A note on Classical influences on two recent #2014HugoAward winners

I've recently read two works directly as a result of them being awarded prizes in the 2014 Hugo Awards. The first the debut novel by Ann Leckie, Ancilliary Justice, which won Best Novel; the second The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu, which won Best Short Story. Both of them do some interesting things with gender and sexuality in relation to the authorial possibilities of SF, and are worth reading (e.g. Chu's is currently only £0.38 to buy on Amazon or free on the Tor website and will not take much of your time). However, here, I really want to point out a couple of points where the ancient past or Classics are deliberately and consciously invoked as influences by the respective authors.

Ancilliary Justice by Ann Leckie


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In answer to a question about real world inspiration for the primary civilisation in her novel, L. replies with the following:

That said, some of those pieces did come from the real world. I took a number of things from the Romans – though their theology isn’t particularly Roman, the Radchaai attitude toward religion is fairly similar, particularly the way the gods of conquered peoples can be integrated into an already-familiar pantheon. And the careful attention to omens and divination - though the Radchaai logic behind that is quite different. The Romans have provided a lot of writers with a model for various interstellar empires, of course, and no wonder. The Roman Empire is a really good example of a large empire that, in one form or another, functioned for quite a long time over a very large area. And over that time, there was all sorts of exciting drama – civil wars and assassinations and revolts and bits breaking off and being forced back in, even a pretty big change in the form of government, from Republic to Principate. There’s tons of material there. And they loom large in European history. It wasn’t so long ago that any educated Westerner learned Greek and Latin as a matter of course, and read Virgil and Ovid and Cicero and Caesar and a host of other writers as part of that education. But I didn’t want my future – however fanciful it was – to be entirely European. The Radchaai aren’t meant to be Romans in Space.

I thought this a more thoughtful answer than perhaps the questioner had expected. Clearly, the primary civilisation depicted in the novel are not supposed to be 'Romans in Space', are not a direct translation of the historical into a science fictive setting characteristic of many abortive, and lazy, attempts to write SF. Indeed, it would be easy to argue many other influences, conscious or unconscious, on the work, including Hindu religion, the Gothic, the experiences of the British Empire and subsequent de-/post-colonialisation period.

What is more, L.'s answer shows an evident level of understanding both of the history of Rome and of the subsequent afterlife of GraecoRoman culture in the West and its subsequent reception through the ages. Indeed, the mere use of the distinction between Republic and Principate shows an uncommon degree of historical knowledge, unfortunately.

You won't get 'Romans in Space', and it took a while for me to warm up to it fully, but Ancillary Justice is a good read.

'The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere: A Tor.Com Original' by John Chu

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C.'s short story is of a different sort of SF to L.'s, being of the type set in a contemporary setting with a single, transformative twist. Here, this is that it rains spontaneously, indoor or out, if a lie is stated. C. uses this to explore the travails of homosexuality in a heteronormative social and familial setting. 

I found it interesting that the partner of the protagonist, is associated with Greek cultural values at various points (references below are to Kindle locations rather than page numbers).

The protagonist says of his lover, who is a 'mixed marial artist' (loc. 42), 'It’s not that his body doesn’t have more in common with Greek statues than actual humans. It’s not that he can’t explicate Socrates at lengths that leave my jaw unhinged.' (loc. 29). The impression given is that Gus, the partner, is a modern incarnation of that Greek ideal of the athletic and philosophically-inclined ephebe. An impression heightened by his apartment looking 'like a cross between a library and weight room' (loc. 55). He is linguistically astute, but only in 'dead languages' beyond his native English (loc. 116), and indeed 'chatters on about Procopius’s Wars of Justinian. He’s just finished volume four, in the original Greek.' (loc. 92). This alone is an interesting choice, Procopius, nor Justinian, not being references most people (i.e the readership) outside the field would get. It increases the sense of specific and genuine interest, rather than the superficiality of the more recognisable of the Classics, intensified to specific reference to vol. 4. Elsewhere, 'he may as well be speaking classical Greek' (loc. 206).

Gus, the devoted partner of C.'s protagonist is not just a good catch and good prospective husband, he is a sort of Greek ideal in modern form. And of course, that is not to even delve into the associations with homosexual love that are called to mind by this metaphory. The Classical allusions in 'The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere' have a political and semiotic force behind them, and are certainly not a mere superficial marker of learning, as a lazier author might have used the signifier of the Classics.

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