Doing justice to a far from ancillary character
With mild temps and milder temperaments, the Beamers re-united to discuss the most awarded science fiction novel of recent years, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, a book that brings together artificial intelligence, multi-body existence, genderless language, and political intrigue. It is also full of songs.
And the Winner is …
One trepidation that faced us was the daunting list of awards that Ancillary Justice has won: the Hugo, the Nebula, the Clarke, Locus Reader’s Poll, the BSFA. With that much bling, could this novel live up to the expectations that it set up in our minds? Well, mostly. Many of us were intrigued by the way that Leckie wove together a narrative that split over both time and space, with flashbacks ranging from 20 to 1,000 years and points in between, involving a protagonist who was often invested in multiple bodies. Justice of Toren One Esk is both a character and a 20-segment squad of “corpse soldiers”, the re-animated bodies of prisoners of war who are controlled by the AI of the ship on which they serve. She is also Breq, an identity that she assumes after her ship is destroyed, setting her on a 20-year quest for vengeance or justice (punning the title).
Working the Turing Test
One question that haunts Breq/Justice concerns her status: Is she human? For the members of her civilization, the Radchaai, the answer is “No”; as an ancillary, she is mere equipment, the slave labor of this space-based Roman Empire, as Robin noted. But, being a solo individual for so many years, she is able to convince others of her humanity. Could she do so with us? Fran was not as convinced, and frankly was missing some of the novelty of the multiple viewpoints of the character-as-squad. The character does seem to lose much of her idiosyncrasy as the book advances, even as she protests being seen as human (the anti-Pinocchio maneuver?). Still, most of us found her admirable in the pure dedication to her quest to bring the Lord of the Radch to terms for her murder of Lieutenant Awn. We were less sure about her quest to aid Lieutenant Awn’s sister.
Hail; Seize Her!
Many aspects of the book left us less than sure, which is not necessarily a bad feature for the opening work of a trilogy. Still, I was hoping for some more substance in the worldbuilding. Certainly, the Radch/Roman analogy brings some understanding of how a far-flung interstellar empire might work, particularly one with a multi-cloned emperor running it. But, quite a few of the more mundane details seemed to be missing, particularly given that the actual civilization is contained with a single Dyson sphere, with all the other solar systems mere buffer zone around this unseen homeland. It would not require much, as I noted how Frank Herbert was able to sketch a galactic stock proxy struggle between competing Imperial and noble houses in Dune. Here, some of the links and supports of the political and economic systems were hard to discern.
East of the Class M Sun
Not that Leckie does not provide a lot of flash like multi-armed goddesses and mysterious aliens, and her take on social class was well understood. But, most of us were struggling with putting the various social cues into a context that would make it possible for us to appreciate their gravity (artificial or otherwise). Nick noted the plethora of Asian social and religious customs at play, including the importance (obsession?) of tea. I was struck by the “aptitudes”, the system of testing that leads to career assignments and advancement, closely akin to the civil service examinations of imperial China. We discussed the ways that such systems, alleged to be objective, are heavily subject to biases (intentionally or not), and we were amused by Leckie’s coolly cynical appraisal of same.
She Said, She Said
One system that eluded us was gender, probably the book’s most notorious aspect. We argued over whether a “genderless” language would use gendered words like “she” and “her”. Certainly, there is a shock value at work for readers who, in languages like English, are expecting masculine pronouns as the default. Leckie goes further in also eliminating cues from appearance, costume, or social roles, as well. Some of us were content to simply populate the book with female characters, but others wondered if we could (or should) figure out gender among the Radchaai. Liz observed that reproduction seemed to be in vitro, but what about child rearing? What were the roles that Radchaai assumed? What kinds of partnerships did they form, and for what ends? Lieutenant Awn is attracted to another lieutenant and worries over the difficulties, but what, exactly, are they? Class distinctions play a major part, but what personal desires are being fulfilled (or thwarted)? We did not know.
Sir, Yes, Sir!
While the pronoun system seems to catch the most attention, I puzzled over the masculine system at work in titles and salutes (“lord”, “sir”), while another feminine system was used in familial relationships (“sister”, “daughter”, “mother”). Donna thought that masculine terms conveyed more authority and thus were used to accentuate military and Imperial status. I felt that the switching was the author’s attempt to undercut a “masculine = patriarchy, feminine = matriarchy” interpretation, precluding the Radchaai from simplistic cultural categorization.
But the toughest question was how much to assign to the Radchaai themselves and how much to the author attempting to upend reader expectations via contrasting (not to say conflicting) gender uses. We discussed the various gender systems in different languages, both in actual languages and in fictional ones. Leckie has languages in which all pronouns including “you” have gender, but her linguistic sleights of tongue are not without precedent in sf, with Samuel Delany coming to mind (Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand uses “she” for the default, and “he” for an object of desire). Ultimately, we were stumped by what the gendering was meant to imply about the Radchaai.
Something for Everyone
Sometimes, it seems like that there was much about Ancillary Justice that left us unsure. Chris liked the fast pace of the book, but Nick and Fran both thought, while it moved at beginning and end, it meandered overmuch in its middle. Liz liked the use of songs, a particular quirk of One Esk that charmed us. The political machinations were equally intriguing and baffling, as were the various high tech toys (force-field armor, which could be defeated by the alien tech Garsedd guns). It would not be space opera without some of each.
Overall, we were probably not the group of voters who led this novel to the awards podium, again and again. Only Liz was willing to make it a recommended book. Others, like Merrie and Donna, were prone to wait for the sequels to be published before committing to reading further. I felt that the book, being so well-awarded, was a trend that no well-read sf fan should miss, but I confessed it more as a social than a literary compulsion. In any case, as Chris informed us of the sale of the TV rights, Ancillary Justice and its sequels are sure to be part of the sf/f conversation for years to come. And we did our bit.