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I first heard about An Leckie’s flagship novel Ancillary Justice by reading an article at Tor called Power, Responsibility, and Revenge: Ancillary Justice Ten Years On by Adrienne Martini. The book is now ten years old, but I’ve never been known as being on the bleeding edge of whatever’s new and fresh in science fiction.
This part of the article got my attention:
In that early scene, Leckie efficiently sets up one of the key features of this world: the Radchaai language doesn’t gender people. Breq defaults to she/her pronouns for everyone unless she is speaking the language of the colonized. We only know Seivarden is a “he” because a bartender on Nilt refers to him that way. Frequently, Leckie shows Breq struggling with finding the right pronouns for the languages that require them.
Oh, good grief. If there are two words associated with this novel that are bound to set my teeth on edge, it’s “justice” and “gender,” both of which have taken on rather magnified meanings in the 2020s, at least in social media.
Martini gushes glowing praise upon Leckie’s book. In fact, her debut novel has the distinction of having won a Hugo Award, Nebula Award, BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and Locus Award for Best First Novel. That’s some novel.
There are two basic themes in the book, one I understood and was familiar with and the other I just couldn’t figure out.
The first is the classic space empire as represented by the Imperial Radch. They are classic bad guy colonialists who have annexed and subjugated indigenous people for their own wealth and benefit. They have a caste system largely based on “royal” houses, but in their system anyone can “test” for a particular job or role. Even then, characters like Lt. Awn, a noble, kind, and compassionate lower class person who earned a commission, is treated with disdain and contempt by her more aristocratic peers.
That brings up the second theme: gender. The Radch language doesn’t recognize gender differences. Everyone is a “she.” This made it difficult for me to figure out who is who in the book. As the quote above explained, the character Seivarden was revealed to be an actual “he,” but we have no idea who else is or isn’t.
The protagonist Breq may or may not have a defined gender. Breq is the last of a large collection of “ancillaries.” Every starship is a sapient AI and can extend their personality into thousands of humanoid entities that act as eyes, ears, hands, and so on for the ship across a wide variety of environments including on ship, in a space station, on a planet, whatever. Ancillaries are constructed from the frozen corpses of people, reanimated as needed, so I suppose in an objective, physical sense, they are gendered.
Breq was one such ancillary and although part of a collective mind, also seemed to have a unique personality. This was highlighted when the ship, “Justice of Toren” is destroyed leaving Breq the only survivor.
The book takes place in two time periods twenty years apart. The earlier period describes “Toren” in orbit around a vassel world where Lt. Awn is in operational command. Breq is Awn’s personal servant. They uncover a plot to sow dissention between two classes of local peoples resulting in a slaughter.
The supreme authority in this empire is Anaander Mianaai, who orders the atrocity. As a pawn, Breq has no choice in participating and is even ordered to execute “her” favorite, Lt. Awn. As it turns out, ships aren’t the only intelligences who can have multiple physical replicas.
In Mianaai’s case, this extends to personalities, one favoring peace and the unification of peoples and the other desiring to continue a genocidal colonization of space.
The later time period follows Breq who rescues a near-dead Seivarden from drug addition. Seivarden is an officer who served on the “Toren” a thousand years ago, escaped a disaster in a space pod in cyrogenic freeze, and woke up to a world he never knew (we know he’s a he).
Much against Breq’s desires, “she” more or less “adopts” Seivarden and eventually the two become partners (unknowingly in Seivarden’s case) in Breq’s attempt to assassinate Mianaai, who Breq blames for the destruction of the Toren.
Breq has acquired a sort of “super-pistol” which can penetrate personal force fields, but the assassination plan makes no sense. Breq already knows that Mianaai is not only split by personality, but represented by many, perhaps thousands of replicas. Killing one or even a few would mean nothing. Yet, the plan goes forward as if it matters.
I generally am disappointed by books that are highly praised. Most of the time, they don’t live up to the hype. The fact that John Scalzi says good things about the novel on its cover doesn’t reassure me.
However, “Justice” is well written and, for the most part, cohesive. The “evil empire” is handled well, and I can forgive the overused trope since I’m in the habit of doing so myself.
But what about gender? I read the acknowledgements and interview at the end of the book hoping to get some clue, but nothing was forthcoming. Nothing in the reviews, except for the Tor article, even mentions gender issues except to say that other readers also found it confusing. There is no indication as to WHY treating gender as such, even to the point of Breq “misgendering” certain people, is necessary for the book. Then again, I’ve encountered details in novels before where, for example, a trans character was included for no reason. That is, the inclusion had no relevant impact on the plot (except for the sake of “inclusion” and “representation”).
While Leckie’s “gender issues” were more prevalent in the book than the example I linked to above, I couldn’t see how the story would be measurably different if she had treated gender in a more “expected” manner.
Toward the end of the book, I realized that Breq somewhat reminded me of the protagonist in Martha Wells Murderbot Diaries series. In Wells’ books, the “murderbot” is largely property and while having some organic components, is pretty much a sapient humanoid AI. By design, murderbot has no gender, but everyone else does.
By comparison, in Leckie’s book, technically no one has gender. Well, physically they do, but as far as the empire is concerned, everyone is a “she.”
These two “mechanized beings” share a history with many others including Data from “Star Trek,” Sonny in the film version of “I Robot” and many other humanoid devices. They start out as the “other,” the alien, the one who can objectively observe humanity, commenting on their foibles and promise. However, whether they desire to or not, the journey the creators set them on always results in them becoming more “human.”
They never quite make it (Pinocchio was an exception), otherwise they would become just like us and lose their value as an observer/storyteller.
I’m generally curious how a first novel garners so much praise from “official” science fiction awards (it’s happened before). In Leckie’s Acknowledgements, she mentioned the Clarion West Writers Workshop for assisting and supporting the creation of her first book. I decided to look them up. Who knows?
Yikes! Their 2023 summer workshop costs a whopping $3,200, and that’s for virtual. They do provide financial aid but I don’t qualify because…
Anyone with financial need is eligible for scholarships, and we particularly encourage writers who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color, disabled, LGBTQIA+, and from other marginalized communities to apply.
Also, among the instructors are Cat Rambo and N.K. Jemisin. They don’t know I’m even alive (although Jemisin blocked me on twitter for commenting that I didn’t think her novel was perfect), but based on my understanding of them, I don’t know how they would be “instructing” me. I’d hate to think that learning to write a “professional” science fiction novel meant taking on board certain political and social viewpoints that I may or may not personally represent.
In any event, $3,200 is a lot of cash to fork out. Anyway, applications are closed.
No, that has nothing to do with how I understood Leckie’s novel, but I’m always curious about how a particular piece of intellectual property comes to be. I’m a sucker for a secret origin story.
The book is part of a series (isn’t everything?). I probably won’t rush out to my local library to see if they have the sequels. I’m still working on the tome my grandson asked me to read.
“Ancillary Justice” is well written, fairly easy to absorb if you bypass some of the logical issues, so technically it’s a good book. As I mentioned, the issue of “gender” continually threw me for a loop because for well over half a century, I’ve been reading books where everyone has a specific gender (overwhelmingly male and female).
A good book, yes, but I’m always confused as to what separates competent writing from over the top award winners. But then, as I understand awards these days, they are rendered less for the objective assessment of quality and more for the social and political emphasis of both the book and the author (the occasional exception still exists but it’s rare).
It’s a good book. You may even want to read it. I can say I’ve been fair in reading it, but back to the library it goes.
2 thoughts on “Book Review of “Ancillary Justice” (2013) by Ann Leckie”
The thing that gets me about the buzz for this book is that no one ever mentions that Samuel Delany pulled the exact same linguistic trick with gender pronouns back in 1984 in Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand.
Good point. I’ve never read that novel. My sense is that the folks running the “official” science fiction publishing and award giving machine don’t consider anything written before the 21st century.