It was when she turned her phone on at intermission that Gwen first saw the text message from Eleanor:
We need to talk about the audiobook you recommended
Gwen was at first excited. It had only been a day or two since she had told Eleanor and Dania to check out the audiobook of Ann Leckie’s Provenance. The book, a spiritual successor to her earlier “Imperial Radch trilogy” set in the same universe, had captured Gwen’s attention after she plowed through the trilogy during the break. Unable to take the time to sit down and focus on the book like she had with the first three, she had bought the audiobook – recorded by British actress Adjoa Andoh.
Gwen had always struggled with audiobooks in the past. At worst, there was no division between character voices and omniscient narration, creating an identity-less, amorphous story. At a different worst, the speaker strained to give each character such distinct voices that the book sounded like a perverse one-hander-radio-drama. The perfect balance was somewhere in the middle, but the spectrum of choices that could be made when recording Ann Leckie’s book was as vast as the cosmos that such a performer would be describing, should they read Provenance at all.
Adjoa Andoh was certainly closer to the radio drama end of the spectrum than a monotone. Embracing her English heritage, she had transformed the book from a straight sci-fi tale into an exploration of class that existed in British society. There were subtle changes in her accent with each passing character: richer characters had posh English RP, some of the captains at the spaceport where central character Ingray begins the book’s journey were augmented into accents that reflected the reach of the British empire. Snippets of Indian and Chinese accents came through for characters – none of whom had been specified as one race in the book.
Andoh’s interpretive work as an actor had drastically expanded the world of the novel for Gwen. Issues of class that were evident in the book before, as well as in the previous trilogy, jumped off the page more explicitly when the characters could be audibly distinguished.
Agreeing that they would talk, Gwen quickly shot back: Isn’t it great? How far into the book are you?
After a moment, a quick reply:
The period was a cause for mild concern. Was Eleanor bothered by the audiobook? No, probably just a typing quirk – Gwen always read too much into these things. She would discuss the audiobook with Eleanor later.
– – – – –
“Do you think she’s gonna pick up the period as you being mad?”
“She’s Gwen, she reads too deep into everything,” Eleanor said, putting her phone down.
“That’s true,” Dania said. Curious, she pressed play again on the phone. Andoh’s voice sprung up:
“‘You don’t understand,’ said Ingray. ‘Doubtless, I don’t,’ replied Captain Uisine, evenly. ‘In the meantime, I’ll send out for some supper. My treat, this once.'”
“Yeah, I think that’s pretty blatant,” Dania said.
“It’s extremely blatant!” Eleanor said. “Like, I don’t know how it could be more of a comedy ‘Engrish’ accent than that.”
“Yep,” Dania said. For her part, having not heard the audiobook until Eleanor stormed in minutes ago talking about it, she was content to remain a sounding board for her friend’s self-arguing, at least for the moment.
“I mean, I should have known. I should have known,” Eleanor said, standing up to pace. “Gwen’s all like, ‘it’s such a fascinating audiobook, she does this huge variety of English accents to show how wide the galaxy is, it’s all an interesting discussion of class, doopy-doopy-doo.’ And then you load up the audiobook and it’s a woman doing her best Chinese and Indian accents. Like…what?”
“Well, they were British colonies. India and Hong Kong, so I know where Gwen’s coming from.”
“Well, duh, I see where she’s coming from,” Eleanor said. “I don’t need you to Devil’s Advocate me right now, Dania.”
“Sorry. I agree with your thoughts that it’s problematic.”
“I have no doubt about the intention,” Eleanor said. “You give each character a different accent, it changes the way you think about that character against the other ones. But you gotta consider the context, right? Like, when you give your good, clean-cut protagonist the ‘normal’ British accent, you’re implying a specific thing…”
Eleanor stopped, and backtracked. “I guess Ingray isn’t actually a ‘clean-cut’ person, considering she pays to have someone removed from essentially solitary confinement jail, but you get the point.”
“But when you establish one thing relating to ‘normal’ accents first,” Eleanor continued, “you gotta think about what it means for the other accents! It’s othering, is what it is. The accent says that this character is an ‘Other.'”
Eleanor sat back down, in a different chair.
“I mean, to be fair,” she said suddenly. “To be more than fair – to Devil’s Advocate myself for a hot second ––”
“It’s not like the characters are already specified as having one particular race. It’s not like if she’d read it with a neutral – with her own normal voice that I’d be like, ‘that’s not how a person like this wound sound.’ Like, the decision on their background is hers to make. And if she wants to give them accents, it’s not like the things they do in the book are going to contradict that. Right?”
Dania didn’t answer.
“I mean, it’s in space. It’s in the future. We don’t know what it’s gonna be like – like, is this a Star Trek future, where all the races just sort of get along, with arguments in the coding but not overtly due to racism?”
“Are you even sure that all of the characters are humaniod?” Dania piped up. “Is there a chance that someone like Captain Uisine is actually half bird-person, or part squid? And that the accent is just how squid-people talk?”
“It’s an option, sure,” Eleanor said. “I mean, there are Mechs, there’s a coded underclass of worker robots, and they all sound like – well, it’s difficult to discern what accent she’s going for, but the voice is all pinched and wheezy.”
“Maybe she’s not going for an accent there,” Dania said. “Maybe it’s just a pinched and wheezy voice.”
“Well, probably, but coding is a real thing,” Eleanor countered. “It sounds ‘foreign’ because it sounds like something from the non-Western world. So even if that’s unintentional, it’s there. It’s a problem.”
“Not to mention you’re coding a bunch of lower-class workers.”
“Exactly!” Eleanor said, returning to her point. “Captain Uisine has a coded ‘chinese’ voice, right? And it turns out during the story that he’s actually a thief who stole his ship, and he’s a smuggler. So what does the pairing of accent and character say?”
Dania sighed. She didn’t really want to wade too deep into this conversation, as even in her agreement with Eleanor she would be buried under Eleanor’s point of view. But she knew she had to at least acknowledge her agreement.
“It’s not a mixing of different cultures, it’s one actress doing funny voices and claiming that it’s inclusion,” Eleanor said. “Or that it’s saying something about class and British society.”
“Is Ann Leckie English?” Dania asked.
“I thought so,” Eleanor said. “I could check online.”
“Let me check,” Dania said, already pulling up Google.
“I mean, it was Gwen who said the audiobook was a commentary on British society,” Eleanor clarified. “I don’t know if that’s something Ann Leckie was going for, or what Adjoa Andoh was going for, or just Gwen trying to justify the accents…”
“She’s American,” Dania answered.
“Who, Ann Leckie?”
“Yeah,” Dania said. “She lives in St. Louis.”
“Huh,” Eleanor said. “What about Adjoa Andoh?”
“In that case, it’s an audiobook actress making a really strong interpretation of the characters and setting,” Eleanor continued. “I wonder if Ann Leckie chose her, or if she’d done other books before and was available.”
“She’s British…she plays Martha Jones’ mother on Doctor Who.”
Dania continued to scroll down Wikipedia. “She trained as a radio performer, that makes sense. She’s performed with British theatre…it mentions that she does audiobooks, and won an award for one of them.”
Dania handed her phone to Eleanor, who glanced over the credits.
“Well, she’s not entirely unknown,” Eleanor said. “I know it’s a deliberate choice, even if I dislike that choice.”
“Again, maybe she was just doing voices,” Dania said. “That doesn’t mean she wants you to think Captain Uisine is shady because he’s Chinese.”
“Coding is real, though,” Eleanor said. “You gotta keep that in mind.”
“I’ll talk with Gwen about it,” Eleanor said, getting up to pace again. “She’ll have things to say. I’m sure she’ll spin it as a positive, but I got opinions.”
– – – – –
Gwen got out of the show and checked her phone again. There was a new message from Eleanor.
when are you coming home
Gwen texted back:
Just got out of the show, I’ll be home in about twenty minutes.
And then, out of curiosity:
You did like the audiobook, right?
The response came quickly:
we’ll talk when you’re back.
Gwen grumbled. That couldn’t be a good sign. Still, she had enjoyed the books herself, even if her friends didn’t. As she rode the subway home, she checked online to see if the Adjoa Andoh audiobooks of the “Imperial Radch trilogy” were at the local library – she’d need to listen to them with the new frame of British class overlaid onto the science-fiction story.
Image Credit: Forbidden Planet Blog