Ancillary Justice: Gender-blurred ship’s tale soars

Winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards in the same year isn’t too unusual. Among the score or so of writers who’ve done it are Ursula le Guin (twice), William Gibson, Paolo Bacigalupi, Connie Willis (also twice) and Jo Walton. It is somewhat less usual to do what Anne Leckie has done in 2014, and add to those accolades the British Science Fiction Writers’ award and the Arthur C Clarke award (Gibson managed only a trifecta).

Read the book, however, and it becomes very clear why Leckie’s debut novel has garnered such a bouquet of prizes. It offers something for almost every niche of SF readers; it is impressively well written — and a great deal more lurks beneath its surface than a cursory scan of its spaceship cover reveals. Ancillary Justice is a space opera, following the revenge quest of Breq across the known worlds after the unjust and arbitrary execution of a loyal officer of the Radch Empire. Like all empires, Radch encompasses multiple exotic worlds and, as Breq travels, the book is a novel of alien exploration. 

The science in its fiction is built not only on space travel, but also on Breq’s multiple identities: the last fragment of the ship-mind Justice of Toren, destroyed during the same injustice, and the ancillary One Esk, a “corpse soldier” made over from the body of a captured human equipped with artificial intelligence and augmented physical powers.  The whole book could be read as a meditation on identity. 

It is also a political thriller: the execution stemmed from a rift in the empire’s power structures dating back thousands of years, and fierce contemporary antagonisms over the practice and policies of imperial expansion and colonisation. 

Finally, it is military SF, with its share of gripping action from imperial troops, rebels, robbers and Breq. Keeping all these spheres in orbit simultaneously might seem a task to daunt any writer. From her interviews, it is clear Leckie relished solving the technical challenges. “A character like Justice of Toren,” she says, “[allowed me to] write in the straight first person while also taking advantage of the ability to see so much at the same time whenever I needed that. It was a nifty short circuit around one of the more obvious limits of a first-person narrator.” 

Such smart writing can take on a life of its own: smoke and mirrors that lift from the writer the obligation to characterise and world-build. That is not the case here. Both Breq and sidekick Seivarden are skilfully developed characters and their relationship is recognisably — and ironically — “human”. For if Breq is a diminished bit of artificial intelligence in a human body, Seivarden is an aristocratic Radchan relic from history, cast adrift generations earlier after a command error, and reanimated into a world now so unrecognisable that the only refuge is addiction. 

Breq is an AI who is also a song geek, something that may have contributed to her relative autonomy. The Radchaai empire itself, which Leckie has based very loosely on ancient Rome, always feels far bigger than the book that is set in it. The immediate settings: a cold, primitive lump of inhabited rock at empire’s edge, the lush new colony of Shis’urna, the provincial capital of Omaugh, have neighbours and history constantly referred to: it is impossible to forget they are components of a huge and historic polity. Tiny, telling details — the kind of tea and snacks in the tea shops, particularities of language and worship — make each setting vivid and distinct. 

Beneath, but over-determining all this, is a complex architecture of class and gender. From the ancient world, Leckie has derived a rigid aristocratic structure and a system of family clientage. Great families form a military/economic complex benefiting from empire and expansion. Those of humbler origins, who perceive and behave differently, suffer. No relationship — of rank, profession or emotion — is untouched by class, and it subtly emerges as a motor for much of the action.  

Leckie’s treatment of gender is thoroughly and wonderfully subversive, and it is symptomatic of her character as writer that she uses the tools of syntax to shape it. Throughout the book, the female third-person pronoun is used, with Breq, an AI schooled only in Radchaai gender distinctions, constantly insecure about incorrect designation. But gender in the empire is a more complex matter than simple differences from elsewhere. Radchaai are “unnervingly ambiguously gendered people … short hair or long …thick-bodied or thin-, faces delicate-featured or coarse, with cosmetics or none … matched randomly with bodies curving at breast or hip or not, bodies that one moment moved in ways various non-Radchaai would call feminine, the next moment masculine … I could drop that worry [of using the wrong pronoun]. I was home.”  

Although Breq offhandedly mentions that someone cursed to go fuck themself could actually do so, it is gender Leckie explores here, not sex. Readers caught up in the book’s various relationships of duty or heart cannot parse them into male or female roles, and have to weigh them in terms of ethics and politics.  

Read the second volume of Leckie’s series, Ancillary Sword — just on the shelves — and the gender riffs persist. There are comical cultural misunderstandings over a planet’s absurd Genitalia Festival. But the spotlight falls more sharply on the complex relationships between coloniser and colonised underclass.  

Breq, meanwhile, wrestles equally with her role as enforcer of justice (and what that term might mean), and her psychic loneliness as sole survivor of a ship-mind.

Win a hamper of local books

Exclusive Books and the Mail & Guardian are offering a hamper of South African books to one lucky reader. The hamper is made up of four books in the Exclusive Books Christmas catalogue: Cooked in the Karoo, in which Justin Bonello and his crew go on a two-year journey to rediscover the pulse of the Karoo; Weber Braai Bible, a masterclass on outdoor cooking lifestyles; Stuff White People Like, billed as “the definitive guide to the unique taste of millions”; and A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg, the story of an African man who strives to make his mark in the world. 

To enter, send an email with HAMPER in the subject line to: [email protected] You need to answer the following question: Who is the author of Stuff White People Like? The deadline is midnight on Monday December 1. Exclusive Books will choose the winner, whose name will be published in the Friday section of the M&G on December 5. The prize cannot be exchanged for cash or other titles. The judges’ decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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