Recently, I asked my social circle for book recommendations — specifically genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror … basically anything that wouldn’t be called “literary” fiction by the New York Times), by authors who aren’t straight white men. My friend Jéhan mentioned K. Tempest Bradford’s challenge, which is based on the idea of reading only non-straight/cis/white/able-bodied/male authors for an entire year. At which my friend Heather, being a competitive sort, threw down the gauntlet and dared me to take up that challenge.
So here we go! A Year of Reading Diversely. First up:
Check it out if you enjoy: Star Wars, Mass Effect, Battlestar Galactica, The Vorkosigan Saga
I started with Ancillary Justice because, well, I had a long list of authors and books, and Ancillary Justice was the first one that was actually available as an ebook from the Seattle Public Library. It seems telling to me that the very first thing I experienced when embarking on this challenge was an obstacle of accessibility. In many cases, SPL just straight-up does not have enough copies of books by authors from marginalized communities — women, LGBTQ people, people of color — to keep up with demand. I’m delighted to know that so many people in Seattle want to read Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler, sure. But just as many people must want to read Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I was able to get immediately. Obviously there are best-selling authors from marginalized communities that I can check out easily, like Suzanne Collins, but my “Recommended for you” screen includes starts with James Dashner, Dan Brown, and George R. R. Martin.
Anyway, on to the actual book.
Ancillary Justice is told from the point of view of One Esk (alias Breq), an ancillary: a human body inhabited by a fragment of an AI that once ran a warship called the Justice of Toren. The novel opens with the narrator on a remote planet in the Radch empire, where she discovers one of her former captains lying beat-up in the snow outside a bar. For much of the first half of the novel, the narrative switches between Breq’s attempts to find a reclusive doctor with her extremely unhelpful captain in tow, and an extended flashback to Justice of Toren‘s time on a newly-annexed planet.
To be frank, the first third of the book was tough for me. Secondary world stories are a hard sell for me because so many of them end up involving political drama. Like, look, I can pretty much keep track of my own world’s politics these days, but if I’m going to sit down and read for pleasure, I’m not necessarily jazzed about the idea of having to learn a whole different world’s political system, religious system, and ethical system. I just wanna read a thing!
But, having heard from multiple sources that Ancillary Justice was hard to get into but also awesome, I kept going, in spite of the fact that the first half has three significant characters with S names that I kept mixing up and I found the intrigue plotline in the flashbacks not very interesting.
And it was definitely worth it. Yes, there’s a lot of information that the reader has to absorb in the first half of the book — politics, religions, conspiracies — and the fact that Breq is moving through an intergalactic empire that’s full of different cultures doesn’t make that any simpler. But halfway through, everything, ah, falls into place, and suddenly you’re reading a book that’s about politics and culture and all that, but is mainly about relationships. And man does it pick up after that. Where the first half felt like a bit of a slog, the second half flew by.
The book has a lot to say, in an understated way, about what it means to be human, and about the conflicts between loyalty, duty, and justice. I don’t think these ideas are new — using AIs to explore what it means to be human is well-worn territory in sci-fi, and elements of the novel’s climax made me think of V for Vendetta (because apparently that’s my go-to comparison when it comes to violent overhauls of unjust systems, #millennial). But they are very well executed.
One thing about Ancillary Justice is quietly revolutionary, though. Leckie establishes immediately that One Esk has trouble determining the gender of humans, for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is that gender markets vary so widely from culture to culture and planet to planet that there’s no consistent way to tell what gender a particular human identifies as by looking at them. And even if one learns all the markers for a particular place — long hair marking males and short hair marking females, for instance — one might run into exceptions. One Esk knows that being unable to determine gender at a glance can out her as non-human, so this isn’t just an element of world-building. Gender recognition and misgendering is part of how One Esk moves through the world, and there are stakes attached to it.
Second, One Esk’s native language, Radchaai, doesn’t recognize gender at all. (And since language shapes the way we think, this adds to One Esk’s troubles identifying human gender.) The language’s default pronoun is “she.” Every character Breq interacts with is referred to as “her,” whether they’re male, female, or other. A human character early in refers to Breq as “a tough little girl,” so we know her body is female, and the same human refers to Seivarden as “he.” But with Breq referring to Seivarden as “she,” it’s hard to remember that the character is male — insofar as that matters. Which it doesn’t, really, because the main characteristics of Seivarden are arrogance, desperation, and honor, none of which are gendered.
What this linguistic quirk means is that I found myself reading a book that was, as far as I could tell, entirely peopled with woman. (Except Seivarden, who I could never remember was male.) In a universe where a single sentient being can be spread throughout thousands of bodies, where armor springs from your skin and bridges of glass support their own weight in defiance of physics, the most strange and wonderful thing was that the default was female.
I tried to think of any other media I’ve consumed recently where that was the case — where, given a character name and nothing else, I would assume the character was female. Not Mad Max, not Star Wars or Star Trek … Eventually I came up with My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Steven Universe. So, the gender revolution has come to roost in space opera and cartoons aimed at the 6-12 set. This is not a bad thing (particularly the latter; give me a child until they are seven and all)! But it does strike me as interesting that the places where we’re most comfortable with majority-female casts are genres that are very, very far removed from the “real world.” (Mad Max fits in here, too.) Even feminist-tinged stuff I’ve consumed recently that’s set in the real world, like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, tends to have majority-male casts.
It’s such a tiny, simple change. One little pronoun shift makes a political statement without making the whole book about gender politics. If you’re not paying close attention to the pronoun usage of non-Radchaai characters, the world seems to be filled with a profusion of women who run the gamut from selfish to righteous to practical to nuturing to implacable. And if you are paying close attention, as I tried to, you still end up with a world where gender isn’t a determining factor in what a character can do or be.
So, Ancillary Justice: a slow start but a rip-roaring finish, quietly revolutionary treatment of gender, interesting sci-fi concepts around identity and sentience, good world-building, and relationships that will, in the fullness of time, do terrible things to your heart.