I read a lot of novels. They can blur together, particularly reading in a genre that sources the same texts again and again. It’s a distinct treat when a novel so deeply rooted in science fiction surprises, rips away any sense of déjà vu, and adopts another frame of reference. Ann Leckie’s first published novel, Ancillary Justice, does that and more.
Breq, a soldier on a quest for information, searches an icy planet. The information Breq requires is how to kill Anaander Mianaai, the near immortal Lord of the Radch, a galaxy spanning empire that Breq once defended. See, Breq used to be Justice of Toren, a self-aware starship that controlled thousands of corpse soldiers known as ancillaries. Now, the Justice of Toren is alone inside one of those soldiers. Justice of Toren is just Breq.
Because Leckie likes to keep things simple, Ancillary Justice isn’t chrono-linear. While the present story line is as described above, it’s only half the novel. The second half takes place in the past, before Justice of Toren is betrayed. These sections explore the kind of science fiction rarely seen, in that the author examines the actual ramifications of post-humanism. This isn’t a token artificial intelligence for color, or a downloadable cortex stack for cool story telling purposes, but an actual dive into the head of a conscious starship with fractal awareness distributed throughout hundreds of individual appendages. How would such a being relate to humans? Hell, how would it relate to itself? To call it fascinating and ambitious would be something of an understatement.
The disparate narratives work well together though, flashing between at natural stopping points. In the present, Ancillary Justice reads like Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. It’s thoughtful and challenging in the conclusions it leads the reader to without being opaque. The flashbacks do less with plot and more with ideas in a way that calls to mind Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds. Where Rajaniemi never spends the time sitting down in his ideas and Lord spends too much time with hers, Leckie strikes a perfect balance by using her two narrative threads to accomplish different goals.
One of those goals isn’t science fictional as much as it is societal. In Leckie’s future, led by the Radch, the default gender is female. Breq’s body is implied to be female, but the consciousness that inhabits her lacks gender all together. Many other characters referred to as she/her are in fact male, or perhaps in some cases have the same complicated relationship to gender that an artificial intelligence might have. In creating this society, Leckie is challenging her reader to examine their own use of pronouns. As a male reader this paradigm reminded me that language has a great deal of power. In our society the default gender is male except when referring to a sea going vessel. What does that entail? How does it influence interactions? Through Breq, Leckie takes the reader inside that very conflict.
When encountering someone not of the Radch, Breq constantly struggles to appropriately gender who she’s communicating with. It leaves the reader constantly trying to assign genders to different characters until it stops mattering. And it does. By the time a third of the novel is gone a realization dawns that the gender of anyone, including Breq, is inconsequential to anything. Leckie illuminates the power pronouns have on the way humans relate to one another. And the sad state of affairs we find ourselves in our world where gender too often draws stark lines. Ancillary Justice accomplishes this not by removing or ignoring gender, but by talking about it into exhaustion.
Given the complexity of these ideas and the story Leckie lays out, there seems little need to discuss her prose in any detail. Any struggles in her language would be on full display. Suffice to say, it works. It’s bold and unapologetic, reflecting the kind of story she’s telling down to the sentence level.
Oddly, I’ve sat here for some time looking at a blinking cursor trying to come up with something critical to say about the novel. How can any debut slide through the meat grinder that is this blog without running afoul of some pet peeve? There’s a first time for everything. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice does everything science fiction should do. It engages, it excites, and it challenges the way the reader views our world. Leckie may be a former Secretary of the Science Fiction Writers of America, but she’s the President of this year’s crop of debut novelists.
Ancillary Justice might be the best science fiction novel of this very young decade.