Title: Ancillary Justice
Author: Ann Leckie
Genre: Science fiction
Rating: 3.75ish / 5
After my bad experience with Heinlein, I wanted to wash the bad taste out of my mouth with some good sci-fi. I have a hard time rating this book, because while at times it was a 2 star reading experience, there is a lot to like about it.
The story is about a ship in a human body–imagine if the USS Enterprise existed simultaneously as a ship but also as human bodies, like for making Captain Picard’s bed or providing security. And then one of those bodies becomes separated from itself, the ship, and goes on its own, self-directed mission, pretending to be human. That’s basically this book.
One feature of this book has been heavily commented on, and which I loved, is its approach to gender. Or, well, maybe not its approach to gender–the book doesn’t have much of one, honestly, but the author’s choice of using the pronoun “she” to refer to all characters regardless of their gender does do some interesting things. You can read more about those things here, paying especial attention to the comments. I agree with commenters on that piece who say that Leckie wasn’t intending that the main culture in this book, the Radch, is completely free of gender, only that the language doesn’t name it. I didn’t see Leckie trying to score a point for nonbinary gender systems here; rather, the use of “she” for all people has important implications for how people in this society read and interact with her book and characters. The default pronoun for all people has been “he” for so long, and people who typically hold the positions of highly placed commanders, soldiers, pilots, ship captains, supreme lords of the universe, etc., in our society tend to also be people who use the pronoun “he.” So, in this instance, in a book full of lieutenants, inspectors, and lords of the universe, using “she” for everyone not only gives us some insight into the way an AI sees things or Radch society, it also challenges our own assumptions of gender and who is worthy of holding those positions–worthiness of holding positions being a main theme in the plot of the book as well. There’s also the fact that when presented with a gender neutral pronoun, both adults and children, men and women, more often assume the person is male or masculine; sometimes the effect is subtle, sometimes it is large–for instance, Switzer (1990) found that when presented with a story about “the student” with no gender pronoun given, over 63% of respondents described a male; when “they” was used, “only” 44% of people conjured a male–but then, only 27% conjured a female. Do we really believe that by using “they” or some other gender-neutral pronoun to refer to lords, commanders, captains, etc., that most people wouldn’t have just imagined a man? I think the use of the “she” generic pronoun in this book challenges our notions of gender more effectively than a “true” neutral pronoun would have done in the same book and story.
My main complaint of the book is that Leckie, I think, makes some parts of the plot unnecessarily confusing and asks the reader to do heavy lifting where I think it would be much better served by being direct or explaining what’s going on more clearly. I enjoy feeling tension, where I am unsure about a certain character’s motives or who they might be. Instead of creating intrigue, this book caused confusion for me. There were times I was struggling to figure out what even was supposed to be going on, which doesn’t make for a super pleasant reading experience. I knew going in that it was a series and that I don’t usually like series. I decided to read it anyway, so I don’t know how disappointed I’m allowed to be that the ending really isn’t an ending. But yeah, I am. It just doesn’t feel over, you know?
This book’s strength is in the concepts and themes it explores–the computer-cum-human protagonist, the Radch, the question of free will versus fate and programming, ends and means, and our own current conception of gender. Its weakness is the plot, which was actually quite simple but was told in a somewhat convoluted way that robbed me of some of the enjoyment of watching it unfold. I am glad I read it, though. The upsides were worth the downsides, enough that I am considering continuing the series. It’s both interesting and a space opera; if that sounds like your thing, you might find it rewarding as well.