chokehold. We saw it. The grand jury saw it.
They saw it, and we saw it, and collectively we said, “We didn’t see that. That didn’t happen.” And Daniel Panteleo won’t be arrested. He won’t be charged. We saw it happen, and we said that it didn’t happen, and until we solve that problem, body cameras won’t do a bit of good.
One of Breq’s frustrations is that every time she tries to get some kind of justice or basic services for the residents of the underworld, she’s told, “People aren’t supposed to be here.” A variety of people say this to Breq, usually with the implication that because people aren’t supposed to live in the underworld, they aren’t actually there. They will say this as residents of the underworld bleed to death at their feet. It’s not supposed to happen, so it isn’t happening, and since it isn’t happening, no one has to fix it. Nor can the residents fix it themselves, because they are caught in a Catch-22 of oppression and perception in which passivity is rewarded with inaction and protest with punishment:
“These people are citizens…When they behave properly, you will say there is no problem. When they complain loudly, you will say they cause their own problems with their impropriety. And when they are driven to extremes, you say you will not reward such actions. What will it take for you to listen?”
Earlier this year, the Isla Vista shootings prompted thousands of women on twitter, Facebook, and other media to share their stories of living in fear as women. The #yesallwomen hashtag came from the common, defensive response: “Not all men are like that.” “No, not all men threaten women,” was the response sent out through social media, “but yes, all women have been threatened by men.”
Now we see a similar movement with the hashtags #blacklivesmatter, #HandsUpDon’tShoot, and #ICan’tBreathe. There is a desperate struggle to be seen, for injustice and inequity to be acknowledged.
But beyond recognition, there is a desperate desire for change – and no one seems to know how to get it. Breq’s frustrations in Ancillary Sword resonate with readers because they are our own frustrations. I want to take the principles that I admire from heroes in science fiction and apply them to the challenges of today, but I don’t know what is the most effective action to take. Breq’s actions seem to suggest the value of small victories. I don’t know if it will make a difference if I march, or write a letter, or sign a petition, or talk to other people. But I do know that silence is complicity and inaction is death. I learned that from science fiction.