by Fran Wilde
We are pleased to have Ann Leckie as our guest for Cooking the Books. Her first book, Ancillary Justice, won the 2014 Nebula Award, the 2013 BSFA Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
In Ancillary Justice, tea is sometimes a staple, sometimes a luxury item – for instance, citizens relying on the baseline free supplies from the Radchaai don’t get tea, or not very good tea. Can you talk about the classes of tea culture?
I think of tea in Radch space as being one of those “essentials” that’s actually an extra–a baseline requirement and indication of civility and civilization that actually isn’t truly freely available to all citizens. You’re right, it’s not part of basic rations, and it’s in a lot of cases a powerful reason for wanting more than just those basic necessities.
Tea is also part of the gift-giving end of Radchaai culture. A patron might supply a client with a tea she otherwise couldn’t afford, or tea will be part of a gift exchange between more-or-less equals, or given to a superior in the hope of favor or some sort or reciprocal gesture.
At its lowest-class, cheapest end, we’re talking leaves and floor sweepings, minimally processed, packed tight into bricks and shipped in bulk, very slowly. At the high end, rare, single-estate teas, or teas with delicate processing methods or long aging periods. The most luxurious, prestigious of teas won’t be buyable, except possibly from the grower herself, but more likely you’ll have exchanged gifts for it, and give it as a gift to someone you want or need to impress very much, or need a very large favor from.
Does Breq have any rituals regarding tea? Are they “traditional” rituals or has she made her own?
Breq only started drinking tea when Seivarden began making it for her, when they left Nilt. And Seivarden’s habits are, of course, somewhat antique, upper class Radchaai who’s served in the military. This, of course, is entirely familiar to Breq, who served tea in the same way to her lieutenants.
I’m not a hundred percent sure what the details of that would be–I’ll only know if it comes up in a story! I’m fairly sure, though, that one peculiarity of military tea consumption is that leaves will be re-used much longer than most wealthy Radchaai would stomach. When you’re at an annexation, or stationed some distance from a source of things like tea, you’ve only got so much to last you. Elsewhere, multiple steepings of various lengths might be standard for certain kinds of tea, even required, but a military decade room might use the same leaves for a couple of days, even if they’re not the sort of tea that stands up to that kind of thing.
I do know, however, that there are regional differences in the way tea is “properly” served and drunk, but most Radchaai would be astonished to realize it. Most assume that their way of drinking tea is just the civilized way to do it and all Radchaai do the same.
What is your favorite kind of tea?
Do I have to pick? Honestly, it depends. Right now, probably a nice oolong. That’ll change.
In a star-faring culture, how is tea procured? Is it shipped? Is it standardized?
Tea is grown on planets–there might be stations large enough for significant tea growing, but I don’t know where those would be, or how many of them there are. So, when the Radchaai annex a system with one or more terraformed planets, they sometimes allot land for growing tea and give that out to houses that have already specialized in that, or that are ambitious to begin.
Some growers have very large stretches of land which they use to produce the standard sort of tea, processed quickly and formed up into bricks and shipped out in huge amounts, in some cases just packaged up, with a beacon attached, and pushed through a gate to slowly sail on to the other side and be picked up and distributed–some to shops, some as gifts (because even if you can’t afford the expensive sort, tea is a nicely “proper” gift that’s welcome nearly everywhere). This is largely standardized, and very profitable.
There are, similarly, large growers who produce more affordable (and less prestigious) versions of the high end teas–that generally get treated the same way as the standard brick tea, which is one of the ways a nouveau riche can embarrass herself, actually, particularly outside the military (though even there one is expected to know the difference between the various sorts, and One Esk would never have brewed one at a temperature more appropriate for another, for instance). These aren’t (usually) bricked, but are shipped in much the same way, and are often bought in huge amounts and then blended (with other teas, or with flowers or dried fruits or other flavors) and sold in shops, a step above the baseline brick tea.
Then there are the smaller operations that produce various high-end teas, of various types, some blended, some “vintage” and all quite expensive.
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