When 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.