by Joy Ralph
Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword are the first two parts of the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. They tell a story of revenge and injustice spanning multiple planetary systems and several millennia. Both novels stand as independent works, but they are part of the same narrative: the story of Breq, a former ancillary soldier of the Imperial Radch. In Ancillary Justice, we learn that Breq is the only surviving segment of a troop carrier and warship named Justice of Toren. Breq is currently learning to inhabit one body as an independent human, instead of being one unit among many in the ship’s collective group of ancillary soldiers. Ancillary Sword is a quieter, yet no less vivid account of the rarely examined post-revenge necessity of Breq settling into “regular” life, whether or not the burning desire for revenge has been quenched in the blood of the enemy or the tears of failure. The books mirror each other in a way I find fascinating, especially given Leckie has recently submitted the third novel, Ancillary Mercy, to her editors. It will be interesting to see where she takes us next.
Given the amount of press the series has received, there are plenty of reviews available that focus on the usual summary of plot elements. Instead, I’ll be writing about the things that made these stories resonate for me, above and beyond their being well-crafted and enjoyable books. Warning: There are unavoidable spoilers ahead.
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Leckie immediately challenges our existing language of gender. Three pages into Ancillary Justice, Breq recalls a near-confrontation in a small-town bar and describes the person causing the incident:
“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. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms.”
She was probably male. It reminded me of arguments I’ve had about gendered language, he/she vs they, or whether using he as the default for someone who could be male or female was subtly sexist or truly gender neutral. The writing signals a willingness to tackle the issue and proposes that if sex or gender isn’t directly relevant to the matter at hand, it shouldn’t really matter. This may be an order or two of magnitude outside of heteronormativity, but that only adds to my respect for Leckie’s audacity in narrating Breq’s experiences. I was concerned the switch might get in the way of the story-telling, but found it refreshing for “she” to be the default even when Breq wasn’t immediately dealing with the language barrier. It was a reminder of how often gendering happens in the English language and how the dichotomy of “boy or girl” is a coded part of the patterns of thinking we have learned.
Additionally, Breq comes across as asexual in preference. As a former a part of the ship Justice of Toren’s Artificial Intelligence (AI), now living as a fragment of what was once a considerably more embodied whole, it may not be strictly accurate to speak of her having an orientation in the usual sense. Prior to the event of which Breq was the lone survivor, she was one among thousands of bodies, each fitted with implants replacing their original personality and making them physical extensions of the ship’s AI. These ancillaries functioned as the mobile segments of the ship, allowing it to travel planet-side with the human Radchaai officers to conduct the groundwork of annexation. Each of those bodies would have had its own sexual needs and preferences, while the ship itself did not.
In Ancillary Sword, Breq reveals in conversation that ship’s AIs don’t really want partners in a sexual way, and those with ancillaries generally “do that sort of thing for themselves.” As a result Breq doesn’t particularly experience sexual desire, and it is affirming to see a mostly asexual main character in a novel-length work. It may not have been exactly what the author was trying to evoke when she was writing the novels, but it remains an important aspect of what I like about them, and I appreciate Breq’s ongoing struggle to navigate the complexity of interrelationships that is still part of being human thousands of years in the future. After several re-readings of both novels I still could not tell you with confidence what physical configuration of genetalia Breq’s body carries – if it is specifically mentioned in either book, I missed it. However, I am comfortable using ‘her’ when sentence construction demands it, while at the same time keeping in mind that she might have a penis. It’s an interesting mental space to inhabit.
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Details make Leckie’s worlds and cultures seem authentic in a way that some science fiction does not. The Radchaai empire is more than six thousand years old, a culture that has been living on orbital stations long enough that the nursery rhymes sung by children reflect the nature of living in space for tens of millenia. One song has the recurring chorus of “My mother said, it all goes around, the planet goes around the sun, it all goes around” followed in descending fashion by the moon going around the planet and the station going around the moon – thus confirming the order of the universe in the same way the Alphabet song confirms the names and relations of the Roman letters used in English.
Breq observes, regarding Radch’s introduction of civilization to new peoples, that because there is never only one culture or people in a system being annexed, some of the friction that arises between various social classes does so as a result of the Radchaai failing to acknowledge those differences and details. The critique of imperialism and the social justice aspects of the novels are strong, and the multi-cultural setting is naturalistic.
In Ancillary Justice, Breq is as close to being an outsider as anyone from Radch can be, due to circumstances and the unique nature of her situation. She is acutely aware of class distinctions around her, even when she chooses to flout them. Her several thousand year career as the troop carrier Justice of Toren (or its AI) gives her an objective perspective on the politics, religion, and social mores of Radch, even as her much shorter life as Breq creates for her a singular experience as a citizen immersed in Radch culture. This leads her to actions and choices neither a Ship nor a natural-born citizen would undertake.
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I anticipate Ancillary Mercy to be the third leg of a tripod rather than something exactly like either of its predecessors. In recent interviews, Leckie implies the third book will be the completion of the trilogy and the story both; she will continue to write in the universe (as she has done all along, with several short stories set in the outskirts or non-Radchaai areas) but not necessarily about Breq. This reinforces my notion that the novels are the story of Breq nee Justice of Toren becoming more-or-less human in mind or spirit as well as body.
Ancillary Justice is a story of a person driven by revenge, sometimes childish but always single-minded in pursuit of her chosen course of action. With the resolution of this quest comes Ancillary Sword and the question of “what next?” and a certain momentary loss of direction. Breq is learning to be human. Her social circumstances have improved immeasurably as a result of the climax in the first book, so she is able to choose her own course of action almost entirely unrestrained. What she does with that power of choice continues to have consequences.
The action in Ancillary Sword is largely interior compared to the exterior catalysts of Ancillary Justice, but it all relates to the idea of being human, how one enacts membership in that category, who is entitled to be considered a de facto human, and who is not. I particularly appreciate the way the novels reveal how most of the time there isn’t that much difference between the Other and ourselves.
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I’ve focused primarily on Breq in this review, but there are many other characters with different opinions and goals. Leckie handles them all deftly, giving them an individuality and depth that are rewarding to speculate about. These situations and social differences linger in my mind; I can no longer put on a pair of gloves without thinking of Radchaai social customs and how they compare to mine. The combination of the hope for the future of humanity and a continued awareness of the persistence of human flaws is impressive, though you can certainly ignore the meta-analysis and read both books as solidly written stories involving space battles, murders under mysterious circumstances, and the search for love and meaning in one’s life.
Ancillary Mercy is forthcoming October 2015 from Orbit Books.