Economics of Poverty Between the Posthuman and the Other in Ancillary Sword


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers


Economics of Poverty Between the Posthuman and the Other in Ancillary Sword

Amanda Pavani Fernandes

Narratives about cyborgs, artificial intelligences, and genetically modified beings have contributed to criticism regarding previously closed definitions about humanity, about sentience, and especially about gender. Ann Leckie’s literature, notably her award-winning Imperial Radch trilogy, has been particularly relevant to all these areas of study. However, research about her writing has not considered as profoundly the intersection between posthumanism and economic structures of inequality. While there is much scholarship regarding the tension between corporeal and virtual experiences for posthuman characters on the one side, and solid arguments for Leckie’s colonial criticism and political debate, these perspectives have rarely intersected. In this paper, I propose a discussion focused precisely on the liminal figure of Breq, Leckie’s protagonist. 

Counterintuitively, Breq’s previous experiences as a being with reduced agency and subjectivity have led her to a position in which her actions foster communal empathy and even subvert economies of poverty. When I use the term “economies of poverty,” I refer to all systems whose function depends on fabricating and maintaining poverty—that is, capitalist and colonialist societies in fictional environments. For this analysis, I focus on Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, published in 2014, the second instalment in her Radch series. This study centres around Breq, former ancillary and current Fleet Captain, from two main perspectives in relation to her actions in the plot of the novel: as a multiple entity that must deal with a sudden and cruel individuality, and as an empire representative. I propose that her inner conflict resulting from the loss of her ship and multiple bodies unravels a sequence of events that results in the exposure of a slave trade in one of the empire’s systems, provoking a strike amongst the oppressed peoples and realignment between governance and colonial values. To accompany my thesis, I consider David Le Breton’s remarks about corporeality in cyberpunk and cyberspace in L’Adieu au corps [1] for my first section on Breq’s conflict as a newly found individual, Kathi Weeks’s feminist and Marxist analysis in The Problem with Work on the association between value and work, as it creates positions of hierarchy, and Dillon and Dillon’s links between sovereignty and governance in Leckie’s first novel. I propose that Breq escapes common artificial intelligence tropes, and that her unique set of experiences—as a Ship, as an ancillary, as a Fleet Captain for the Radch—puts her in a position to challenge the supposed unity of the sovereign, as she aligns herself, through governance power, with the oppressed ethnicities in the Athoek system.

In the first part of this paper, I look specifically at Breq’s subjective trajectory. In Ancillary Sword, the character makes it explicit that she was born a “normal” person—that is, a common human with an individual body—but that around the age of seventeen she was kidnapped, her mind emptied of the person she used to be, and later transformed into in ancillary. In Leckie’s universe, ancillaries are human-born enhanced series of servants, or, as Breq puts it, “part of the Ship. There was, often, a vague, paradoxical sense that each decade [each series of ancillaries] had its own almost-identity, but that existed alongside the knowledge that every ancillary was just one part of the larger thing, just hands and feet—and a voice—for Ship” (Sword 57). Ancillaries, then, are humans implanted with a technology that grants them inhuman strength but, more importantly, a near-immediate constant experiential connection with other ancillaries of their series, known as their “decade” in the novels, and with their ship. The first novel in that series, Ancillary Justice (2013), focuses on her previous experiences as the Ship Justice of Toren and subsequently as the isolated ancillary, One Esk. Although the first instinct would be to read Breq, through all her subjective perspectives, as a typical cyborg whose existence is largely virtual, clad with enhancements, or even with a longing for her lost human identity, the protagonist is actually marked by her several experiences of body, her “corporealities,” even.

In Le Breton’s L’Adieu au corps, the thinker approaches at large the issue of body and mind in classical cyberpunk, highlighting the trend of abandoning the body as obsolete in order to transcend towards more evolved or elevated experiences. In Sword, however, Leckie gives her readership a cyborg-like creature for whom bodies and their experience are central to existence. While Le Breton claims that, “connected to cyberspace, bodies dissolve. . . . The infosphere traveller no longer feels imprisoned in a physical body” (124, my translation); for Breq, her experience as Justice of Toren and One Esk consisted of navigating the empirical world through multiple bodies. She had always been able to tap into whichever ancillary was looking and experiencing without thinking about it: her subjectivity, thus, is rooted on bodies and on sharing their experiences. 

In Ancillary Sword, however, the reader watches her grapple with being an individual, even if a partially connected one. As Fleet Captain, she can monitor her crew through the Ship, but now she is not integral to the artificial intelligence behind it all; she becomes a commander and passes as human. Roosa Töyrylä, in her master’s dissertation, observes that Breq can now “perceive the world via other people’s senses, but she does not perceive it via their knowledge, emotions, or ideologies” (25). Therefore, while cyberspace stories tend to focus on the dissolution of bodies, Leckie’s ancillaries highlight the shared experience of having multiple bodies, instead, which brings a new perspective for cyborgs, automatons, and artificial intelligences. While the latter tend to be similarly omnipresent, they are rarely corporeal. In addition to that, Leckie’s narration includes the many ruptures and instances of trauma involved in going from being a human person to a Ship, to an ancillary, to an enhanced individual passing for human again. 

Breq explicitly mentions her trauma when confronting another recently emptied human. Upon revealing that her Lieutenant Tisarwat was in fact an empty vessel for Anaander Mianaai to spy on her, she tells her, “I was the same age when it happened to me” (Sword 55).  Moreover, Breq is an individual profoundly marked by isolation and by the experience of being reified into an ancillary, despite not remembering her original self. That is one of the factors that enables her to become an agent of economic and social change in the Athoek system as a Fleet Captain for the Radch Empire. Her experiences make her, ancillary or not, rooted in collective experiences, but these experiences would not resolve by themselves: the events in Sword make her question her trajectory. The novel opens with a conversation she has with one version of Anaander Mianaai. The emperor says, “I’ll miss you, you know . . . few have the . . . similarity of background you and I have,” hinting at the fact they are both multiple and yet separated from their former parts. However, Breq does not consider that an equal position. Her inner monologue comments, “Because I had once been a ship. An AI controlling an enormous troop carrier and thousands of ancillaries, human bodies, part of myself. At the time I had not thought of myself as a slave, but I had been a weapon of conquest, the possession of Annander Mianaai, herself occupying thousands of bodies spread throughout Radch space” (4). Her collective-oriented character results both from trauma and from reflection about her condition. 

Throughout the novel, as she navigates political forces and corruption around inequality, she is also grappling with a loneliness that is unique to her: she misses being connected, not merely virtually, but in terms of body. She does not miss sex, but the lack of bodily and mental connection affects her deeply. Seivarden, the only lieutenant who knows her true identity, speculates about the effects of her trauma, saying, “it must be like having parts of your body cut off. And never replaced” (46), but Breq refuses to elaborate on it. Later, when describing decade quarters, she comments on the enclosed space, restless for human officers, but somewhat comforting for ancillaries (27). Breq, then, is a cyborg that is in conflict with the bodily experience; Leckie’s protagonist is evidence that virtual and enhanced intelligences may be more than an escape from supposed limitations of the flesh, but to expand on how one perceives the world materially. Le Breton’s view, then, of the body as prison, is subverted: the body, in Leckie’s series, comforts and empowers. That materiality, added to her conscience about slavery, instrumentalises her to act towards change in Athoek.

That perspective provides a window into the second section of this argument: Breq the Fleet Captain. Sarah Dillon and Michael Dillon, in their chapter for AI Narratives (2020), look into the structures of sovereignty and governance in Leckie’s universe. In Ancillary Sword, Breq represents governance, or the “changing contingent and particular circumstances” (334), that is, as the administrative labour enforcing the rules dictated by the sovereign, the multiple-bodied Anaander Minaai. However, that sovereign is also multiple, incongruent, and at war with herself through (at least) three factions. While the sovereign, in its figure, must be a symbol of unity, its breakage provides an opening from which governance, that is, the instrumental staff in the Mercy of Kalr, does not take over, but manages based on partial empirical ideology. By partial empirical ideology, I mean that their management is based on the image of empire values they have and the experiences they have retained about Mianaai—which is, incidentally, at times as broken as the subject of the sovereign herself. As Dillon and Dillon emphasize, governance is inherently heterogeneous (335), in its negotiation between regulations and enforcement in practice. In Ancillary Sword, Breq does not hide that she is operating under the order of Anaander Mianaai nor that the sovereign has been fractured for more than a thousand years. Some characters question her authority under that knowledge, at which Breq only replies simply, “But I really do have orders” (Sword 122). That response is often successful to the extent that these other characters recognise her as a powerful subject, as well. It also functions by reminding them that no action there is autonomous, recalling the image of the sovereign (while thinly reshaping what the image of the sovereign may be) and its supposed unity.

Of course, Breq is not entirely disinterested in her choice of location to intervene. Athoek is the birthplace of former Lieutenant Awn, her superior when she was Justice of Toren. While seeking to compensate for Awn’s demise to her living sister by making her Breq’s heir, the Fleet Captain discovers an economics of poverty that had been feeding off citizen bodies like they were ancillaries. Other colonialist practices of fabricating poverty include, for example, indentured work and exorbitant systems of debt upon wages, added to a fetishization of luxury products such as hand-picked tea leaves. 

Athoek, the narrator establishes early on, is a planet whose economy revolves around the production of tea leaves. Several ethnicities seem to compose its population, each with its own economically assigned role and subsequent stereotypes. Athoeki are, according to the people in power, mainly the Xhai; the Samirend are described as a people who were colonised “successfully” and who achieved certain level of success; the Ychana and the Valskaayan, on the other hand, are described as uncivilised and “good for nothing.” The richest tea farmer describes them as lazy, echoing typical coloniser discourse on people who refuse to be assimilated: 

They have plenty of opportunity to become civilised. Why, look at the Samirend! . . . The Valskaayans have every opportunity, but do they take advantage of it? I don’t know if you saw their residence—a very nice guesthouse, fully as nice as the house I live in myself, but it’s practically a ruin. They can’t be bothered to keep their surroundings nice. But they go quite extravagantly into debt over a musical instrument, or a new handheld. (213, emphasis in original)

Fosif Denche, said tea farmer, criticises his [2] workers for using their wages (and more) to acquire consumer products, ignoring that he is the one providing and setting the prices for these products. Sisix, the Ychana character who accompanies Breq, reveals the true side of that subordinate relationship, saying,

There are generally some garden plots if they want to grow vegetables, but they have to buy seeds and tools and it’s time out from picking tea. They’re houseless, so they don’t have family to give them the things they need, they have to buy them. They can’t any of them get travel permits, so they can’t go very far to buy anything. They can’t order things because they don’t have any money at all, they’re too heavily in debt to get credit, so Fosif sells them things—handhelds, access to entertainments, better food, whatever—at whatever price she wants. (199)

As Kathi Weeks notes in The Problem with Work, “waged work remains today the centerpiece of late capitalist economic systems” (6); as such, Leckie’s tea farmer exploits the people picking tea by following the rules whilst bending them through a monopoly of entertainment, sustenance, and general survival. Such a practice of isolation and indentured work has many examples in the many years of class struggle—a notable one, for example, is the Massacre of Eldorado dos Carajás, in 1996, in the Brazilian state of Pará, when workers revolted by invading a farm. Later, they gathered over four thousand people to march to Belém protesting for land rights; on the way, they were brutally shot at by the state’s military police; nineteen people died, and many were injured. [3]

Weeks also observes the discursive practice of making work individual and private, not structural and collective. According to her, “this effort to make work at once public and political is, then, one way to counter the forces that would naturalize, privatize, individualize, ontologize and also, thereby, depoliticize it” (7). She also adds that the analysis of work relations of subordination and domination are at the root of wage contracts—a notable phenomenon in the economic and social system at Athoek.

Considering the system’s configurations, there are both Fleet Captain Breq and the longstanding economy of poverty in Athoek. Upon her arrival at the Station, she takes residence at Undergarden, an abandoned section of the old station, inhabited by many Ychana, among others. When there is an accusation of vandalism in that territory, she does not assume that Fosif’s daughter was innocent simply from her house name. Called an “uncomfortable company” by the governor (Sword 75), Breq mediates the conflict towards the resolution of the novel, revealing on top of the exploitation and alienation imposed upon the colonised peoples in Athoek an ancient structure of sexual abuse and slave traffic. Although Breq justifies her intervention through Radch ideology (“if there’s injustice here, it is only because the Lord of the Radch isn’t sufficiently present” [231]), she simultaneously and purposefully ignores that the Lord of the Radch has not been one for a long time and, therefore, that the ideology of assimilating peoples, providing them with citizenship, right of passage, and fair work, remains a part of the sovereign. 

Governance power, originally meant to reinforce political power, exposes an economy of poverty that leads the Valskaayan to exert for the first time their refusal of work. However, that chain of events is unlocked as a result of Breq processing her own corporeal trauma, becoming capable of identifying similar systems of inequality and oppression around her, and using her position of governance to enact change. As the novel is concluded, the Valskaayans strike and begin bargaining for labour rights. Breq’s unique position, which lets her visualise structural flaws (her broken identity and previous multiple bodies) pushes her to act upon them at the same time, enabling a reform in economic and societal norms.

NOTES

[1] In this paper, I refer to the Brazilian Portuguese version, translated by Marina Appenzeller (2003).

[2] Editor’s Note: We do not know the biological sex nor the gender of Denche nor of most of the other characters in the series.

[3] There are not many sources in English; one of them is Amnesty International’s website <https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2016/04/the-eldorado-dos-carajas-massacre-20-years-of-impunity-and-violence-in-brazil/>. Other sources in Brazilian Portuguese include <https://mst.org.br/2021/04/16/25-anos-do-massacre-de-eldorado-dos-carajas-marca-a-luta-internacional-camponesa/> and <https://reporterbrasil.org.br/2021/04/massacre-de-eldorado-dos-carajas-25-feridos-nunca-foram-indenizados-diz-associacao/>. All pages were accessed on Aug. 18, 2021.

WORKS CITED

Dillon, Sarah; Dillon, Michael. “Artificial Intelligence and the Sovereign-Governance Game.” AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, edited by Stephen Cave, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon, Oxford UP, 2020, pp. 333–56.

Le Breton, David. Adeus ao corpo: Antropologia e Sociedade. Translated by Marina Appenzeller. Papirus, 2003.

Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Justice. Orbit, 2013.

—. Ancillary Sword. Orbit, 2014.

Töyrylä, Roosa. “I might as well be human. But I’m not:” Focalization and Narration in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy. 2020. University of Helsinki, Master’s thesis. Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Duke UP, 2011.

Amanda Pavani Fernandes has a doctorate in Literatures in English and a master’s degree from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Currently she is a professor of English Language and Literature at the State University of Mato Grosso (UNEMAT). She is a co-founder of research group NEUFIC, based in Minas Gerais, focusing on science fiction and utopianisms. Her research interests include sf, artificial intelligences, the simulacrum, utopia and education, amongst other topics. Contact: mandiepavani@gmail.com.


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