In Praise of Difficult Genre Fiction

by S.B.

A while back I was fortunate to read, in close succession, three masterful works in the science fiction/fantasy genre that I would deem “difficult”.

Now, before I go any further, please realize that in this application, I do not associate difficult with anything negative. Rather, I see difficult as an exciting challenge to be met rather than a daunting obstacle to overcome. I suppose I could have used the word “demanding” instead, but that seemed petulant, and these books are nothing of the sort; instead, each one of the is intelligent, incredibly well-conceived and, for me at least, mesmerizing.

The books in question are Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie.

(PLEASE NOTE:  In my discussion of these three books, there will be SPOILERS for those of you who may not yet have read them. If you have not – but plan on – reading any of these three named works, you may want to consider skipping the exposition paragraphs and move directly to the final portion of the essay, which I will mark with another note such as this one.)

Aurora is a “hard” science fiction novel, meaning that it is just as full of “real” science as it is fiction. In it, we follow an Earth-based generational ship bent on colonization as it finally reaches its destination, only to witness the failure of its primary mission due to the impossibility of being able to anticipate and respond to all the potential variables of what might go wrong. The inhabitants of the ship – none of which by this time have ever set foot on Earth – must now decide whether to push on to other potentially habitable planets, or to commit to another 400-year journey to return to an Earth that no longer feels like home.

Empire Ascendant is the second installment of Kameron Hurley’s “The Worldbreaker Saga”, in which parallel universes can be breached by portals created during the ascendancy of the dark star Oma, using a powerful and bloody magic. However, one can only pass through a portal if your doppelganger no longer exists on the other side. One instance of the world is dying, and looks to acquire another through conquest and bloodshed; that more docile world is already awash in the flames of an injected war. Yet all it takes is a few persons – one here, one there, one trying to cobble together a resistance, another looking to exploit weakness -to place stumbling blocks in the way of total conquest. But is the invading force truly evil? Is the besieged world really the one that deserves to be saved?

Ancillary Mercy is the third and concluding volume of Ann Leckie’s “The Imperial Radch Series”. Here we have the ruler of an empire who is at war with herself, starships manned by “ancillaries” (corpse soldiers imbued with interlinked artificial intelligence, no longer individual sentient beings but integrated units who identify strongly as a whole), a clandestine single surviving ancillary from a destroyed warship in a position of power and bent on both a personal and an over-arching justice, mercenary and political intrigue, and an ambassador from a powerful alien race, who is both disarming and incredibly threatening, along for the ride.

(NOTE:  Thus endeth the spoilage. Specific discussions will ensue, but should not include any real spoilers.)

Each of these books may have what sounds like a fairly simple storyline, but that is a fallacy borne of having to make do for the sake of expediency. While each “synopsis” can have a main point highlighted in order to outline one of the major threads of the book, each in reality has an incredibly complex and intricate plot that would be impossible to adequately encapsulate without a mind-numbing amount of exposition. Yet any attempt at a thorough summarization would rob the books of one of their greatest assets:  how dexterously they draw you into their complex worlds.

Additionally, each has a complexity of character that is not contingent on quirkiness or emotional in/stability, but rather, on the world in which they inhabit. For instance, in Aurora, the parents of what will become the “main” character are worried that their daughter has been handicapped by what appears to be an unforeseen degradation caused by being the fourth generation born on a finite “world”, lacking by necessity the diversity of expansion and rapid evolution that is/can be a part of human makeup/environment. The validity of this fear is never resolved, nor does it really need to be. Whether the daughter is handicapped or not, the question has been raised in the reader’s mind and therefore has become part of the underpinning of the story, as well as augmenting the “circumstances beyond our control” theme that exists throughout this narrative. Arguments as to “character complexity due to their created worlds” could be made in the other two texts, as well (although admittedly they are harder to draw in Empire Ascendant, not due to a lack of validity, but due to a plethora of “main” characters).

But what makes these books truly difficult – and again, I say this as a plus, not a negative – is that each of them also includes an additional, specific layer of complexity that, at first glance, may seem like a novelty but is really the crux of the biscuit; the symbolism (not the best word, but I can’t think of anything better) that defines the reality. While the story and characterizations would stand (somewhat more weakly, but stand nonetheless) without this additional layer of complexity, the writing itself would suffer greatly.

In Aurora, it is the hard science that is daunting. Large sections of the narrative come from the ship itself, as a mechanical and computational attempt to interpret commands given to it by more biologically intuitive minds. The ship understands hard science and has to work from that vantage point to determine, for example, what it means to “document” life on the ship.  To what detail, giving weight to what information, in continuity or as points of data, following what chronology, if any, using what nomenclature? We as readers, as humans, assume and infer; the ship – being a ship – does neither.

To be honest, the computations that the ship goes through at various points in the narrative – pages and pages of thorough and (I am led to understand) legitimate, verifiable computations – had me completely boggled. I simply could not follow. So I ended up skipping paragraphs, passages, even pages of text. And the funny thing is – that was okay. Any insight that might have been gleaned in an explicit understanding of each sentence in those sections would have been totally lost on me – but what I did gain was a sense of progress, a movement towards understanding:  the ship of what it had been tasked to do, and myself as a reader of what the expedition was up against. I didn’t need to read every page of these computations and equations to understand what was happening, but I did need to know that all those incomprehensible (to me) pages were there, to keep the sheer complexity of what was being undertaken – which was a major part of this world – at the fore.

For Empire Ascendant, the complexity comes through a sense of displacement (well, that and the aforementioned fact that it has no singular “main” character, but instead many characters that drive the plot forward; some get more ink than others, but do not necessarily carry more weight). There is the tangible displacement of having to keep track of different universes that are populated by the same characters (for the most part) that do not necessarily follow the same paths, but there is also a gender displacement that is never explained, being such a staunch part of Ms. Hurley’s created world that there is no need for a prepared explanation. In discussions of the first book of the series, The Mirror Empire, the question was often raised “Where are the men?” There are men in that book – one of the main characters, and a ruling leader, is a man, but he tends to be a fish out of water, more benevolent and therefore less equipped to face the rigors facing his land (Ahkio’s growth is one of the wonderful narratives of The Mirror Empire). But there are far more women in the book; women in power, women as the heads of state/church/establishment, women as military leaders, women as bloodthirsty warriors. Men are not (necessarily) subservient just because they are men, they simply do not appear in the starring roles as often as the women do. Some men play crucial roles but in more typically feminine forms, such as beloved spouses/concubines (although relationships seem to be less based on gender and more on temperament). And men do not resent the ascendency of women simply because they are women; it merely is the way of the world.

In Empire Ascendant, we do see more men, and some in high ranking roles, but we also see instances such as where an important character in the first book has been addressed as a male but during the course of the narrative into the second book has naturally transitioned into the feminine – something that is accepted as normal for this type of person. The inference is that she will transition again, given time. We also see gender neutral pronouns slip in (which I took to be misprints at first) with no explanation. This level of social/gender complexity not only keeps the reader somewhat off kilter, but also on an underlying sense of alert, giving agency to the tension that is constant throughout this superbly realized narrative, although this female-based hierarchy is normal and accepted in the Mirror Empire; the additional tension is ours alone (heavens knows, life is tense enough in the narrative!).

In Ann Leckie’s trilogy-concluding Ancillary Mercy, we not only get an almost bewildering yet highly intuitive main character (once a human who has been part of a warship’s contingent of linked ancillaries for hundreds of years, who is then stranded as a lone survivor of that colony/entity, who now is perceived by many as human but is still inextricably equipped with implants and enhancements so as to allow internal communications with other ships and other mechanized systems, parading as wholly human on a space station and on a ship where humans are no longer used as ancillaries but where its human crew strives to be ancillary-like as a point of pride without realizing that their commander is, in fact, an eons old ancillary….), but we also get an even more pointed gender disruption than in Kameron Hurley’s “Worldbreaker” books.

In the “Ancillary” books, not only the default pronoun but also the general/expected pronoun is always female, whether or not the character being referred to is biologically male or female. “Her”, “she”, “hers” are constants. You do not know throughout the course of the entire series if Fleet Captain Breq is male or female, if Seivarden, Breq’s closest confidante and the only one who knows her entire story, is male or female, or if the Emperor herself – and all her clones – is biologically equipped with male or female genitalia. The default is always the feminine. This is an amazingly effective device! Until gender is removed (by process of defaulting always to a single gender), one does not realize how much the mind creates images – both physical and in the abstract – using a gendered lens, and then attributes certain behaviors to those images. To add even more intellectual complexity, the characters in the “Ancillary” books often talk about not being sure which is the correct and proper gendered pronoun to use when speaking to a foreign entity or in a nonstructured situation (giving rise to the idea that gender is even more complex than we realize). Still, we as readers are always given the feminine, even in the few times where we know the character is male (such as someone speaking of their “brother”).  Perhaps our language does not yet have the ability to convey the complexity of this universe’s gender bias? Nevertheless, the effect is one of a highly structured, formal imbalance, which truly helps to summarize the feel of Ms. Leckie’s world.

The universal point I am trying to make with all three of these books is that their complexities makes them…. difficult. Difficult in that they are not easy. In that there is a challenge to reading each of them.

Oh, but the payoff! The payoff of digging a little deeper, at both paying a bit more attention and also letting go of a bit more of the expected, of hanging in there a little bit longer, at not just taking a leap of faith, but allowing yourself to be led over a tightrope of faith, makes the experience so much deeper, so much richer, so much denser, so much better. Not “better than” – just gloriously better. 

This is part of why I love fantasy and science fiction so much. Because this genre can give such layers of complexity without becoming bloated or intellectually obtuse, or conversely can revel in the simple and straightforward (hey, I passionately love The Lord of the Rings, as well!), and anywhere in between. This incredible range of possibility may be available to other genres, but rarely is it achieved as successfully, as frequently. It is in this genre that I can honestly say that its most difficult fiction can also be its most rewarding.

-Sharon Browning

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