Firstly: OMG I loved this book so very much.
Secondly: a real review. There are some spoilers, but nothing too major. I promise you will still have your breath stolen by many of the events in the book.
So, let me get “the gender thing” out of the way first. I debated leaving this ’til last, because it’s what a lot of other people are apparently fixated on… but for that very reason, it seemed disingenuous of me not to engage. Thus: the narrator of the story, Breq, is from a culture that does not use gendered pronouns. When Breq is dealing with cultures that do use gendered pronouns, there are language problems – troubling enough that it causes Breq quite some stress. And when Breq is thinking/speaking to the audience, rather than rendering pronouns as ‘it’, Leckie has opted for ‘she’. This, obviously, presents some rather intriguing aspects. Except for a few times when Breq is corrected, the reader actually has no idea whether the other characters presented are male or female. I don’t actually think we know whether Breq‘s body is female or male, hence my hesitance to use a pronoun (Breq would use ‘she’ and roll her eyes at me). Why is this interesting? Well, we don’t know whether the leaders have boobs or balls. We don’t know whether the soldiers dying having tits or testes, and we don’t know which the person who ordered those deaths has, either.* And I think this probably changes the way the reader reacts, at least in some instances. More intimately, we have no idea whether the physical and otherwise personal relationships presented are hetero or homo, which is relevant if it matters to you; at any rate the lack of knowledge is surprising, occasionally frustrating, always intriguing. And when any or all of the people might be women, you’re left with the conclusion that women are actually capable of doing/being all of the positions presented – up to and including leading a galaxy-spanning society. Who knew? In the lack of gendered pronouns Leckie is making a call that gender doesn’t matter – except that in choosing ‘she’, this is somewhat undercut.
Look, I’m not actually a gender studies scholar. Probably there are other things that Leckie is doing that I didn’t really pick up on. But as a way of unbalancing the reader that works perfectly within the context of the novel, it’s a brilliant choice; and it also does that thing that great SF should do: it forced me to reconsider my own world.
On to other things: and speaking of unbalancing the reader that works perfectly within the context of the novel, what is with the gloves?? This is a brilliantly clever, and devastating, move on Leckie’s part. Breq comes from the Radchaai, and within the Radchaai everyone wears gloves. If you don’t wear gloves, you are regarded with horror. Why? It’s never explained. It’s like a man getting around in a Jane Austen novel not wearing a shirt; it’s clearly the wrong thing to do, but it’s not going to get him arrested – and Austen wouldn’t bother to explain why it’s a problem because surely you understand? Sheer. Brilliance.
Ancillary Justice does not follow a neat linear narrative. There is a chronological thread – it follows Breq as she (all right, I give up; it’s just easier, ok? and it’s what she would use) searches for something she needs, in an effort to right a wrong. Along the way she encounters someone rather unexpected, who brings a whole pile of unlooked for problems. Alongside and around that thread, the reader lives through the memories of what has brought Breq to this path. The main thing to know, in order to understand what’s going on (and this is on the back cover, so it’s not a spoiler), is that Breq wasn’t always Breq. Until twenty years ago, the body known as Breq was an ancillary of the AI controlling the Justice of Toren, a massive ship of the Radchaai involved in annexing and subduing planets – ostensibly for their own, but mostly for the Radchaai, good. Thus Breq’s memories are mostly those of a few-thousand-year-old artificial intelligence. And being an ancillary means that her body is human, and was co-opted for… duty? inhabitation? use? by the AI.
This issue of ancillaries is one that the book is not obsessed by, but does deal with seriously via several of the characters who respond poorly to the very idea of them. I liked that the story didn’t develop into something too preachy, but I also appreciated that having raised such a frankly horrifying idea, Leckie did not simply leave it as a necessary-but-evil, or evidence-the-Radchaai-are-dreadful, sign. Instead, it’s as complicated an issue as the annexations themselves, because they really do bring benefits to the planets colonised – as other colonisations have – but whether that’s worth all the pain and bloodshed… well. That’s something we’re still processing, to some extent.**
The blurb of my copy paints this as predominantly a revenge story, and I get where that’s coming from. But it lacks nuance, too. Breq is indeed looking for revenge. But she’s also looking for answers – to questions about events in her past, questions about the Radchaai itself, questions about how she can, should, exist as this solitary body rather than as a near-omnipotent (in a constrained space) being. Therefore even if the novel were purely focussed around her, it’s more complicated than just “rargh I get you for what you done to me!” But, of course, as the above demonstrates this is a far more nuanced and complex novel than that. It touches on issues of colonisation, and of gender; it looks at what it means to inhabit a body, as well as to inhabit a planet. And it looks at how religion is co-opted for different purposes, too.
The inclusion of religion startled me, and – when I got over that – made me very happy. It’s something I’ve complained about in the past, here and on Galactic Suburbia: the lack of religion, treated seriously, in science fiction. Seriously people: do you think that just because humanity lives beyond the Earth, they’re going to somehow move beyond a desire for an explanation beyond what science can provide? I don’t think so. Leckie’s inclusion of religion, and the exploration of how religion and colonisation work together, was welcome and clever and shows how much thought she has put into this universe.
This next bit is for those who’ve read Iain M Banks’ Culture novels. I can’t help but assume that at least part of this novel is in dialogue with the Culture. There’s the fact that AIs are in charge of ships and stations, and interact with their human inhabitants. I know that this happens in other stories, but there was something that made me feel a distinct connection to the Culture Minds. That said, these AIs are not really like the Culture Minds. For a start, they’re not meant to have personalities at all. And there’s a very clear point in the story where Breq reflects on the fact that the ships don’t really talk to each other any more; they’re too old, and they’re bored by each other. This is in complete contrast to Banks’ positively verbose Minds, who can usually hardly keep their traps shut. Then, of course, there’s the use of ancillaries – actual bodies – instead of drones, which is… interesting. And reflective of the fact that the Radchaai is a far more problematic society than the Culture, and possibly reflective of the way such a human society is more likely to act (aggressively, rather than with the amused benevolence characteristic of the Culture). It’s entirely possible that Leckie has never read Banks, I guess, but for me this works really nicely in conversation with a series of books that I also adore.
Finally, then: this is what I want my SF to be like from now on. Smart; fast-paced; intriguing characters; believable world. And intellectual depth for added joy.
*I do understand this is reductionist; I’m going for effect here. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be an indication of these societies going in for large-scale, Culture-esque body shaping, so it seems to me that these crude indicators would still be considered relevant by Breq’s contemporaries.
**I mean on a global scale, not an individual scale. Please don’t yell at me for defending colonisation, because I’m certainly not; I’m an historian, I know and agree with most of your points.
You can get Ancillary Justice from Fishpond. This book was provided to me by the publisher at no cost.