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Spoilers.

cover of Ancillary Justice


On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren—a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose—to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch. (source)


This book is wonderful.

TO ME YOU ARE PERFECT


The Internet has already spilled many, many words about Ancillary Justice: the interesting things it's doing with culture, gender, and commentary about the self. A huge part of the buzz is that Radchaai culture doesn't have gender identity the same way other cultures do, and so Breq, our main character, refers to everyone as "she", regardless of their sex (at least this is how I read it given how different people gender Breq and Seivarden in the beginning). The only time she doesn't is where she encounters a culture with gendered pronouns; she has to struggle to figure out which to use.

I turned to look at her, to study her face. She was taller than most Nilters, but fat and pale as any of them. She out-bulked me, but I was taller, and I was also considerably stronger than I looked. She didn't realize what she was playing with. 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. It didn't help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me.


I don't find the sandboxing with pronouns specifically the most interesting thing about this story (my favorite thing is similar, but not quite the same). However, it has been fascinating to read the reactions and watch people talk about how it impacted their reading experience (please see end of this entry for a massive collection of feelings). It was really intriguing to see the places where Breq was clearly talking to men, and equally so to see the places where it was just impossible to tell (which was most of the time, and how neat to be able to just assume everyone was a woman without being disappointed later!) because Breq didn't know and couldn't figure it out, or didn't care because the culture's language didn't force her to do so.

The conceit Leckie uses in this book is not, I suspect, new (she says, ignorant of lots of SF history). I'm assuming that other writers have considered such a trick of erasing dominant masculinity from the narrative to see what develops (and I would appreciate recs!). The cynical side of me thinks this particular iteration might have been groundbreaking-capital-G a decade ago, but it's not now — and the general reaction treating it as if it's New! Fascinating! Surprising! says more about how we're engaging and thinking about gender than the book does. I suspect the reason that the book is hitting so many buttons in the community right now is because we're going through a little growth spurt empathy-wise. We've started inching ever closer to being more receptive to voices of people who are not cisgender dudes. The debates we've been having aren't new (and will be followed by an inevitable eight flying leaps backwards), but they've been sharp lately... or maybe I'm just getting more jaded. Therefore, this book provides a narrative with a pretty neat, but ultimately "safe" way for people who otherwise wouldn't engage with the idea of WOMEN EVERYWHERE!!! or gender/sex discussions to do so. The story makes it pretty easy — you just go with the flow. You stop trying to "figure it out". Not exactly comfortable for a dominant culture which genders our spawn from birth with color-coded markers in the form of cutesy hats and/or blankets, but also not too dangerous, either.

It's not specifically groundbreaking to me because I use a myriad of pronouns everyday. I swing between "he", "she", "they", "zie", and others, because I interact with and call friends people who have chosen to identify a certain way, and generally do my best to respect their choices. I've only been doing this for the last four or five years, but it's been pretty educational, even when I screw the pooch. Rather than finding this trick illuminating in the way most reviews I've read have (everyone's a women! but maybe not really? it's so weird/cool/distracting!) I ended up falling into the rhythm of it and really closely identified with the stress Breq lives with when she encounters a culture where there's a binary and the clues are absolutely useless to her.

This shit's tough, and that's when you're operating with all the rules and knowledge of the system. "I'm gay!" your best friend says, and you go, "whew, okay, awesome! LET'S GO OUT FOR PIZZA and then watch nine hours of Teen Wolf in a row!" But it's an entirely different story when your best friend goes, "I'm genderqueer!" and your brain fucking melts out of your ears because you have no clue what that means, and also they want you to use "they" when referring to them from now on? And you're terrified of asking what anything means and you're googling frantically in the other tab because LIKE HELL if you're gonna mess this up after your friend has trusted you with it, even though that reaction is a little silly (you can just...ask…don't be me, y'all). And they're okay the first few times you slip and use "she" but then it's four months later and you're still struggling and they're kind of giving you the (deserved) side-eye. These things are hard, especially when you've lived in a binary system with strict, oppressive rules that your brain really, really wants you to lie back down in for maximum comfort and laziness.

Breq, baby, I feel you. I feel you so much. Let's be besties.

Breq using female pronouns as the default is fascinating, except when cultural norms dictate that she figure out when and where to identify people per their own gender identities. Then her frustration is both heartbreaking and hilarious, because a) it's hard and b) the binary we've forced ourselves into becomes comical when filtered through Breq's inability to identify gender outside Radchaai culture, leading to her basically having quiet, extremely human internal fits about the whole endeavor.

Since we weren't speaking Radchaai I had to take gender into account—Strigan's language required it. The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant. Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably. And yet no one I'd met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did hesitate or guess wrong. I hadn't learned the trick of it. I'd been in Strigan's own apartment, seen her belongings, and still wasn't sure what forms to use with her now.


That's the reason I loved this book; that's why it's capital-G-groundbreaking for me — I identify with a spaceship and just want to give her 8,000 solidarity fistbumps. Because Breq is a SPACESHIP having FEELINGS about HUMAN GENDER IDENTITY CONSTRUCTION. In the sections of the book set in the future rather than the past flashbacks, she gets so irked, the way I imagine most stoic former spaceships would. She gets irked like I do when I fuck up identification and make myself look like a clueless empathy blackhole. She gets irked like I do when visibility re: gender is at absolute zero and context clues are out the window and you either guess and get it right — or terribly, terribly wrong. Breq risks revealing herself as something other, something non-human via misgendering people she encounters; this isn't so far away from how I feel when I screw up on gender pronouns myself when talking to people. I feel like I've become another person in a long line of folks denying a part of someone's humanity.

But speaking of humanity: Breq has humanity, both as One Esk, One Esk Nineteen, and the person she becomes when she's no longer a mere ancillary. She's the two-thousand year old Justice of Torren, far-reaching AI with many bodies. She's One Esk, who collected and sang songs. She's One Esk Nineteen, who loved a lieutenant so much she would wage a one-ancillary war against an widespread enemy who was almost certain to win regardless of anything she might do to individual pieces that make up the complicated whole of Anaander Mianaai. But she's also Breq, who lost something irreplaceable and her entire life as she knew it, who forged ahead to survive so she could keep her impossible secret and bring about her illogical revenge.

"I want," I told her, "to kill Anaander Mianaai."
"What?" The gun in her hand trembled, moved slightly aside, then steadied again. She leaned forward three millimeters, and cocked her head as though she was certain she hadn't heard me correctly.
"I want to kill Anaander Mianaai," I repeated.
"Anaander Mianaai," she said, bitterly, "has thousands of bodies in hundreds of locations. You can't possibly kill him. [...]"
"I still want to try."


Breq's the person who saves a piece of her past even when it cuts and claws and hisses at her, because she has so little tangible past left and doesn't know how to parse the comfort or the pain it brings her; who keeps trying to justify a decision that makes no logical sense. One Esk is not exactly an AI anymore, corrupted by melody and seduced by song, but when One Esk Nineteen has choice and free will and life thrust upon her, the path opens. When Breq stops and picks Seivarden out of the snow, her course is set.

Humanity or bust.

Speaking of Seivarden; who totally ships Breq/Seivarden with me now? I KNOW YOU HAVE TO BE OUT THERE. There's at least one of you, and there should be hundreds more. The absolutely awesome fanfic COULD ALL BE OURS! I am destroyed over the fact that it's too late to nominate this book for Yuletide (and it would be too new for anyone to have read it, anyway, sob), and doubly destroyed over that fact that next year the rules will somehow vex me and I won't be able to get it nominated because I'm cursed.

(I could write another 1000 words about all the relationships in this book, even the relationships that only last a few scenes. I want all the fic between Ship and Station being grudgy and passive aggressive at one another; just imagining it makes me want to explode.)

Someone come talk to me about Seivarden and Breq and Breq, Anaander Mianaai, and Breq and (sassy!) Station! Do it before I expire from holding in all the spoilers, and by someone I mean EVERYONE, but specifically Ana and Jodie and Ana and Clare. *STARES*

In closing, Ancillary Justice is a fantastic, delightful, twisting adventure through the vastness of humanity and the heartbreaking lengths that we go through for love. Highly recommended.

Four for you Glen Coco. You go Glen Coco!


Other Reviews:
The Book Smugglers, Liz Bourke (Tor.com), Radish Reviews, Kameron Hurley, Foz Meadows (A Dribble of Ink), Annalee Newitz (io9), Genevieve Valentine (NPR), Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Reviews, Sc-i-Fi Fan Letter, Staffer's Book Reviews, Far Beyond Reality, Fantasy Review Barn, nerds of a feather, OF Blog, yours?


Supplemental Material


*

Date: 2013-11-03 08:59 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Love. This review, and this book. I loved how re-set my expectations were on assuming everyone was female and then learning, hey, not. This is not something I've had to deal with personally, or at least not something any of my friends have shared with me, so it certainly felt new. And feeling so much emotion for a ship who is not a human but is more human that plenty of other characters floating out there.

My knowledge of sci fi is also too limited but there's a book by Ursula Le Guin that I have read which also made me think about gender a lot, The Left Hand of Darkness. I don't remember it well, but I suspect it's worth a re-read.

Date: 2013-11-03 09:00 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Oops, that was me - Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

Date: 2013-11-03 09:05 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
YES IT IS. (Clearly I have feelings about that book :P)

Date: 2013-11-03 06:22 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I'd comment on my own, but have no clue how to open a new comment - ah, I hate being a newbie in world.

I love this review! It makes the book sound fantastic. I have to see if my library has it, or can get it. I want to read it just because of this review.

Date: 2013-11-03 09:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rinnreads.co.uk
I haven't read the review in full because you marked spoilers at the beginning, and I'd like to get round to reading the book one day, but from what I skimmed over (terrified of encountering the spoilers! ;D) I can grasp that you really loved it.

I have to say the plot sounds like nothing I've ever heard before. A warship trapped in a human body? Brilliant!

Thanks for taking part in Sci-Fi Month! =D

Date: 2013-11-03 10:11 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Now for a proper comment: yay, I'm so excited to read this and then come talk about it with you :D

Date: 2013-11-03 01:51 pm (UTC)
apis_mellifera: (Default)
From: [personal profile] apis_mellifera
Yes, I want fic about Station and Ship being all grudgy and passive aggressive at each other, too. Oh, do I ever.

Date: 2013-11-04 10:20 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Breq/Seivarden YES PLEASE.

Date: 2014-01-12 10:55 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Seconding Breq/Seivarden yes please :) I find it difficult to imagine anyone not wanting that at the end of the book because it's given us so little but juuuust enough. And Seivarden's emotions were just great - so much reckless emoting and so different from the usual male emoting (smash, rrrr). Also Awn and Skaaiat :( I want Skaaiat to meet someone in the next book.

The one thing I kind of have to work through is the way that Seivarden and Breq are gendered by people in other worlds - I'm still working out what that means in terms of a society where gender isn't coded which exists in a universe where it is in other places and is read by readers who do code gender. I pretty much agree with you that this book provides a not too scary place for people to explore gender conversations, but I'm still looking at how exactly it makes it safe.

Also, I loved that I could just assume everyone was female because of the use of female pronouns. LOVED IT. I kept thinking about the way China Mieville springs 'turns out this person you might not expect is a woman' surprises in his books and how although I find those useful, I kind of preferred this direct tack more.

Date: 2013-11-06 06:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
Holy crow, this sounds amazing. I am bizarrely fond of spaceships who are also people (something I found out after discovering an obscure, book-only Doctor Who character who evolved into a human TARDIS), so this is perfect for me. And to think I hadn't even glanced at it while shelving it at work!

As far as recommendations for sf that deals with gender, I heartily recommend The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. It does not default female (it was published in 1969), but deals with a male ambassador from a bigendered culture like ours struggling to negotiate life on a planet where physical sex is fluid and changeable, making gender equally fluid. For instance, those who have stabilized gender identities are seen as suspect and even perverted. I read it in high school and it blew my mind.

Date: 2013-11-26 03:03 pm (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
Hey thanks for this review. (I've been waiting to read it until after I read the book -- now that I've finished it I'm off to binge on reviews.)

Another book that does something simlar with pronouns is Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany. In that all adults are women, and referred to as she most of the time. Male pronouns are used to refer to the object of sexual desire. I should warn you though that it is a very confusing book.

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