Ancillary Justice is the groundbreaking debut science fiction novel from Anne Leckie. It’s won a host of science fiction awards, including the Hugo, the Nebula and the Arthur C Clarke. It’s already considered one of the best space operas ever written.
The novel is narrated by Breq, who is the last remnant of an artificially intelligent ship called Justice-Of-Toren. When we meet Breq, she is wandering the galaxy seeking revenge. On her quest, she stumbles across Seivarden, An ex-soldier who served on Justice-of-Toren 2000 years prior. Both Seivarden and Breq are from the Radch, the primary human faction in the universe.
This review will examine some of the key themes to look out for when you’re reading this excellent science fiction novel.
Gender through alien eyes
One of the most remarked upon aspects of Ancillary Justice is the use of the personal pronoun ‘she’.
The protagonist Breq cannot tell the difference between genders. Indeed, Radch society as a whole is effectively androgynous and uses the pronoun ‘she’ for everyone. This simple trick affects the reader in two main ways.
It reinforces Breq’s otherness
Breq is a strange creature. She looks human, the characters around her assume she is human, but she is not. She is a 2000-year-old artificial intelligence that used to be a space-ship. Her current body is one she took over by overwriting the human in a brutal fashion.
Her constant mis-gendering of others reminds the reader that Breq is not like us. Her way of thinking is alien to ours. What she considers normal is, to us, unfathomable and what she considers civilised we consider terrifying.
Simply by making gender something Breq can’t recognise, it emphasises how different we are from the thing that is narrating the story.
It keeps the reader off balance
As humans, the first thing you notice about someone, and probably the first way you define them, is by their gender. Similarly, even writers who spend no time describing their characters will let the reader know if a character is male or female.
Anne Leckie denies the reader that knowledge. At best, we get a few hints (hair length, facial hair etc.) as to what gender a character is. But nothing in the characters actions or words gives the reader any hint as to their gender.
This subtly forces you to reevaluate why you ascribe certain traits to ‘male’ characters and others to ‘female’. Is it their position in society? How they react to certain situations? How they speak?
Breq – a narrator that’s a little unreliable
Breq considers herself to be an unreadable machine, pursuing her goal relentlessly. Yet throughout the novel other characters point out to Breq that her emotions can be read from her face and that her actions are closer to that of an irrational human than the logical machine Breq considers herself to be.
Ultimately, the narrative Breq tells herself about the type of person she is is flawed. Who she actually is is different from who she thinks she is.
This idea of your idea of who you are just being a lie you tell yourself is an interesting one. If we’re honest with ourselves, the person we purport to be is not entirely the person we are. Perhaps we’re less honest or loving than we tell ourselves we are. Or maybe we’re more emotionally vulnerable than we let on. Whatever it is, this disconnect between who we think we are and who we actually are is simply part of being human.
That this also applies to Breq is a nice touch by Leckie. It subtly creates a bond between the reader and Breq. As, despite being a futuristic artificial intelligence, Breq shares some of the struggles of being human.
Yet, at the same time, it reinforces the idea that Breq is an unreliable narrator. In that we cannot trust entirely what she says about herself or her motives. Meaning that the same device that brings us closer to Breq also makes it harder to trust her.
The anger of the rejected
The Radch are effectively futuristic space Romans. With each citizen expected to have an overriding sense of duty towards the state and the emperor.
Breq, as the ship Justice-of-Toren, was literally programmed to serve the Radch. Seiverden was programmed by her society in the same way we all are, to a greater and lesser degree. Their lives revolved around duty and the certainty that the Radch way of live was unquestionably the only one of any real value.
We meet them after this illusion has been shattered, the beliefs they have held their entire lives shown to be a lie. Breq and Seiverden are left broken, cast aside by the march of forces much greater than themselves. Part of the novel’s appeal is the empathy we feel for Breq and Seiverden as they try and deal with their anger at the society that has failed them. While the scale of Ancillary Justice is inter-galactic, the emotional trauma is intensely personal.
Why you should read Ancillary Justice
Like the best science novels, Ancillary Justice broke the mould. On one hand, it’s a sweeping space opera spanning thousands of years and multiple planets. On the other, it’s a novel that focuses on the individuals inability to cope with loss.