Fri
Jul 11 2014 8:30am

Why I’m Voting for Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie Hugo nomineeWhen thinking about Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, the first thing that comes to my mind is gummy worms. Sour gummy worms, to be precise, are a very specific desire. When you want a sour gummy worm nothing else will do. Seriously, nothing else. The second thing that comes to mind are macaroons, those little delicious crispy baked goods that have replaced the cupcake as the pastry du jour.

Yes, Ancillary Justice is like gummy worms and macaroons, combined. Early buzz meant that readers were craving Ann Leckie’s debut novel, and finally getting to read it was both satisfying and sweet.

The novel begins on a remote, icy planet, where a soldier known as Breq draws closer to completing her quest. Years ago, Breq was the Justice of Toren, a colossal starship networked with thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the galaxy spanning Radch Empire. An act of betrayal tore Justice of Toren apart, and now Breq, a single corpse soldier, has one purpose—revenge herself on the Radch emperor. In other words, a starship’s consciousness trapped in the body of a human being seeks revenge on the person who murdered its colleagues. Big ideas! But, what has made Ancillary Justice a sensation, what has made it a Clarke and Nebula Award Winner and Hugo Nominee, is the simplest idea you can imagine. It’s a book that can speak to everyone. Because Breq speaks to everyone.

Search the web for reviews of Ancillary Justice and odds are that all of them comment on pronouns. The Radch culture defaults to the feminine. With the story told from Breq’s point of view, someone raised within the Radch society, everyone is she/her. Unless Breq is interacting with a culture outside her own. Then she gets confused. For the purposes of the novel, Breq’s gender is completely opaque. It’s assumed Breq is female because of the nature of the pronouns, but it’s merely an assumption, one bred by decades of living in the modern social construct. And it’s this context that makes me compare Leckie’s novel to gummy worms.

Published in the middle of a cultural revolution within the science fiction and fantasy community, Ancillary Justice has become something of a clarion call for women and other underrepresented populations fed up with the kyriarchy. A novel that erases that dominance, that makes the feminine default and portrays a character that lacks discernible gender, resonates in that environment. The discussion chamber has been yearning for a modern Ursula K. Le Guin or Joanna Russ, something that challenges the default in an accessible package. While awesome and true and important, it understates what makes Ancillary Justice a trend unto itself.

Science fiction and fantasy hasn’t been particularly good at representing its wide and diverse readership. It’s a genre predicated on white cis men doing hero stuff. Time and again, book after book, quest after quest, the same kinds of characters find themselves leading the light brigade and rescuing the damsel. Ancillary Justice rejects that notion outright. But, it doesn’t reject it by putting a woman into the role. Or a person of color. Or someone who’s transgender. Breq is neither definitively a man nor a woman. Breq is an outsider. Breq is human, but not. Breq is a warrior and also an artist. Breq is a cipher. Breq is whoever the reader wants her to be. In fact, Breq’s horrendous singing voice is the only physical feature the reader knows to be true. She is an extraordinary everyperson in a way that science fiction and fantasy does all too rarely; Breq is a macaroon, tasty and intriguing regardless of the chosen flavor.

It’s not that Ancillary Justice wouldn’t be successful if the pronouns were masculine and Breq was a man. It would have. The novel is such that the ideas could stand on their own. In fact, the actual story is often glossed over in discussing Leckie’s novel, favoring the meatier issues of self and gender mentioned above. Would that be the case without a pronoun contrivance and more superficially defined protagonist? Perhaps. What is unquestionable is that without these devices Ancillary Justice would merely be another fun space opera with big ideas and loads of untapped potential. As it stands today, it is a novel that speaks to the modern science fiction reader in a way few novels have. It reaches its lofty potential because it dares to challenge the unspoken biases in all of us.

Ancillary Justice has been, and continues to be, praised because Breq represents something in all of us. She isn’t a character for the default. She isn’t a character that appeals to the demographic most likely to buy the book. She is a character that has the flexibility to appeal to the spectrum of humanity. It’s a powerful elixir and one that the science fiction community was hungry for. Combine that kind of ubiquity with a commercial aesthetic and the result is force that finds itself worthy, nay deserving, of a Hugo Award for Best Novel.

It has my vote. Does it have yours?


Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.

42 comments
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
Yes, it unreservedly has my first place novel vote.
jeff hendrix
2. templarsteel
It won't get my first place novel vote, maybe near the end of the list, I didn't think it was that good to be nominated for a Hugo award
Maureen O'Danu
3. Maureen O'Danu
Ancilliary Justice *won't* get my first place vote, but it will get second place. I think that the gender swapped pronouns was an excellent device, but the story simply didn't hold my interest the way Parasite by Mira Grant did. Parasite also has a revolutionary idea, expanding our idea of what and who "humans" are, and on top of it, it was the sort of book where you care what happens to all of the characters, and the action and writing are both excellent.
Robert H. Bedford
4. RobB
It won't get my vote (since I'm not voting).

However, this is clearly the book to beat.
Maureen O'Danu
5. Herb2352
If our vote should be driven by symbolism, then shouldn't we vote for the much more popuular (and, frankly, better) "book" The Wheel of Time, a book that envisions a matriarchal society?

Ancillary Justice is a very, very good book, but I think it sits at third right now in my mind, behind The Wheel of Time and Warbound.
Maureen O'Danu
6. Scott Perry
I am just hoping it gets better, about two-thirds through it and it is struggling to keep me interested. Regardless of any gender issues being present, it is not meeting the hype for me sadly.
Cory S.
7. Hungry_For_Hands
If I were voting, it would probably get my vote. But not for the gender ambiguity. In my mind, I had assigned everyone a gender regardless of the fact that they were all called "she/her" and I didn't think about it much beyond that. And maybe that was the point. The readers could assign whatever gender they wanted and just get on reading the story and not worry about he / she.

What made this book so great for me was the concept of the AI and levels of consciousness. We have Breq, who is part of a larger whole One Esk, who was part of the larger whole Justice of Toren. The way that we got to see an entire city through the mind of One Esk at the same exact time was fascinating. Admittedly, I have not read much Sci Fi in the past (I'm a fantasy guy) so maybe this concept was not ground breaking. But for me, it was very new and enjoyable.
Maureen O'Danu
8. Zachariah
I haven't read Parasite yet, and "...expanding our idea of what and who 'humans' are..." sounds super cool, but to my reading, Ancillary Justice expanded my idea of who and what 'identity' is, so I'm surprised more people didn't find it fascinating.
Maureen O'Danu
9. a1ay
The discussion chamber has been yearning for a modern Ursula K. Le Guin or Joanna Russ, something that challenges the default in an accessible package.

This is both what I liked and what I disliked about Ancillary Justice in one: it had a lot of similarity with "The Left Hand of Darkness" in tone and style, as well as the gender thing. Which is good! Because Le Guin is a great writer and "Left Hand of Darkness" is her masterpiece!

But I was slightly soured on the book by a sneaking feeling that it was trying too hard to be the next Le Guin, which is kind of offputting.
Robert H. Bedford
10. RobB
6. Scott Perry
I had similar problems.
Jennifer Jones
11. jjLitke
6. Scott Perry and 10. RobB, I third that. I actually liked the gender pronouns, I don't think it would have had the same other-worldly impact if "he" had been used instead. But I never managed to connect to the main character at all. It's an AI starkly lacking in personality. I'd guess the singing was supposed to help with that, but it wasn't focused enough that it made a difference for me.

Some of the world building and culture was fascinating, though. I can see why some people loved it.
Alain Fournier
12. ALF
Well I am glad to see that I am not the only one that is not completely enamored with Ancillary Justice. I thought it was a slow moving although I did enjoy it overall. I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that an Advance Artificial Intelligence could not distinguish the sex of humans. I have no issue with the female pronouns being in defacto use in the Empire but I fail to see how it’s supposed to be so revolutionary.

I am in a quandary as this is the only Novel that I have read in the Best Novel category. I won’t be reading Warbound and The Wheel of Time book but I’ll try to read Neptune's Brood and Parasitebefore the end of the voting deadline at the end of the month.
Steven Halter
13. stevenhalter
I have voted for it in first place:

The pronouns are what get mentioned a lot in Ancillary Justice and I
liked how that pointed out some interesting characteristics of the
groups in the novel and my default assumptions. What I really liked was the dealing of distributed consciousness with Breq’s parts in the
various stories, the ships and the leader of the Radch. I found the base
quest story to also be entertaining and the world building with hints
towards what is to come was nicely laid out.
Ralph Feldhake
14. feldhake
Ancillary Justice was indeed very good. I went into it expecting a dry sociology lecture since all the reviews ever talked about was the pronouns thing, but it's a cracking space opera-political thriller. I have some problems with the fact that the plot absolutely requires two staggeringly unlikely coincidences to proceed (attn authors: you get one of those, not two), but I still found the book immensely enjoyable. If you enjoyed The Vor Game I think you will like this book.

That said, it doesn't have my first place vote--that's going to The Wheel of Time.
Ralph Feldhake
15. feldhake
12. Alf: I read Breq's "inability" to remember pronouns as cultural chauvinism. Of course she could remember them if it were important to her, we all do, but it's just not important, and she can't bring herself to care that a bunch of barbarians get all worked up over that sort of thing. Raadchai to the core, that one.
Scott Silver
16. hihosilver28
Ancillary Justice has my 2nd place vote. Primarily for the things that it does that differentiate it from the rest of the pack. Both have been mentioned here, the way it deals with gender, and having an AI with multiple literal simultaneous viewpoints. That said, the plot was a little bit of a mess, specifically in all the Breq chapters and I couldn't give it 1st. That goes to The Wheel of Time. I hope that WoT wins, but I won't be upset if it goes to AJ instead.
Maureen O'Danu
17. Shane who is called Shane
In a word, yes. Most emphatically yes.
Neptune's Brood 2 and Parasite 3.
jeff hendrix
18. templarsteel
My First place vote went to Warbound, The Wheel of Time got third place for my Hugo vote
Alain Fournier
19. ALF
@ feldhake I’ll preface this by saying that it has been a while since I read the novel but my I have the distinct impression that Breq could not distinguish between male and female. It wasn’t solely a Raadchai cultural imperative.
Maureen O'Danu
20. Mrs B
I thought Breq was female, as she is called a tough little girl in chapter 1
Brian R
21. Mayhem
I really liked Ancillary Justice, not so much for the whole pronoun thing - while reading I frankly didn't notice it - but for the worldbuilding and the way the story dragged me in - I found it a really good mixture of revelation and dangling a glimpse of more. It gets my #1 vote.

#2 goes to Neptune's brood - I really like Charlie's stuff, but he has this habit of wrapping things up abruptly that drives me nuts.

#3 goes reluctantly to Parasite - I don't really like the book, but it was well done.

I haven't read Warbound - I haven't read the earlier two and no longer start anything mid series. I'm curious to know if it is read much outside the US - it appears a very American fantasy.

And I don't think the Wheel of Time should be eligible. Worthy of recognition? Most certainly. It was a defining work of fantasy, and single handedly forced a number of changes to the popular landscape. Plus it isn't a bad read. But I don't feel it is Best Novel worthy - it simply isn't a single book.

I'd rather see a separate category for *completed* series works like WoT, where individual novels may be weaker but the work as a whole is extremely strong. We're a long way from the simple Belgariad and Riftwar books now, and serial works have truly come into their own. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is probably one of the most deserving that never won anything. The Kingkiller series has a lot of promise which it should even fulfil eventually. And Game of Thrones will probably demand an honour at some stage, if it finally finishes.

Practically this would need to be awarded every few years rather than annually to allow enough series works to be completed in between.
Jared Shurin
22. Jared_Shurin
Yes.
Scott Silver
23. hihosilver28
@Mayhem
You're certainly entitled to that attitude regarding The Wheel of Time, but the Hugos decided that it did fit according to the rules. Sanderson has an excellent (and in my opinion, measured and well rounded) blog post about it. I would say that if you think it's deserving of something, to vote accordingly, but don't punish the book(s) for how you think the rules should be. This is the only time it will ever be up for a Hugo from here on, you won't ever be able to vote for it as a series. On a different note, you can read Warbound without having read the previous books. That's how I read it, and it is pretty easy to comprehend what's going on.

@templarsteel
Why do you feel that Warbound is deserving of the 1st spot above everything else? I enjoyed the book, but didn't feel that it contributed as much to the genre as the other nominees. I'm genuinely curious about your opinion.
jeff hendrix
24. templarsteel
@hihosilver28

I enjoyed reading Warbound more then the other novels except for the Wheel of Time series in the Hugo Award for Best Novel
Joel Salomon
25. jcsalomon
@Mayhem 21: Regarding Warbound, it is my understanding that the previous two books in the trilogy have been included in the voters’ packet.

Ancillary Justice was a fun read, with interesting takes on the machine-become-human and hive-mind tropes. It’s not the best SF/F book I read this year—The Golem and the Jinni and A Few Good Men both were better, and failed to be nominated; and I’ll be cheering for The Wheel of Time—but all of the nominated novels are worthy options.
Maureen O'Danu
26. Herb246
I agree there should be a separate category for completed series, and that's something to lobby for going forward.
Brian R
27. Mayhem
@hiho
I completely agree pretty much everything in Sanderson's post, but I'm not deliberately punishing it. I liked AMoL, thought Sanderson did a great job, but I'm not misty eyed about the series despite having been reading it for decades. I'd rather see AJ win, and WoT get an honourable mention.

But to each their own - I don't want to sway anyone else from voting to their own opinions :)
Might see if I can track a copy of Warbound down then, sounds worth a look.

Hmm, wonder then if we can get Tor's all 10 books in one volume ebook edition of the Malazan Book of the Fallen nominated in its own right for next year ... that came out this year :)
Scott Silver
28. hihosilver28
@Mayhem
That's more than fair.

Warbound, and the two previous volumes of the Grimnoire Chronicles are in the Voter's Packet. Which, if you're voting (as it sounds like you are), you should have access to them. They're all in the "Novel" download.
Niraj Merchant
29. NirajMerchant
I actually enjoyed all the nominated novels. I had previously read the wheel of time, but none of the other novels that were nominated.

While I enjoyed Neptune's Brood the most, since I really liked the whole economic fraud that had been set up, Ancillary Justice was a close second. There were a lot of things to like about the book:

**possible spoilers for the plot**
I thought the whole concept of Ancillaries was fascinating, with the ship controlling the bodies of subjugated people, but I loved that there were these implications about the personalities of each of the mentally controlled people affecting the way they acted even while controlled by the ship.

Breq's personality was a brilliant example of show don't tell, where her world view gradually came into focus through the book, without her needing any exposition to display her biases and feelings. Her penchant for singing was one of those quirks that both ended up being plot relevant while making Breq feel real.

The whole split peronality for a ship was extremely interesting as it answered one of the first questions that spung to my mind when I read about the ship directly controlling these bodies.

And then the most talked about point: the pronouns. Initially it was interesting since I looked to see if there were any other clues to the actual gender of the person, but eventually realized that if the gender wasnt plot relevant, it didnt matter, which I guess was the whole point of the exercise in the first place.

All in all I thought it was an excellent novel which I would be happy to see win the Hugo.
Maureen O'Danu
30. Lektu
The Radch culture defaults to the feminine.
I don't think that's exact. As described, Radchaai does not have grammatical gender. Of course, the book is in English, not Radchaii, so Leckie chooses to use feminine pronouns to highlight that fact and avoid most users "defaulting" to viewing every single character as male (which would likely happen if she had used only masculine pronouns).


@12 Alf
I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that an Advance Artificial Intelligence could not distinguish the sex of humans.
To be fair, Breq remarks that she understands that, outside the Radch, there are biological and cultural clues to distinguish between the sexes, but that these clues are not universal; not even sexual dimorphism, because "humans" in Ancillary Justice are very often not exactly Earth-standard humans (a fact highlighted a few times in the novel).
Mark Alexander Lindberg
31. Megalodon
I found it to be interesting, yes. The pronoun thing threw me off, because I was trying to keep track of the characters' actual gender whenever I could, and that distracted me from the main plot of the book. Eventually, I just gave up, though it frustrated me...

The plot was quite interesting--the idea of a split personality AI was really cool, and while the views of the entire city were at first jarring, once I got used to them, they were really cool. Almost an omniscient viewpoint, in a way. The ending left something to be desired, in my opinion, though in the context of a trilogy, I think it was just fine. I'll certainly be grabbing the sequel at some point to find out what happens. I did find myself bored with the plot ocasionally, and it took farther into the book for me to understand what it was actually about than I would have liked, but once it got going, I was hoooked. I'll say it again--the AI concept is incredibly cool.

All that being said, AJ gets second place for me behind WoT. WoT was just too integral to my life (I was born in 1991, I grew up reading these books.), and I think Sanderson finished it brilliantly. I still get chills looking back over AMoL, especially the second half.
Maureen O'Danu
32. mulliner
I voted Ancillary Justice #1. It blew me away -- and not just the pronouns, though I really enjoyed that ambiguity. My reading group often discusses the book for 5 to 15 minutes, and then goes on to generally chatting (including other books). When we read this one, we were in intense discussion for an hour. There's so much going on. I loved the world-building and the characters.
Mark Cole
33. gmark
Definitely the best of the bunch. Much as I like some of the other authors, living and not, Ancillary is the smartest, most provocative of the nominees. Now, if she was up against the Campbell folks (Naam, Chu, Gladstone, Samatar, Sriduangkaew), I don't know. Those are some seriously creative writers and some pretty amazing works. Nice time to be a reader.
Mark Lambert
34. Ranbato
I found the concepts interesting, but the story dragged and failed to keep my interest. It is at the bottom of my list.
To be fair, in some of the other categories I am putting some entries below no award.
Jenny Kristine
35. jennygadget
I'm really curious about the reasoning behind claiming that Ancillary Justice was trying too hard to be like Le Guin (or the next Le Guin). Because I've seen it pop up several times (not just here) but never with any specifics as to how the book does this, or why this is even an issue in the first place.

It's smacks to me of the anomalousness that Russ talked about. Because it's fine to have countless LoTR and GoT rip-offs - and for some of them to even win awards - but too many women writing about gender, we can't have that! So clearly there must be something wrong when new women (who aren't the rare few we've accepted as canon) dare to presume to write about these things too. And any similiarites must be bad writing, or trying to hard, rather than deliberate allusions, despite clear differences between the books' other themes.

It would be one thing to simply say that you don't think that it tackles the topics it does in a manner worthy of winning awards. But this constant need to pit it against The Left Hand of Darkness - and ONLY The Left Hand of Darkness - I just don't get it. (It's quite telling too, that when it does get compared to other works, works written by men and related to the AI theme, it doesn't get this kind of THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE or AJ IS NOT WORTHY OF LE GUIN type treatment. The discussion is about themes, allusions, and differences as well as similiarities.)
Brian R
36. Mayhem
Personally I think the whole argument back and forth on the pronouns is both a bit of a red herring and deeply relevant.
It is relevant because the constant use of she makes you either consciously try to keep track or default everything to female, which is a neat translation trick between the world of the book and the world of the reader.
But it is a red herring because I found gender was so minor a part of the story - the multiple personalities in multiple bodies was by far the bit that grabbed me - it's the first book I've read to really pull that off in a convincing fashion. And the political game at the heart of the story was both unique and well executed, and I found it very satisfying, if slightly abruptly finished but the trilogy thing explains that.

Frankly the biggest surprise was that a book this highly hyped was actually so enjoyable - I've not had that in a while.
Justin Landon
37. jdiddyesquire
Personally, I think AJ is a lot more accessible than LEFT HAND, which is all to the good.
Peter Ahlstrom
38. PeterAhlstrom
It won't be getting my top vote, but I did enjoy it very much. The pronoun thing is a worldbuilding aspect that I easily accepted, but without a fascinating plot that wouldn't be worth a nomination in my opinion. Thankfully, the plot is a stellar one, though the most interesting thing about it (the personalities spread out over separate bodies) was, I felt, more interesting in A Fire upon the Deep. If I hadn't encountered the concept already in that book, I might have found it more compelling here. Still, if it ends up winning, the Hugo Award will have a worthy winner this year. All the novel nominees have been quite entertaining (I've just started Parasite, so I can't yet pass final judgment).
Jenny Kristine
39. jennygadget
@jdiddyesquire

Oh, that's interesting, especially in light of the conversation about acessibility we had during the podcast.

And I forgot to say the first time around: great post!
Matthew Watkins
40. oraymw
I'm inclined to vote for it too, and I'm a huge WoT fan. But this book was just fabulous.
Katharine Duckett
42. Katharine
@41 Comment unpublished, as it's not in line with our moderation policy. Please be respectful when disagreeing with other commentators, and refrain from using inflammatory language and rhetoric. Thank you.
Danny Sichel
43. Danny Sichel
As for the question of whether it's implausible that a powerful starship AI would be unable to properly distinguish the gender of whatever organisms it meets: remember, Breq isn't a powerful starship AI. Breq was a powerful starship AI, but is now just a fragment of the One Esk cluster, which was itself just part of Justice of Toren. Breq doesn't have the sensors or the databanks or the raw processing power that Justice of Toren did.

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