Book Review: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice
There are a lot of different reasons to pick up a book. Sometimes it’s something from an author I’ve already read. Sometimes it’s a book a friend suggested for me. Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) I’ll grab something just because it has a crazy title or picture on the cover.
And sometimes, I read out of spite.
The whole Sad/Rabid Puppy vs. the Hugos shitstorm has more or less blown over (or at least I’ve stopped paying attention to it). Still, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seemed to be one of those works that really got the Puppies up in arms (up in paws?), which is a pretty enticing endorsement in its own right.
I probably should’ve read Ancillary Justice some time ago, but hey. Glad I finally got around to it, at least. As a bonus, I just learned Ann Leckie lives in St. Louis, my hometown. So now I imagine that the next time I go visit, I’ll run into her at Imo’s (home of the archetypical St. Louis pizza), and then she’ll be like “oh hey, your blog is rad! Let’s go talk about science fiction and then I will introduce you to my agent and then we’ll get you published even though you probably won’t win as many awards as I did.”
Then the Cardinals will win the World Series.
I’ve thought this all out. It’ll be super rad, guys.
But yeah, the book! On the shallowest of readings, Ancillary Justice follows a plot you’ve probably read dozens of times before. A sentient weapon, created for war, is betrayed by her superiors and left for dead. But, of course, she’s not dead, and she’s back for REVEEEEEENGE.
And while that little breakdown is technically correct, it really does Ancillary Justice an … injustice.
See, Leckie uses a stock Science Fiction Revenge Plot as a framework to explore a lot of deeper themes: identity, culture, religion, gender, language, imperialism, and, well, of course, revenge. Ancillary Justice certainly deserves the big list of awards it received; it’s the best kind of science fiction, a compelling read that makes you actually think. As I read, I was variously reminded of Herbert’s Dune, Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, or even the Sci Fi work of Jack Vance.
One of Ancillary Justice‘s quirks is a matter of language and gender. See, Breq, the protagonist, comes from the Radch, a culture that is more or less mono-gendered, or perhaps outright androgynous. Breq’s native language doesn’t have the vocabulary to distinguish between genders- as a result, Breq defaults to calling everyone ‘she’ by default. It’s an odd quirk, one that takes getting used to (especially when male characters show up). Breq continually frets about misgendering people she meets, to the point where it gets a little ridiculous. Then again, I have however many thousand years of societal norms to build on, but I can at least make the connection “beard = probably a dude.”
Eventually, I was able to get my head around the gender thing, but there’s still a sense of ambiguity about the sex of pretty much all the characters you run into. It doesn’t help that they all have weirdo Sci-fi names like Skaaiat Awer or Anaander Mianaai. Which, admittedly, is kind of the point. With this bit of linguistic gymnastics, Leckie shines a light on our own culture, and our own tendency to use the masculine gender as a default. Funnily enough, I’m reminded of the Transformers (who default to male gendering) and the Gems of Steven Universe (who default to female gendering). I don’t think of ALL things in terms of children’s cartoons, but it helps. I still don’t envy her spellchecker.
But wait, there’s more!
A lesser writer would’ve made the Radch utopian. They’re above the petty labels like “gender” or “race” that modern society is so caught up in. On top of that, every Radch citizen is guaranteed basic food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. It’d be easy to lift them up and say “these guys are so great, and modern society is terrible!” Leckie doesn’t fall into this trap- which is why I imagine she got a Hugo.
Made-up societies are a lot like made up characters, in that the most interesting ones have their own virtues and flaws. And the Radch? Well, for all of their universal health care and ignorance of gender, the Radch are fucking awful people. They live in an interstellar totalitarian dictatorship, and an expansionist one at that. They don’t care how many people they kill as they expand- because “uncivilized” people don’t really count as, well, people. The edition I snagged has a little interview with Leckie at the end, where she compares the Radch to the Romans. To me, they came off more like the 19th century English Empire. There’s a distinct “White Man’s Burden” subtext at play here- hell, the Radch are even obsessed with tea. That makes them English, right there. And that’s before you get to the slavery, too. Or, well, worse than slavery. The titular “Ancillaries” are people that have had their minds essentially scooped out so their bodies can act as expendable drones for various AI-operated battleships. So, y’know, not pleasant people. The Radch could easily serve as the villains in a different novel. Seriously, Honor Harrington would have a field day with exploding these people.
Speaking of explosions, Ancillary Justice doesn’t have too many of them. The book progresses along at a fairly deliberate pace. About two thirds of the way in, things pick up more, and things get more adventure-y. It’s still not a the sort of slam-bang setpiece action that summer blockbusters are made of, but it was enough to make me find an excuse to sit down and finish the novel.
So yeah. Ancillary Justice is a dense novel, a complicated novel … but it’s also a good one. It’s not quite perfect, but Leckie certainly earns her Hugo (and her Nebula, and her Locus, and her … well, it’s a long list). Ancillary Justice ends on an open enough note to make me want to read the sequel, Ancillary Sword. I’d heartily recommend Leckie’s work to any sci-fi fan, although it might be a little dense for someone not super deep into the genre.
Then again, if you’re reading this blog, I’m betting you’re pretty genre aware already.