Category: Best Novel
This is the follow-up to last year’s Hugo winner Ancillary Justice. In fact, I started Justice on the basis of its Hugo win, and this year’s Hugo nominations came out the very next day, so the value of the Hugo was at the front of my mind when I learned about the controversy this year. I read Sword immediately afterwards, not just because I’d decided to start this project but also because I really enjoyed Justice. Happily, Ancillary Sword is very much a continuation of what I liked.
When I started the series, one of the first things I noticed was the distinctive narrative voice: cool and analytical, and precise about quantities like time and distance beyond what a human could plausibly estimate. These were the early clues that the protagonist Breq isn’t human at all, but an AI inside a human body. Breq isn’t completely inhuman, though—the human-built AIs in this setting are designed to feel certain emotions (loyal and affectionate AIs making better servants), and in addition Breq has learned from the humans around her over her long lifespan.
It’s this mixture of human and inhuman traits that makes Breq such a compelling character. She is able to view human society from the outside, and operate without regard for the social strictures that bind the people around her. Meanwhile, the compassion for humans instilled by her programming has developed into a strong sense of justice, and it’s in the second book that this really comes into play (the first being more of a revenge story). Ancillary Sword shows Breq’s evolution into a social justice warrior, to steal the epithet so often thrown by GamerGaters and Sad Puppies. It’s no easy task—the power dynamics in Radchaai society are complex, there are many entrenched interests that resist any attempts at change, and the downtrodden are distrustful of Breq and the government she represents. But our hero certainly seems up to the challenge.
Any great protagonist needs an equally impressive villain to contend with, and the series delivers with the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. Anaander is in some ways Breq’s mirror opposite: a human who’s become a distributed intelligence, the ultimate entrenched interest, cunning and tricky where Breq is blunt and direct. Anaander may be my favorite character in the series (in a love-to-hate kind of way); every scene she’s in is riveting, and my main complaint about Ancillary Sword is that there isn’t enough of her. This might be because Sword has something of a transitional role between the first and last books of the trilogy, setting up additional players for the conflict to come, but it suffers a bit from Breq’s antagonists not being nearly as intimidating as the Lord of the Radch was in Justice.
The Radchaai culture that forms the setting is another fascinating aspect of the series. More different from our own than many other sci-fi “alien” cultures, it’s a great example of the imaginative potential of the genre. (Meanwhile the true alien species, barely glimpsed so far, seem to be almost incomprehensibly different; I’m looking forward to learning more in the third book.) I’ve used the female pronoun for the characters I’ve discussed so far because it’s what the book does—but the Radchaai language doesn’t have gender-specific pronouns, and to represent this it uses female pronouns for all characters regardless of gender. This goes beyond a quirk of language: the Radchaai don’t recognize gender distinctions at all. Of course Radchaai (being humans) can be classified male or female based on biological characteristics, but their society just considers these classifications irrelevant to most interactions. (The fact that Breq, being an AI, doesn’t have an “intrinsic” gender is a clever way to give readers a handle on the irrelevance of it.)
This is a bold literary move, amounting to a stance that gender is socially constructed—because if there’s something essential about gender, it just shouldn’t work. The reader will be too disoriented, or lose suspension of disbelief, or just be able to infer people’s gender from the story. But it does work. Once I settled into the flow of the story, the pronouns faded into the background and I largely just thought of the different characters as being people without their gender being a prominent characteristic. I say “largely” because I did find my own biases creeping in: if I thought about the image I had of various characters, I sometimes found that I was subconsciously attaching a gender to them based on their actions. What made it clearly a result of my own stereotyping is that I could then imagine reversing those gender assignments, and found that the story still worked.
To bring this back to Radchaai society, it’s interesting how their gender-blindness isn’t because they’ve reached some advanced stage of liberalism like Iain M. Banks’ Culture. In fact, this is a highly inegalitarian society that just isn’t sexist. They claim to be similarly race-blind (at least within their borders: another clever linguistic twist is that the word Radchaai means not just citizen of the Radch but also civilized) but in fact racism is endemic. (This may sound familiar to Americans; see for example the Wall Street Journal‘s recent assertion, just after the Charleston massacre, that institutional racism no longer exists in the US.) On top of that, the Radchaai have an overt and rigid class hierarchy—no one denies or even questions discrimination based on family name. This ends up making the Radch into a sort of prism in which different forms of prejudice from our own society—sexism, racism, classism—get separated into different bands where we can observe them more clearly.
The treatment of gender is probably the most well-known aspect of these books, and certainly one of the few things I knew about them before starting. I’m sure it drives the Sad Puppies up the wall, but I loved it. This is what I want from my science fiction: to challenge my assumptions, to make me think in a completely new way. Ann Leckie succeeds at that, and makes it a fun ride along the way. Ancillary Justice absolutely deserved its Hugo win last year, and its sequel equally deserves its spot in this year’s nominees. Both are highly recommended.