My recent review of Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh led to a seriously in-depth discussion with author Ann Leckie about the agency or lack thereof in the novel’s main character Bren. We started off in the review’s comments section and then got into a long and wandering back-and-forth on Twitter when I (not so innocently) asked to what extent intention and awareness are required for agency.
(In the process, I believe I may have discovered the perfect way to motivate busy authors to contribute guest posts: continuing an argument that’s limited to 140 characters or less until they give in and want to rant long-form.)
The other day in his excellent review of C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner, Stefan asserted that Bren was in many ways the worst possible POV for the story, given that until late in the book he has no agency.
So. Just so everyone knows where I’m coming from, this isn’t an argument so much as a friendly discussion–but it happens to be a topic on which I’ve done some thinking. And this happens to be a book that I’ve given a lot of thought to. Cherryh may not have taught me everything I know as a writer, but she sure as heck taught me a lot.
And since writing fiction is basically my job (how freaking awesome is that????) these are issues I think about a lot.
So. Agency. In the course of a twitter conversation, Django Wexler said, “Dramatic agency = ability to have a significant impact on the plot/story via decisions.”
@Nerds-feather also said, “But agency generally refers to the ability to engage in conscious, deliberate action w social consequences.”
These comments basically lay out the idea of agency within a story, in its most basic form.
Massive spoilers for Foreigner ahead. If you haven’t read it, well, I’m not about shoulds. So I will say instead that I strongly, emphatically recommend reading it. You may bounce off it–a fair number of people have, and that’s the nature of things. But. My advice is, if you haven’t read it, go read it, and then come back and read this.
So. Spoiler warning in place, off we go.
Bren Cameron is, through the entire novel, in over his head. There’s no question of that. From the very start of things–someone tries to kill him, and he can’t figure out why. The whole week has been disturbing, and he’s been worrying at it. He knows something is going on, but he doesn’t know what. He also knows that if he doesn’t figure out fast, or if he mishandles things, the consequences will be disastrous–up to and including the death of every human on the Earth of the Atevi.
As it happens, Bren is hypercompetent. Ragi is a difficult language for humans to get their heads around, but Bren is quite good at it. His information has been restricted, both by Mospheiran officials and by the atevi around him, for political reasons, even before the events of the novel, but he’s actually got a pretty good handle on how things stand (and who’s standing there) in the Aishi’ditat, the largest atevi association, the government with which Mospheira has made its capital t Treaty. But let’s face it, Bren is brilliant. In typical Cherryh fashion, he’s not entirely aware of this fact–spends a lot of time, actually, terrified of the ways he’s sure he falls short, the ways he might fail, and the likelihood of his failing, given the potential consequences–and he spends pretty much the entire novel in situations where even his hypercompetence might not be enough.
The return of Phoenix has precipitated a political crisis among the atevi. There have always been suspicions of human motivations in what technology they’re turning over when, and how honest or dishonest Mospheria (and the translator through which Mospheira and the Aishi’ditat communicate) might be. The arrival of the ship–and atevi ideas of association–suggest that the humans have known this whole time that Phoenix would come back, that it’s part of some plan, that Mospheira has been dishonest and working against the atevi all this time, and, importantly for Tabini-aiji, that the aijiin of the Aishi’ditat have been fatally mistaken to place any trust at all in the paidhiin. To make things worse, Tabini and Bren get along very well, and Tabini has put a lot of reliance on Bren, and on the benefits human tech might bring the Aishi’ditat. Given the implication of double-dealing by Mospheira, Phoenix’s return is politically disastrous for Tabini–and very possibly quite favorable for his grandmother Ilisidi, who is very much not in favor of humans or human technology, and who had in the past made a bid to be aiji herself, but lost to her grandson.
So, given Phoenix’s return, and the threat it poses to the political stability of the Aishi’ditat, Tabini’s move is to send Bren to Ilisidi. “You think I’ve misplaced my reliance? Try him and see.”
Bren knows none of this. His mail has been stopped. No one has told him about Phoenix. But damn if he doesn’t know something is terribly wrong. First of all, his mail has been stopped. Second, as I said, he’s a smart guy with a good grasp of current politics, and he knows what he’s seeing adds up to a pattern. He’s missing the key piece–he doesn’t know what’s caused it, but he can see the outlines of the problem, does, in fact, see them fairly well considering the information he’s missing. And he also sees, quite accurately, that it’s his behavior, his choices, that may well make the difference between war and peace, between survival or not for all the humans on the planet. Knows that he’ll have to make those choices with very, very limited knowledge.
But make them he does. Given where he is, and his lack of freedom of movement, the choices he can make look very small. But in sending Bren to Malguri, Tabini has made Bren absolutely central to the outcome of the situation. Everything Bren says or does from the moment he arrives at Malguri is going to be fateful–is going to ultimately determine the outcome of the bigger situation, Phoenix. And he’s aware of that, even if he doesn’t ultimately know specifically that Phoenix has returned.
He’s going to spend the next few days chatting with Ilisidi and riding mecheiti, signing autographs for tourists, and having fraught conversations with his bodyguards. Not, you’d think, very dramatic or fateful. Just sitting around, right?
Well, no. Since the name of the game is convincing Ilisidi to react in a particular way to Phoenix, to humans, to Bren himself, every tiny interaction with her is of the utmost importance. Since Ilisidi herself values atevi history and heritage–something Bren explicitly thinks about, so he knows this–every tiny interaction with the staff of Malguri–a historic building, one Ilisidi allows tourists access to because she finds that important–every small conversation with the servants whose man’chi is to this site, is going to be crucial. Same with the tourists. And Bren knows all these things are connected, and knows that his life and very possibly every other human life depends on this. And so things like deciding to drink Ilisidi’s tea even though he has no way to be sure she isn’t trying to poison him look, on one level, like small, passive acts–but in fact they’re not only the extent of the action allowed to him, they also are of extraordinarily far-reaching importance.
This is where I go off on my rant.
It seems like sometimes we reserve words like “agency” and “action” for only certain sorts of agency and action. “Well, sure, they acted, but it doesn’t really count.” But sometimes–in real life, often–the only available actions are very small, very constrained. Historically, for instance, women have had a lot of limits on their physical and political power, so if a woman needed to defend herself, or if she was ambitious, by and large she needed to get really good at using those very small, constrained actions to her advantage. This is still in many ways the case, as it happens.
And as it happens, those tiny things can have momentous consequences. Not just by accident, but by intention. It’s not that such actions aren’t really actions, or aren’t really important, it’s just that the space to make them in is very, very small.
You can tell incredibly gripping stories, in such a small space, with such (apparently) tiny actions. But often those stories get dismissed, their main characters described as “passive.” For an example, I once ran across the assertion that writers of “passive” heroines ought to leave SF&F undisturbed and go write Romance, where such heroines belonged.
Yeah, all of you Romance readers are laughing wryly about now, aren’t you. I’m not much of a Romance reader, it’s not to my taste, but as a genre it’s crammed with feminine agency. It’s just that by and large, in the real world, women’s agency is severely constrained. It exists–absolutely. But it’s hedged around, by social convention as much as by outright physical threats.
But this is why I think it’s really, really important not to limit the idea of “agency” to situations where the characters in question have wide-ranging obvious power and/or knowledge, or can make large-scale decisions. It erases the very real agency of people who have to work on that very small scale–and who in some cases do some amazing things with it. And it means that stories about, say, women, that address the actual situations and constraints that women find themselves in, get classed as “passive” and hence (because everyone knows good stories have “active” main characters!) not really good stories, not really worth reading.
Now, Stefan hasn’t made that jump, here. He’s said explicitly (and correctly) that this is a fabulous book. But that is the implication of the basic idea here, its logical conclusion. This book might be an exception, but the rule (don’t get me started on rules) still stands.
I also don’t think Stefan is intending in any way to limit the kinds of stories told, or that he has anything against women (or any other less represented group–there are ways in which, for instance, Black people of any gender are constrained in their actions in analogous ways, at least in the US, and there are obvious class issues in this construction of agency). But the ways we define and categorize things have implications for the assumptions we’re making–and unexamined assumptions can make it difficult, if not impossible, to see certain things.
Interestingly, you could look at Bren’s position as being a feminine one. He’s physically smaller and weaker than the atevi around him. His well-being, hell his continued existence at all, is dependent on the generosity and good will of those atevi. If he’s going to get what he wants (in this case, survival and information) he’s going to have to manipulate things socially. That means tea and breakfast with the aiji-dowager. That means very tiny actions, on a very small scale. That ultimately, because of course we’re talking sci fi here, determine the fate of humanity on that particular planet. Imagine Jane Austen, where if the main character doesn’t marry she doesn’t just end up broke and homeless, but also the sun will explode. (Well, Cherryh isn’t really anything like Austen. I’m just saying.)
Now, that’s not to say that Cherryh isn’t to some degree pushing at the idea of agency. Bren doesn’t, ultimately, know specifically what’s going on. He’s only got his (actually very formidable) understanding of Aishi’ditat politics. And he’s in a situation where things are changing fast. The frequent references to skiing are not, I’m quite sure, an accident. He’s flying downhill at tremendous speed, and the only control he can exercise is small movements that might mean success, or a broken neck. But he’s not just passively tumbling down that hill–he’s an expert skier, for all his agonizing over his ignorance and inability, and his every move, his every tiny adjustment, is part of his effort to avoid disaster. The fact that Cherryh has obscured his view of the slope doesn’t change that, it only makes the ride more thrilling. The fact that he’s only got a general outline of the slope to go on and is making those adjustments on the fly, very quickly, with little confidence in his choices doesn’t change that. For all a skier’s course is entirely dependent on gravity, she’s still acting, exercising control, making choices that could mean her death. Gravity’s pull is unavoidable, she can only go downhill, but she’s not passive. And Bren’s not in a situation where he has no knowledge of the slope at all–he actually knows the slope pretty well, and knows there’s an obstacle he can’t see that he’s got to avoid somehow. This is absolutely not the same, not even remotely the same, as his sliding downslope blindfolded only able to make random guesses because he doesn’t know what’s going on. Once again, Bren actually has a pretty good grasp on the outlines of what’s happening–enough to make very effective choices.
This does, however, strip things down to that old maxim, “Action is character.” Since Bren can’t see the ultimate cause of his situation, or more than the outlines of what’s going on, he’s forced to rely, in his decisions, on not only his imperfect understanding but also, ultimately, on what he himself values, what he’s ultimately loyal to. Personally, I think this is part of why Bren is such an appealing character (for those who find him so, granted some don’t). You get through this book largely because you care about Bren, and while you see hints of this all through the book, it’s not made completely clear until that night in the cellar, when he won’t turn on Tabini to save his life. Not because he likes Tabini–at that moment, he believes Tabini has betrayed him, and doesn’t really understand why because he doesn’t yet know about Phoenix. But that’s where you see what he’s willing to do when his back is against the wall. That’s the ultimate implication of all his other choices so far, the ultimate proof that those choices weren’t meant to deceive or manipulate, weren’t anything other than his very own choices. Because that’s the kind of person he is.
TLDR, agents act, and act effectively, and if an actor’s choices are highly constrained, fenced around by other characters or physical or cultural constraints, or taken with incomplete information, that doesn’t change that fact. Insisting that it does just erases the very real, intentional actions of people who find themselves in constrained situations, and that’s something that’s all too common and could use some serious questioning, in fiction and in real life. That’s why I object very strongly to putting extra qualifiers on words like “agency.”