Book Review

'Ancillary Justice': Gender in a blender

In a world of only female pronouns, Ann Leckie's sci-fi novel poses disturbing questions


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Ann Leckie’s Nebula Award-winning debut novel, “Ancillary Justice,” is everything a science fiction novel should be. The best sci-fi deals not just with scientific and technological innovations but with literary innovations.

It puts a new spin on old tales, forces us to face quandaries we’d never even imagine in our day-to-day lives, and shows us life from fresh, impossible perspectives.

Ms. Leckie accomplishes all of these things, though her unique narrator may be the novel’s most notable innovation. Our heroine Breq, now trapped in a single human body, used to be the Justice of Toren, an enormous spaceship troop carrier with thousands of bodies, metallic and human, with which she worked for the Radch, the galactic empire she was built to serve.

“Ancillary Justice” is told in a dual narrative. There’s the present, where Breq sets off on a mission to avenge the loss of the rest of her bodies, and the past, where we watch the events that led to her being trapped in that single body unfold.


"ANCILLARY JUSTICE"
By Ann Leckie
Orbit Books ($15).

The past story is unique in that, as a character with dozens of bodies in dozens of places at all times, Breq serves as an almost omniscient narrator. She is equipped with sensors to read every fluctuation in her human officers’ heart rates, blood pressure and temperature, making her all but a mind-reader where her officers are concerned.

But beyond that, we come to see the deep attachment she formed with one of her officers, a low-born young leader who fought her way to a lieutenant position through sheer determination and skill.

Normally stories about or told from the point of view of an artificial intelligence focus on that A.I. trying to prove that it experiences human emotions: a capacity to love or hate or want things. Refreshingly, Ms. Leckie dispenses with that overused conundrum.

We are told, quite matter-of-factly, that ships have feelings. “Without feelings,” the narrator explains, “insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions.”

Gender is also a non-issue in the “Ancillary Justice” universe. The narrator’s native language does not use gender-specific pronouns. All the characters, whether they are biologically male or female, are referred to using the female pronouns “she” or “her.”

Ursula Le Guin did something similar in “The Left Hand of Darkness,” eliminating gender roles and referring to everyone in the book as “he.” She has stated in later interviews that she wishes she could go back and revise the book to utilize a pronoun other than the masculine one to refer to these supposedly gender-neutral people, since “he” was already the default generic singular pronoun.

Perhaps Ann Leckie was taking a page from Le Guin’s wish-list using this 2013 construction. The feminine pronouns, especially when used to refer to someone we’ve just learned has male parts, are jarring at first. By the end of the book, however, I’d come to appreciate them. With gender roles removed from the equation, Ms. Leckie gave herself more space to explore other, more interesting questions of privilege and power — and explore them she does.

The societal structure in “Ancillary Justice” is colorful and complex, resembling a blend of the Indian caste system and the Roman Empire. The deeper we delve into the main character’s empire, the Radch, the more we start to realize that the issues she faces are not cut-and-dry. The Radch brings peace, prosperity and scientific advance (or, as they call it, “civilization”) to the far reaches of the galaxy.

But they also rule with an iron fist, and brook no room for disobedience, even if that disobedience saves lives and enriches the empire. At its core, this book poses a lot of questions about what it means to be civilized, what our innate biases for one person or place over another mean (and also why they’re necessary, but should be distrusted), and how extreme internal conflict affects our external lives.

Ann Leckie is not afraid to ask the weird, unusual and disturbing questions — and she’s not afraid to leave the answers open to interpretation, either. “Ancillary Justice” is the first in what’s sure to be an epic series by this talented first-time author. Don’t worry, it’s not a cliffhanger, but by the end, you’ll definitely be hungering for more.


Ellen Goodlett (ellengoodlett@gmail.com) is a Pittsburgh native and writer living in New York.

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