Oh the neglect! With the flying over the ocean and the deadlines for paying work (I love writing about books, but it definitely does not pay the bills. Or for anything at all, actually), I have had no time for typing out my noodle-y thoughts on the many books that I have been reading. Because, of course, deadlines and international moves be damned, I will read books. In fact, I noticed today that I have five different bookstore point cards, all of which I have used since I got to Japan a mere three weeks ago. The brain wants what it wants.
But this book Ancillary Justice is not one of those point card books, but rather one I shoved (tenderly and kindly because I love my books and would never hurt any of them) into my carry-on bag for the long flight to Tokyo. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a while and it seemed like the perfect plane reading; story driven with a little extra character meat on its bones. And I wasn’t expecting to write about it because one: it won some pretty serious awards and got some crazy good reviews from other people, so it doesn’t exactly need my rah-rah to help get it off the shelves and into hands. And two: plane books are not always the best books to talk about. I mean, you enjoy them, you get what you get from them, and then you move onto the next thing. Not every book needs a thousand words about why it is pretty great. But this one ended up being so much about so many things so dear to my heart that I feared my brain would simply burst if I didn’t get some of those thoughts out.
Seriously. Questioning gender and its function? Check. Identity and how we form the notion of the self? Check. Class war? Check! Plus, it has space ships and cool gadgets. So basically, if you are a science fiction loving, feminist inclined reader who has maybe enjoyed the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, then you should probably stop reading now and go pick up a copy of this book. You don’t need to read the rest of this to know that you will love it and spend a lot of time thinking about the world Leckie creates. Such a world!
And like almost every other book I’ve ever read which involves heroic feats of worldbuilding, I was sort of annoyed with this one starting out, that old feeling of what the hell is even happening here and why should I care. But I am nothing if not a generous reader, and that goes double when I am trapped on a plane with nothing else to read, so I kept at it. Maybe five pages in, I was totally hooked. Despite the parallel chapter structure (present-past-present-past-etc.) that I often despise. Ann Leckie is maybe magic.
She starts us in the present, with main character Breq finding one of her officers from a thousand years ago, Seivarden, face down in the snow of some planet, half-dead. We quickly learn that Breq did not serve under Seivarden in the superior-subordinate sense, but rather in the ground under her feet kind of sense. Because Breq used to be a space ship. With a consciousness spread out through a bunch of foot soldier types called ancillaries. Yeah, shit gets weird. Especially weird given that Breq is on a mission to kill the consciousness/multiple bodies/thingamahoodle that killed her/it.
On top of that, the main language spoken in this universe—the language of the colonial power—does not force the speaker to specify gender in any way. So everyone in the story is referred to as “she”, even in instances where the physical description given would seem to indicate that the character in question is male. Can I just say how much I looooove this? Outside of my own interest in gender and language (heavily influenced as I am by Japanese and the lack of need to specify gender there and constantly frustrated by the need for gender in English when I translate, how this always wrecks the delicate balance of the original text), this little weirdness creates such a delightful ambiguity in the story. Suddenly, you have no sort of stock image of any particular character. And this forces you to notice that you even had a stock image of characters at all.
None of us likely have some brown-eyed, bearded guy ready to deploy at first sight of the word “he”, but still, we have certain physical traits that pop into our heads when a character’s gender is specified through use of pronouns or other clues like a gendered name. But when names are unfamiliar (as they tend to be in SF) and everyone gets a “she”, it changes all of these preconceptions in surprising and somehow subtle ways. In a way, it reminds me of BL and the way the relationship being between two men subverts and almost renders invalid pre-existing prejudices/conceptions about romantic relationships. And all of this from the refusal to use the dominant of the two gender pronouns available in English!
And then (as if just this gender inversion were not enough!), Leckie forces her readers to consider what it means to be who you are, what it means to be “I”, by having as her protagonist someone who was once a massive spaceship with multiple bodies at her disposal, all of them simultaneously her and separate. All these experiences filtered through the separate lenses of many different human and mechanical bodies, pulled together to create a coherent “I”. Except that the entire plot hinges on the fact that a coherent “I” is, in fact, not formed. There is a splintering, factions within the self fighting to their own advantage against each other. The self literally fighting other parts of itself, highlighted in this dryly hilarious moment: ‘In that case,” I said, “go fuck yourself.” Which she could actually, literally do, in fact.’
You’ll notice I’ve said barely two words about the story and what this book is even about. And if you’ve been reading my brain’s battles for any length of time, you’ll also know that my brain and I are reluctant to discuss story in general. It is almost always better to walk into these things knowing nothing. So walk into this. Know that it is science fiction, but the character driven sort, rather than the tech type, and that it has some questions for you about gender and identity. Let it ask you them. Trust me. You want to spend the time thinking about the answers.