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Worlds Without End Blog

Guest Post by Ann Leckie: Personhood and Song Posted at 7:06 PM by Jonathan McDonald


Ann Leckie has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew, a lunch lady, and a recording engineer. The author of many published short stories, and secretary of the Science Fiction Writers of America, she lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, children, and cats.

What does it mean to be human? It’s a really difficult question to answer, and one that science fiction and fantasy are particularly well-suited to tackling. Not that there’s ever been any sort of simple answer even (especially?) through fiction, but SF&F can present us with a range of characters that test the boundaries of what it means to be a person, and what that might imply about what it means to be human.

Androids and artificial intelligences are a favorite vehicle for this sort of exploration. If you build a machine that looks or acts just like a person, what’s the difference? Is there one? Is that difference important? Why? It was a question I was going to have to consider, a question that was, in some ways, going to be crucial to my novel, Ancillary Justice.

The narrator of Ancillary Justice is the troop carrier Justice of Toren. And also a unit of twenty bodies slaved to Justice of Toren, the ancillary unit Justice of Toren One Esk. My narrator is an artificial intelligence that’s also made up of human bodies. What sort of being is this?

As I was pondering that question, something occurred to me: all those bodies have voices. What do people do, with their voices? What would I do, if I had twenty voices?

Justice of Toren One Esk has a hobby–it likes to sing. There aren’t really many other hobbies One Esk could have. It’s not really a person, it’s part of Justice of Toren, and it exists to help maintain the ship, to fight, or to serve its officers. Ancillary units don’t have lives or interests apart from that. Except, One Esk does.

Singing is something that pretty much every culture does. Voices are, after all, capable of making all sorts of music, and music is one of those things that people just kind of do. In the absence of any other instrument, people will sing.

One Esk has twenty voices, and so, of course, it favors choral music. Choral music has a long history–but it’s hard to be sure how long, because in the absence of sound recording or written notation, music is ephemeral–let one generation forget a song, and it’s gone forever. But we do have fragments of ancient Greek choruses. People have tried to reconstruct the music, and some people have even recorded their attempts, though how closely they match what an ancient Greek theater audience would have heard is a question. Here’s one reconstruction:

Of course, people singing together isn’t just a Western thing. Like I said, pretty much every culture does it.

Try this Inuit throat singing:

Or these Aka singers:

I could go on and on. Because pretty much every culture sings, and pretty much every culture has developed singing into something very much their own–the two examples above don’t sound like European choral music, do they. They’re products of their own, distinct musical traditions, very different from what most of us are used to, but there’s at least that one thing in common–people singing together. Singing together can fill all kinds of needs–it can be an expression of belonging, cheap entertainment, emotional expression, religious ritual, straightforward communication, and more. It’s likely that as long as people have been singing–and that’s probably a very long time–they’ve been singing together. So choral music doubtless has a much, much longer and wider history than we’re able to easily see.

The troop carrier Justice of Toren is some two thousand years old, and One Esk has been collecting songs for nearly that entire time–from its officers, and from the people the Radch conquers and assimilates. The songs that One Esk sings, in Ancillary Justice, are some of them made up. But some of them are real, existing songs that, for one reason or another, I felt belonged in that story. Here’s one, “Clamanda,” from the Sacred Harp (though this performance is not actually the arrangement from the Sacred Harp–I chose it because it lets you hear the melody clearly, and it’s nice ):

That’s not the only shapenote tune in the book. There’s also one from The Missouri Harmony called “Bunker Hill”:

Fair warning on that one–shapenote singers don’t generally sing for performance, they sing for themselves. The sound can be a trifle rough, particularly if you’re not used to it. I’d have linked to a more easily digestible recording if I could have.

The third and last of the real world songs is “L’homme Arme.” It was a popular song in its day–which was the Rennaisance. This performance of it is the preface of the Kyrie from Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa L’Homme Arme, a mass that used the song as its basis. There are quite a lot of masses based on the song, in fact, but I’m partial to this one:

“L’homme Arme” may not be as popular as it once was, but it’s still being used:

In Ancillary Justice, One Esk’s singing is something that amuses or annoys the people around it. It also marks One Esk as unusual, separate from other units of other ships. Even from other units of Justice of Toren. One Esk isn’t separate from other units of Justice of Toren. Not really. It’s part of the ship’s body. But ultimately, as is clear in the very first chapter of the book, Justice of Toren is reduced to one, single ancillary, One Esk Nineteen. Or, since that doesn’t really work well for introducing herself to people, Breq. And the music is still very much a part of who she is, the way music is for so many of us. It’s one of those things that people do.

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