Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ancillary Justice

After winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, along with the British Science Fiction Association award for best new novel, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Kitchies Golden Tentacle Award, (an unprecented feat) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie hardly needs more praise.  It's a fascinating space opera with an artificial intelligence (Breq) as the protagonist, that explicitly raises issues of feminism, colonialism and privilege among the more familiar trappings of science fiction.  It also, to my mind, is a book that leverages the length and structure of a novel perfectly (as opposed to the confines of a short story or the broad sweep of a multi-volume epic).

Any discussion of Ancillary Justice seems to begin where the author herself starts it, with the decision to use the pronoun "she" for every character in the story.
She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn't entirely certain. It wouldn't have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don't care much about gender, and the language they speak - my own first language - doesn't mark gender in any way.
Ancillary Justice, p. 3
Better minds than mine have commented on how successful Leckie's decision is, and the value of a specifically feminist book in this genre.  I will point to Leckie's own post and a recent podcast from in which Kate Elliott and N. K. Jemisin talk about bias in the SFF genre.

What I enjoyed so much about the use of "she" everywhere, and the almost complete lack of other gender identifiers, is that by the end of the novel Leckie was able to bring in a host of other important signifiers.  A bit over halfway through Ancillary Justice (yes, my reading habits are so ingrained that it took almost 200 pages) I tweeted
Having laid hundreds of pages of groundwork to get us used to not looking at gender, Leckie gets to start using all sorts of other indicators of social status.  Once Breq and her companion Seivarden arrive in Radch space, the indicators pile up: human or artificial, civilian or military, clan affiliation.  Breq herself, as an outsider is Honored, but not Seivarden's Citizen.  This effect can only work after sustained effort getting us to stop looking at gender.  Hundreds of pages of effort, but a magnificent payoff that makes the Radch empire more immersive than it could otherwise have been.  Here, especially, I think Leckie is leveraging the form of the novel uniquely.  Only with something this long can she have the space to untrain the reader's common expectations of gender & other signifiers in order to really show the Radch empire, but when Ancillary Sword comes out in a month I'm going to need similar "retraining" to really get the effect.

In addition to the work building a feminist novel, Leckie's protagonist is an Artificial Intelligence.  The work alternates between "present day" chapters when Breq has been reduced to a single body and flashbacks when Breq was one aspect of the ship Justice of Toren and specifically a member of the unit One Esk.  In these flashbacks, we often get three or four views in quick succession from the various bodies of Justice of Toren One Esk all in first person but in wildly different parts of a colonized town.  It's a disorienting but extremely effective technique for conveying Breq's essentially alien nature.  After some recent twitter discussions (sample here) pointing out that reviewers who draw comparisons to other books often betray their own biases and more importantly reinforce the notion that men constitute the "canonical" authors and influences, I'm hesitant to point to too many comparisons, but Leckie's construction of Justice of Toren One Esk/Breq, as a relatable but essentially alien protagonist reminded me in many ways of C. J. Cherryh's construction of the alien Atevi in Foreigner (which again took a great deal of groundwork laid throughout the novel).  In both cases, through a series of key scenes and interactions the author forced me to step out of anthropomorphising an alien intelligence, and grapple with them as familiar-but-alien.  Again, Leckie's construction is extremely effective, and allows a series of revelations and immersive experiences (including Breq's interaction with a number of other AI's late in the novel) that could not otherwise occur.  My own favorite moment came early on when Justice of Toren One Esk and a human soldier were stationed together:
"Ships have feelings."
"Yes, of course." Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It's just easier to handle those with emotions. 
Ancillary Justice, p. 88 
There are other observations to make about the foregrounding of discussions of colonialism and entrenched privilege (again, there's a lot of payoff at the end of the novel), but they make the same point again: Leckie does an incredibly effective job using all of the space in her novel to highlight reader assumptions and challenge them in order to essentially retrain the reader in preparation for the climactic scenes in Radch space.  It's a challenge that requires the space of an entire novel, but is well handled.

Again playing with forms and assumptions, Leckie features two main characters.  The active protagonist Breq is an artificial intelligence, created for the use and convenience of the Radch.  Seivarden her unwilling companion is a human stranded far out of space and time.  Where Breq, the AI is active, capable of empathizing with others, and drives the story to its conclusion, Seivarden is passive, lost and alone in a time that no longer recognizes her or the privileged life she had prepared for.  In many ways, Seivarden is a useful tool for Breq to explain alien cultures to, a reminder of key moments in Radch expansion that various characters refer to, and another window into the entrenched power structures of the galactic empire.  She is, in other words, not really a fully fledged character on her own, so much as created for the use and convenience of the author.  In other situations, this is lazy writing, but with an author who has so carefully constructed her novel and the alien AI who drives it, contrasting a human who primarily serves a function in the story is yet another example of playing with the traditional elements of the form.

My only complaint about Ancillary Justice comes with its conclusion (and here inevitably will be spoilers.  Skip ahead if this bothers you.)  Leckie does a great deal of work to get Breq & Seivarden to Radch space, and to bring the reader along with proper expectations in order to see the internal conflicts and power struggles that threaten the empire.  When Breq finally reaches her nearly-impossible goal, things very quickly go to hell.  There are explosions, fights, power struggles, a desperate flight in a spacecraft with the fate of the system and thousands of innocent lives at stake.  Heroics ensue, and the heroes are rewarded.  Book two is set up.  Breq, who has aimed for the last twenty years at a single goal, finds herself unsure of what comes next, but her loyal assistant serves to help move the plot forward one final time.  In a book that up to this point had challenged and subverted so many tropes, raising very real questions about contemporary issues such as entrenched power structures, the legacy of colonialism, and gender relations, the ending felt cliched.  It may be unfair of me to be disappointed that Ancillary Justice does not suggest a response to these issues beyond a single brave actor leading a violent movement (and here perhaps I'm overly influenced by Ian Sales' recent post "Science fiction has lost the plot") but I did feel let down.

****Spoilers done****

Ancillary Justice is a masterpiece that deserved all of the awards it won.  It's a fascinating and hugely important book, that I enjoyed immensely.  What I kept noticing as I thought about Ancillary Justice is how well it used the structure and length of the novel form to achieve many of its goals.  The use of "she" as the pronoun, and freedom to explore other signifiers within Radch space can only come to fruition in a work of this length. Juxtaposing an active, alien, but relatable AI with a passive human supposedly of the culture but who primarily serves to advance the narrative agenda is an interesting structural decision.  Especially in a genre that seems to enjoy piling bookstops on top of bookstops, Ancillary Justice is a delight because of all of the things it does by virtue of being a novel.

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