Book Review: Ancillary Justice

br_ancillaryjustice.jpgRead for: FemSciFiFans April Selection

Rating: 4/5

This book came out last year and a lot of people have been reading it in their sci-fi groups, leading to a lot of discussion. Don’t let the cover fool you, AJ doesn’t really revolve around space travel or involve a lot of high speed deep space fighter jet chase scenes. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but there were some cool things going on in this book. Number one is the idea that several of the characters inhabit more than one physical body. Breq, the protagonist, is a single human body that was once part of a large network of physical bodies all working together under one intelligence, referred to as Justice of Toren. Also, Justice of Toren was a spaceship (!!). It’s like the idea presented in The Ship Who Sang; a ship with an intelligent human brain. Also think Holly from Red Dwarf, only if Holly had the ability to operate hundreds of bodies all at once (wouldn’t that be amazing, doods?). This presented an interesting use of the self-reference “I”, where sometimes “I” meant Breq as a singular person, and sometimes “I” referred to Justice of Toren as an intelligence with many physical bodies. Once I figured out what the heck was going on, I really liked it.

The other thing that makes this book really unique, and also created the most controversy among readers, was Leckie’s use of pronouns and the gendering of her characters. Breq comes from a part of space where gender is ambiguous and unimportant. The planet she travels to, Nilt, however, is gender binary (males and females). Because Breq doesn’t understand the concept of different genders, she defaults to the female pronouns “she” and “her” when referring to all individuals. I thought this was really interesting, but it also held me back from giving this a 5 star rating. I LOVED the idea of a gender-neutral or gender-ambiguous planet. Where the book got tripped up was in the use of female pronouns. If gender is ambiguous within the Radch empire, then what pronouns do they use? Wouldn’t there be a gender-neutral pronoun? How is it natural for Breq to default to a female pronoun when referring to gender binary individuals when she is from a planet that presumably doesn’t use female pronouns? (Because everyone is the book is referred to as female I find myself referring to Breq as female though in fact I believe she is meant to be neither male nor female? Maybe?) I had a bit of a beef with every character being labelled female, but probably not for the reason you may be thinking. I was thrilled that Leckie chose female pronouns to refer to all characters rather than male pronouns (which is what Ursula Le Guin did in Left Hand of Darkness and similarly ruffled some feathers), but the effect was not that the characters were read as gender neutral, instead they were read as all female. This is fine by me, I do love a good all-female society, but if the genders were meant to be ambiguous then using a female pronoun effectively labelled them with a gender that they may not identify with, and herein lies the problem. Because of this I just read everyone as female and ignored all other pronouns. I found it easy to adjust to the use of female pronouns in reference to characters that were physically male, though, which is what seemingly confused a lot of readers. In one paragraph you could have a character from Nilt (the gender binary planet) refer to another character as “He” and “Him” in conversation with Breq, but then a sentence later Breq’s internal dialogue would still refer to that character with female pronouns. What I thought wasn’t made clear enough was the physical gender of the Radch citizens (I suppose it wasn’t that important, but the more I thought about it the more curious I found myself); were they actually all one gender or were they still gendered physically male and female but it was just socially unimportant? Did they present ambiguous – concrete physical indicators not always present as to which gender an individual may be – but still have a gender binary body underneath? I think it is the latter, but it wasn’t made really obvious. Phew! You still following me? All-in-all this book succeeded in raising a lot of interesting and important points about gender and how society perceives it, and for that reason I would highly recommended it to anyone. I’m looking forward to the next installment of the series!

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