I’m an infrequent consumer of Space Opera, and on the rare occasions when I do indulge, I tend to gravitate towards stand-alone novels rather than the epic 10-volume series of door-stop-sized instalments that the genre is perhaps synonymous with. Having said that, though, I’ve recently enjoyed Hannuu Rajaniemi’s stuff, and I’m liking Alastair Reynolds’ Poseidon’s Children sequence, too. I’ve also got some Peter F. Hamilton lying around here somewhere. So while I’m on this Space Opera roll, if you will, I thought I’d check out Ann Leckie’s debut (and first of a series(/trilogy?)) Ancillary Justice. There’s a whole lotta buzz surrounding the novel, mostly to do with its attempts to enforce readerly genderblindness; and while I was impressed with this as a conception – as well as the book’s characterology and philosophical ambitions – I found the novel somewhat flawed in execution; this mostly technically and stylistically. In fact, it’s been a while since I was quite so divided by a book. In some ways it is, of course, disappointing that the book as a reality doesn’t live up to the book as an over-hyped abstraction, but in other ways I kinda masochistically enjoyed this distance and the tension therein: the reading experience akin to watching the writer trying to wrestle her own ideas into submission. I don’t want to argue that Ann Leckie’s creativity overreaches her technical ability; it’s obvious that she’s a very talented writer; but Ancillary Justice definitely has that ‘it could have been done better’ feel about it. But who knows? Perhaps a more generous reading than mine would argue that this divide between the quality of the book’s ideas and their executions is a proof-in-action of the very limitations of language to express the estrangement inherent in such high-falutin far-future stuff. Or something.
Breq used to be the A.I. of a colossal army-carrying starship called the Justice of Toren; to all intents and purposes, she was the Justice of Toren; able to simultaneously inhabit and control the bodies of her crew: hundreds of humans (“ancillaries” or “corpse soldiers”) specially captured and biologically re-fitted for the purpose. When Justice of Toren is destroyed, the A.I., – used to living in (if not actually being) hundreds of bodies at the same time – is reduced to a single human avatar, and sets out on a galaxy-spanning revenge quest to find and kill the ‘Lord of the Radch’, the being that destroyed her when she was a ship. But… problem no. 1): The Lord of the Radch has bagillions of bodies scattered all over human space, and problem no. 2): wears this nano-armour stuff that nothing can penetrate. Cue an over-long fetch quest as Breq hunts down the requisite legendary gun (an all-powerful McGuffin analogous with, say, The Sword of the Dawn, The One Ring etc.: a Fantasy Quest item (“plot coupon”) here transposed to an SFnal setting), before seeking an audience with the Lord of the Radch herself.
So far so standard Space Opera. The Radch Empire is painted with vivid colours: it’s somewhat reminiscent of Rome (especially in its absorption of the cultures of conquered peoples (or as they put it in a beautiful act of linguistic denial, “annexed” peoples – as if it’s all friendly and consenting, this conquering malarkey)), and there’s plenty of world-building detail about their customs and history, if you’re into that kinda thing. But it’s the narrator Breq who really piqued my interest. The novel comprises a dual narrative: a flash-back arc, which focuses on when Breq was a mighty starship; and a present-day plotline, many years after Breq’s ship-body has been destroyed, and she’s been reduced to a single mind in a single re-animated human cadaver. The book flips and flops between these two strands every other chapter or so.
Unfortunately, Leckie never shows us what happens between these two periods, even though the inter-space that links them is by far the most interesting part of the character’s story. Breq’s life as a starship in control of thousands of human “ancillaries” is quirky in a sense-of-wonder kind of way (such as when Breq is having a conversation while simultaneously (i.e. in another body) on patrol, while simultaneously eating dinner, while simultaneously in orbit etc. etc.), but there’s only so far this kind of unrelatable High SF can carry my interest (though I suppose you could make a round-about defence of it by claiming that it’s all a big metaphor for how technology fractures our personalities or whatever). The “present-day” stuff, by comparison, features Breq as a now more-or-less adjusted individual human, familiar with occupying just one body and adept at tricking real humans into believing that she is one of them, rather than the remains of a colossal A.I. unit that’s trapped in a human homunculus (“humanculus”?) that she really is.
Both of these versions of Breq – the starship and the individual human – are competently presented: the passages concerning the former are disorientatingly weird in a pleasant (and sometimes even funny) way, while the chapters that focus on human Breq feel somewhat prosaic in comparison. There’s also a strange dissonance between, on the one hand, the way people react to her (nobody ever suspects that she’s not human) and her inner-monologue protestations that she actually makes for a clumsy, incompetent and uncanny impression of a real person. But either way, these two versions are the least interesting of the character’s timelines. I wanted to read about the hinterland Breq: the Breq who has just lost her starship body, and is adjusting to her human one. The one story I most wanted to read – how Breq learns what it is to be human – is the one story the book doesn’t tell. The robot-who-wants-to-be-human is a common trope in SF (with obvious origins in Pinocchio), and Ancillary Justice nearly hints at a remix of this: a computer who is forced to become a human. But after setting the stage for a traumatic period of adjustment, pathos, inner turmoil and philosophical debate, Ann Leckie jumps the book 20 years into the future to pursue the banal revenge-chase-through-space story instead. Basically: she skips over the difficult bit.
The other noteworthy facet of the novel is its aforementioned attempts to enforce a sort of genderblindness on the reading experience. The book does this by exclusively employing female gender specifiers to describe its characters. Everybody, regardless of gender, is spoken of as “she/her”. So even when the reader and narrator know that a character is a male, they are still referred to as “she” etc. The textual rationale for this is that the Radch language (in which Breq is supposedly narrating) has no linguistic means of differentiating gender. The subtextual reasoning is, however, up for debate. Most readers have reacted to it with one of two interpretations: one of these is very successful; the other less so, and predictably, they both kinda get in each other’s way. My own personal reading falls into category number 1, but to break it down:
Interpretation 1) Ann Leckie does the exclusive-female-gender-pronouns thing to challenge the male-centric history of Science Fiction as a genre, and to confront the sexist default positioning of certain SF character types (starship captain, galactic emperor, warrior etc.) as automatically male. It’s a gimmick, sure, but a necessary one; one that made me re-assess my go-to gender assumptions about characters and their roles. By which I mean, the unconscious way I might automatically attribute such titles as “commander”, “captain”, “doctor” to specific genders, even when no clue of gender is provided.
Unsurprisingly, the ubiquitous female pronouns affect the reading experience in various ways. Firstly: you want to visualise every character as female: even when you know (or when certain subtly-deployed clues have suggested) that a character is probably male. The pronouns are just too dominating to do otherwise. You can either struggle against this, or just go with the flow. It creates an odd sort of brain-wobble sensation, whereby you have to keep reminding yourself that not every character is female: it’s just the Radch language that doesn’t recognise gender. It’s a fascinating idea, which speaks to the power of gendered language. Secondly: you begin searching the text for any hints you can find as to a character’s actual gender, until you realise that it just doesn’t matter. It’s a futile act: Ancillary Justice forces the reader to recognise that personality types, professional competencies, physical gestures and socio-sexual behaviours are not gender-exclusive. It’s remarkably effective, and perhaps somewhat ironic that a book composed exclusively of female gender pronouns manages to draw attention to the invisibility of women (both as characters and writers) in SF as a literary field.
Interpretation 2) The pronoun thing isn’t necessarily feministic, rather it’s a more broad attempt to deconstruct the entire notion of binary gender as a sociological construct. It’s true that the Radch people don’t “perform” gender: not in their language, their fashion or their societal roles; but arguing that Leckie has produced a “non-gendered” civilization is, I think, missing the point. The Radch are binary-gendered in a biological sense – there are males and females – it’s just their language and behaviours that don’t recognise gender. This is distinct from, say, the Gethenians in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, who are specifically, biologically a race of non-gendered androgyne people.
The reason this interpretation doesn’t hold up can be found in Leckie’s decision to employ gendered pronouns (albeit exclusively female) as opposed to some Spivak alternative, which would surely have been a more obvious go-to linguistic praxis if Leckie’s goal was to present non-gendered people?
Many readers have deconstructed Ancillary Justice in terms of its similarities to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but this is, I feel, a false parallel. About LHOD, I said this:
The book is almost completely broken by Le Guin’s baffling stylistic decision to refer to every non-gendered native of Gethen using exclusively male personal pronouns (“he”, “his”, “him” etc.). This influenced my visual conception of the novel to such an extent that I couldn’t help but imagine all of the book’s characters as physically male. The effect of these male pronouns is to undermine the dissociative power of the genderless society as a narrative conceit. If Ursula Le Guin’s goal was to suggest that the consequences of a non-existent gender bias was a societal structure inordinately different to our own, then surely it would have been more successfully alienating to neologise a set of non-sexed pronouns that don’t carry any of the gender baggage that the writer is attempting to dismiss? It’s a small oversight that has regrettably deleterious consequences.
If we follow interpretation 2), then, we must also accept that Ancillary Justice frustrates its own goals in a similar manner to LHOD. And as I’d rather not accept this, I choose to doubt that this is what Leckie is really up to. I would contend that the device is successful in highlighting the aforementioned male-centric gender assumptions that many readers bring to Science Fiction, but fails in any attempt at forcing the reader to ignore gender entirely, purely because the reader is confronted with gendered pronouns on every single page.
Elsewhere there are some minor technical things that got on my nerves. The prose can be a bit flat, with little attempt at any sort of idiosyncratic style. Wrapped up in this is Leckie’s unfortunate habit of repeating similar words too close to one another in a way that disrupts the flow of a passage and is just kinda clunky. Most of the dialogue is plot-driven (though the bits about drug addict Seivarden’s struggles with withdrawal can be powerfully emotive), and there’s a definite over-reliance on unlikely coincidences to move events forward (Leckie attempts to justify this with some ponderous but vague stuff about how the Radch religion gives special significance to coincidence, but this just seems like post-factum editorial damage limitation to me). Most heinous, however, is the uneven nature of the book’s exposition and world building. Some information is dumped on the reader over and over again, whereas other aspects of the universe (such as the baffling nomenclature behind the names of ancillaries) are never explained at all. But the action sequences are fantastic – especially a mid-novel volta or shit-hitting-fan moment that really gets things moving. So there’s that.
Ancillary Justice left me disappointed. It initially feels like a book heading towards something really new and interesting, but it never quite manages to tip itself over the precipice of the mundane and into the exciting unknown. The uni-gendered pronoun stuff is worthwhile, and enough happens to keep things pretty pacey – it’s not boring. It’s just a shame that the quality of its ideas don’t shine through in its execution. I wonder if I’d have enjoyed it more had it not been so hyped, not so shoved-in-my-face. I’ve enjoyed talking about it more than I enjoyed reading it – which, I guess, has its own value.