Ann Leckie: The Imperial Radch
Orwellian culture, AIs, gender blindness — and tea!
Full Worlds is an ethnography podcast where we meet the worlds of its creators. In this episode, we talk to Ann Leckie and her sci-fi series Imperial Radch, with a culture obsessed with virtue signaling as a way of showing one’s place in the hierarchy and an eye-opening view on gender.
In the world of the Imperial Radch, humanity has spread across the vast universe for over 10000 years. A strong culture, the Radch, is the dominant power of the human race.
An Orwellian structure kept in check though culture
Radch is a very top-down hierarchical culture, being kept in order by an obsession with purity, and being “civilized” — and virtue signaling of these.
The Radch hierarchy is very strong and overt. At the top of the hierarchy is Anaander Mianaai, who has multiple copies of herself, all connected, to rule over this huge space. Underneath Anaander Mianaai are the highest, the most aristocratic houses, which are sort of houses are sort of extended families. These various layers go down further until you get to the folks who are not in in houses, but are in clientage to them.
It is a strong social bond, that leads to a very undemocratic structure, looking more like ancient Rome than current times.
Clientage is a really important relationship, more significant than then something being lovers or parents would be. One owes one’s loyalty and service to a house or a person who has granted you clientage. They support you, give you gifts and help you get along. For someone who has no patron, there are very few avenues available, you have nobody to pay bribes for you or to help pay for your children’s education and so on. The hierarchy is sort of baked into the social structure.
Radch has multiple deities, symbols, and practices that we see everywhere — but religion is more signaling than life guidance.
Religion is less about believing the right thing, being a certain kind of person, or following particular rules, but more of doing the things you’re supposed to do — showing up at the temple, making an offering, saying that right prayers at the right time, particularly in public. There are some institutions for religious practice, but the major practice of the religion is these are the rituals that we have to perform, to support the state, to show that we’re civilized, and in the end show support to Anaander Mianaai.
The non-civilized — the non-Radch
Apart from humanity, there are three known other species; the Presger, the Rrrrrr, and the Geck. But, a bigger part of the human ecosystem are the ones not part of the culture; the Ancillaries, on the lowest rungs of status, and the AI which are not even seen.
If you’ve been altered too much, you’re not human anymore. The problem with ancillary is, is they’re full of tech, they’re full of implants and machinery, enough that they’re just not human anymore. People see them as corpses, and corpses are impure. Naturally, they have no rights whatsoever.
Ancillaries could be humans with too much alteration, but more common is that they are people modified by the Radch.
When the Radch invade a planet, a station, or a system, they take a certain percentage of people and deep freeze them to use for ancillaries later on. They will be connected to a battleship and controlled by the ship’s AI.
AI, on the other hand, aren’t people, so they are not participants in the culture. They are like slaves or servants, omnipresent but seen as equipment.
AI:s are not looked down upon. They’re not impure. But, they are not citizens and lack rights. They’re mostly treated well, because they are expensive equipment. In a weird in-between, you have a relationship with them, talk to them, and even be fond of them. They see and know everything, more intimate than any human, but they’re not really considered to be people.
Gender — like hair color
The Radch, like Persian, is a one-gendered language. It is not a conscious choice of egalitarianism, but a culture that is truly gender blind.
The easiest way to understand how the Radch see gender is with a metaphor: hair color. Imagine a society, that had a language where you had to call out someone’s hair color when you talked about the person. You believed that hair color said something important about what kind of person you were, what kind of things you were going to be good at, and what role in society we’re going to play. Gender for the Radch is like hair color is for humans 2019 on planet Earth. Obviously, people have different colors of hair. And obviously, we can see it. But no languages on our planet call out hair color when you talk about someone.
If you look at gender through this lens, you can think how absurd it would be if we claimed that humans essentially only have two hair colors — people can be brown or blond.
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E06 Ann Leckie - The Imperial Radch
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