This will be my second book review here, so don’t expect any deep, articulate insight. I just finished Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. She won a Nebula Award, Locus Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and BSFA Award for it. The second book in this series, Ancillary Sword, will be out in October this year. I had put off reading the novel because The Incomparable panel didn’t seem to care much for it. I read Blue Remembered Earth and On a Steel Breeze first. They are both decent, but the ‘world’ is smaller. Ancillary Justice is very similar in scope to an Iain M. Banks Culture novel. The best books I’ve read so far this year have been a claustrophobic story about a sarcastic astronaut and a deeply-affecting quest of a dead person.
The novel is a sophisticated, world-building enterprise that spans everything from identity to empire. The series starts with a dual narrative, splitting time between current events of the protagonist, and past events that shaped what the protagonist is doing now. We see a vast empire of human colonies that have existed for so long that each planet has produced its own ethnic line of humanity. There is no memory of old Earth, nor which planet originated the human race. This is far future stuff, much like Frank Herbert’s Dune. Rather than build a novel around ecology, and deceit, it is about identity and deceit. The protagonist is many things, and none of those things. She can move freely through space, with vast wealth, she can exist over aeons. She has spoken to the emperor and saw fit to destroy her.
I say, “her” of course because gender is a peculiar quirk of the novel. It distracts from creating a concrete image of who the people are in the novel. Rather than refer to “him” and “her” we are given only feminine pronouns to work with. The empire doesn’t see gender, and does not use gender as a means of procreation. Other humans do use gender, and other languages have the appropriate desire to break down the gender of things. This comes up as a frequent obstacle for our protagonist. After reading the entire novel I am still not certain of the gender of the novel’s protagonist. Something that would be unthinkable in any other novel. If you are someone, like me, that reads a novel and imagines how it can be adapted to a screenplay you’ll be utterly confounded, and intrigued by the construction of gender here.
It works for me though. I think about the layers of meaning each of her interactions has — if she is, and is not, a “her”. A genderless society seems more alien than anything I can think of today.
A central concept of the novel is also the use of reanimated, dead corpses that act on behalf of the artificial intelligence of a ship. There is none of the brutality associated with conquest that humans normally bring, but there are certainly downsides to this.
The gender is very distracting in the first third of the novel when the characters are on Nilt and Ors — planets that still uses gender in language, and to frame expectations for human behavior. It is confounding, especially when it seems to flip flop. This is something you could not do in television, cinema, or a graphic novel. The medium enables this confusion. Once you get past it, and on to the later portions of this journey, we occupy only the genderless language of the Radch and we no longer get distracting by the pronouns flipping. We do wonder more about these characters though. What must their relationships be like? Relations are hinted at in different forms of clientship arrangements, but that does not really denote gender. What starts as a frustration turns in to an interesting puzzle. Particularly if you accept that reproduction figures in to this process in no way at all. These humans would be more alien to us that Vulcans, Klingons, Centauri, Narn, or anything else you could throw out.
This is particularly interesting at the end of the novel when we know that one character has an interest in the protagonist. We know that character is a male because he was addressed as such in another language. This still leaves us to puzzle over our protagonist. Is this what we would consider to be a heterosexual or a homosexual relationship? Are the feelings the character expresses towards the protagonist those he normally feels for others, or is the protagonist’s gender unique? My completely unconfirmed assumptions are that the protagonist’s current body is a female gendered one, and that the affections exhibited towards her would be the same for other female gendered characters. However, that is my own mental baggage I am assigning to these far future figures. How great would the next novel be if they were both men?
The issue is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the protagonist was probably many different genders at other points in her life. She was the artificial intelligence of a space ship. A carrier for a crew of dead humans. As a computer program, gender is completely inapplicable. Each of her inhabited bodies would have had a gender, and in turn, the one inhabited body we get to know through the novel will have one specific gender. We see that the ship places no particular importance on gender at all, except when dealing with talking to members of other races. She is somehow blind to making such observations — I assume all Radch look like Ziggy Stardust — but in situations where she should have anatomical knowledge, or when she’s interacting with dimorphic humans, she should more easily be able to interpret it herself. That part was a little farfetched for me. Though I do appreciate the effort that Ann Leckie went to in weaving this.
The real conflict steams from the emperor of the Radch. A character that is actually split in to many thousands of bodies — much like the ancillaries of a ship, only without the central intelligence. She is working against herself and it is at the expense of many people in the story. No single thing is a throwaway story and it all builds to paint an unflattering picture of both halves of this emperor. There is no good choice, something which troubles our protagonist. Something which causes things to unfold in the novel according to neither plan the emperor has.
Jason Snell, of The Incomparable, lamented in their review that we never saw anything of our protagonist’s past before she was an ancillary. I am not as bothered by this. I am willing to accept that she’s essentially be reformatted. We have so many stories about bodies being used, or taken over, that it would be kind of trite for some of the similar stuff about the memories of a former occupant returning. Certainly, the story wasn’t lacking for other narrative elements going on. Instead of a singular, former personality exerting itself, I would have been interested to see if some of the anomalous behavior of Justice of Toren One Esk was due to the amalgamation of memories bleeding from previous minds. She was, after all, controlling many bodies, and she did exhibit behavior that was uncharacteristic of other units on Justice of Toren.
I am dissatisfied with the resolution of the novel. I do agree with The Incomparable panel here. She is given an assignment by the not-the-worst-half emperor but it feels so rushed that it seems to wrap too quickly. I wanted to linger longer on the outcome of the climactic battle.
The ideas present throughout this novel are interesting, and never dull. The world is rich, and as you read you can envision other paths that might be taken. Whole novels that could be written between two sentences. This is astonishing because Ann Leckie is a first time novelist. Not that she could not do it, nor that any first time novelist could not do it, but merely that I am overjoyed she was recognized for this labor of love. When people say that the publishing system fails us, I’d just like to point towards this book from Hachette’s Orbit imprint. She approached them with this amazing story and was able to turn it in to a success for herself, and I hope to see her continue to do so.
The next novel is only a couple months away. Surely more details about her will unfold, especially now that there is no need for her to keep secrets. She will also have the chance to interact with a ship’s computer that misses having ancillaries. What report might develop between the two of them? To say nothing of a possible romantic relationship with her companion from the first novel? Usually, I despise the cheap trick of making a character a love interest, but since gender is a total puzzle here it’s actually quite interesting.