Recommended Reading: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has won essentially every sci-fi award available–and justifiably so. It’s one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read, an intelligent, gripping tour-de-force that demands and rewards the reader’s undivided attention.

photo (5)I’m going to say almost nothing about the plot because I’m hoping you’ll read this book and I want you to get the most out of the experience. In brief, two stories run side by side.

Breq is the sole survivor of a twenty-year-old disaster. She’s out for justice, or maybe revenge, but a figure from an even more distant past might complicate things.

The Justice of Toren is an enormous starship, its artificial intelligence nearly omniscient and able to “be” in many places at once, both on the ship and off. The ship serves the Radch, a human empire that has been conquering the galaxy, but Justice of Toren’s mission is one of the last of its kind, and something’s afoot that’s resisting its analysis.

This book is so smart, so original, so interesting. What’s been getting the most play is Ms. Leckie’s take on gender; the Radch do not recognize gender at all, so the only pronouns in use are female. Every character is “she”; it’s jarring at first, and I found myself, ardent feminist though I am, analyzing characters for hints of their “actual” gender, when of course no such “actual” gender exists in the world of the novel. I suspect Ms. Leckie knew readers would do this; it’s a subtle critique of our own gender-obsessed culture, and a commentary on the way in which for many hundreds (if not thousands) of years, humanity accepted “he” as the universal pronoun for people and for God.

[I have utterly no idea how they’re going to make TV series out of this book, let alone cast it. Well, I can imagine Ronald D. Moore doing it, but he’s otherwise occupied right now. The book has been optioned for TV, which you can read about here. Don’t read the last paragraph–spoilers, sort of.]

Gender aside, Ancillary Justice has a great deal to say about consciousness, psychology, empire, and cultural assimilation — we’re talking Battlestar Galactica-level nuance and interest (you knew I was going to bring BSG into this eventually, right?). Thematic concerns aside, it’s action packed and suspenseful, and a treat to read.

Ms. Leckie’s world-building is fascinating — it’s minimalist compared to some of the overwrought work that pops up in speculative fiction. Details are carefully placed, and often mysterious — I can’t wait to read the next book in the planned Imperial Radch trilogy to learn more (saga-phobes, never fear: Ancillary Justice works just fine as a standalone).

I’ll leave you with a few questions from the novel, ones I’m still thinking about, weeks after I finished it:

“[. . .] is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really fiction?” (207)

*Special hat tip to Mr. O, who got me this book for my birthday. Well done, sir.

11 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

  1. You lost me at “Battlestar Galactica-level nuance.” You’re kidding, right? Seven episodes of my life wasted giving that show a chance. This from someone who loves space and sci-fi. And the gender issue in this book sounds gimmicky (and/or pandering) — if there’s no gender, why is everyone a “she” instead of an “it?” Back to The Martian for me.

    • Ripley, I can’t fathom how the show didn’t grab you. It just gets better over time.

      And the book’s take on gender is neither gimmicky nor pandering; it functions mostly at a linguistic level (there’s lost of interesting stuff going on with the Radchaai and other languages). “It” wouldn’t work because it’s a pronoun that refers to objects, not sentient beings, and our contemporary agender pronouns — ze, xe, they, hir, etc. — are too inflected with our particular culture to work for a far-future sci-fi world.

  2. I read this too. I’ve never really read sci fi before and I found it quite opaque – though I don’t know if that was the genre, Leckie’s style, or Breq’s narration. I loved the ideas and concept so would very much like to see an adaptation – also because though I enjoyed the book I found it quite hard going. Very glad to see positive reviews of it though. (and I loved BSG, so very happy with the comparison!)

    • I did think it was dense–it required all my concentration, which is not usually the case for me (A.S. Byatt and Hilary Mantel are notable exceptions), but I thought it was so rewarding. I love sci-fi, and this is definitely on the cerebral end of the genre; there are plenty of other books out there that are attention-grabbing, interested in complex ethical issues, and action packed, but also readable with less effort (Dune, Ender’s Game, Stranger in a Strange Land are some of my favorites).

      We just started watching BSG again — it is such a good show!

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