Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann LeckieOnce, Breq was the Justice of Toren – a gargantuan Radchaai warship equipped with an AI mind and in control of thousands of empty human bodies called ancillaries, deployed by the Lord of Radch to colonize the galaxy in the name of civilisation. Now, Breq is trapped inside one sole body, her single remaining ancillary, struggling with her identity and attempting to learn how to live as human in a human body while plotting her revenge against those who betrayed and condemned her to her fate.

Told alternatively from Justice of Toren and Breq’s perspectives with Justice of Toren providing the past leading up to Breq’s present, Ancillary Justice is a novel that takes a little bit of work getting into. Then, Justice of Toren was orbiting the rather recently colonised – or ‘annexed’ as the Radchaai themselves prefer to call it - planet named Shis’urna where trouble start brewing when functioning guns that should have been dismantled at the start of the annexation are found hidden away and the division between the upper and lower classes of the native population on Shis’urna keeps widening due to the Radchaai involvement. Now, Breq is looking for a special kind of weapon, the only one able to inflict any damage on the one responsible for the fragmentation of Breq’s self.

I’m not an especially avid reader of military science fiction, but Ancillary Justice is above all a fast-paced and fun read, even if the flashbacks at times makes the storyline seem a little convoluted. The plot itself is by contrast pretty straightforward and even rather transparent at times, but what the novel lacks in plot Leckie certainly makes up for with the characters and the world building. In Ancillary Justice, the galaxy feels as vast and varied as it is supposed to be: its planets are filled with a myriad of different worlds with different cultures and different kinds of sentient beings and outside the perimeters of known space aliens lurk – and it all provides a great backdrop to Breq’s quest for vengeance.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

However, one of the most interesting things about this novel is the usage of pronouns – Leckie uses the pronoun ‘she’ almost exclusively throughout the book. The Radchaai language has only one, a gender neutral, pronoun and the only time ‘he’ is used in the text is when Breq is speaking another language that does have gender-assigned pronouns and then simply has to guess how she is supposed to refer to whom since she is unable to tell. Now, a story written almost solely using only one pronoun is nothing new – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. le Guin and Ammonite by Nicola Griffith are two examples of excellent books in which for different reasons and in different ways only one pronoun is used predominantly throughout the text. Furthermore, using only one pronoun may seem like an easy trick to raise questions about gender, but the fact is that it actually does. By omitting one pronoun – and, notably, the pronoun commonly used as the “gender-neutral” one – Leckie shows exactly how deeply rooted our perceptions of gender are. The effect becomes especially jarring with how the constant usage of ‘she’ contrasts with the military setting of the novel – even though I know that Leckie does not assign her characters gender, I immediately begin consider any character introduced by her military title as ‘he’ until the text refer to the person in question as ‘she’ and effectively reminds me of exactly how closely I associate anything military with male.

And that is what I ultimately want science fiction to do: to challenge the way we perceive our world by in one way or other move beyond or rearrange the structures and boundaries that it is made up of. In addition to doing exactly that, Ancillary Justice is an entertaining and well-written novel, told from the perspective of a protagonist that is not just engaging but also used to be a warship.