We are reprinting this review as part of our special trans/nonbinary issue. It first appeared at Strange Horizons on 7 April 2014.
Ancillary Justice is an astoundingly assured and graceful debut novel, wedding a complicated structure to three-dimensional characters and multiple interesting SFnal ideas. There's been a lot of award buzz surrounding it, all of which is entirely deserved. The novel's core questions, such as the meaning of personhood in a world containing artificial intelligences and the meaning of individual identity in a world containing multi-bodied minds, are not new to speculative fiction, but they are combined in ways which shed new light on them, and Leckie never allows anything to resolve into a simple answer.
The protagonist and first-person narrator used to be a spaceship called Justice of Toren, a military vessel in service to a culture called the Radch. The Radchaai are an aggressively expansive superpower who run a nearly dystopian hierarchical state based on the total obedience and total surveillance of their own population. Everything outside their borders is, to them, innately uncivilized, and must be brought under control and turned into a part of their own culture in order to be seen as truly human, let alone truly civilized. In one thread of the book, we meet Justice of Toren in the middle of an annexation. It has recently helped conquer and subjugate the planet Shis'urna for the Radch, and is now part of the efforts to make Shis'urna's people culturally and socially Radchaai. The ship, an artificial intelligence, has as parts of itself not only the ship's computer banks but also many human bodies. These bodies, the ship's ancillaries, are selected from prisoners taken on conquered planets, their original minds wiped, and the ship's mind neurosurgically inserted. Justice of Toren's One Esk ancillary platoon becomes entangled, along with the platoon's human lieutenant, in the pre-existing racial politics of Shis'urna, which are complicated by political maneuverings among the Radchaai.
In the book's other thread, some twenty years later, Justice of Toren's mind has been reduced to existing in one ancillary. Separated from the rest of herself and from everyone human she ever knew, she literally stumbles over the barely breathing body of a different human lieutenant who served in her one thousand years ago, and who has been missing since an ill-fated military action at that time. She is engaged in a vital quest and in something of a hurry, but it seems unlikely to her that the appearance of the lieutenant is a coincidence, as Radchaai do not believe that coincidence really exists. She spends most of the rest of the novel trying to figure out what is going on, and in taking care of the lieutenant while concealing the nature of her quest. Her objectives, of course, have to do with the reasons she is not a ship anymore and what happened during the conquest of Shis'urna.
The ancillary remnant, Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, creates much of the book's suspense via her narration. Not only does each thread of the novel consistently play off the other to shed light on both (the sort of good craftsmanship one always desires from a novel with parallel narratives), but Toren/One Esk herself is a profoundly different person in each thread because of her experiences, and the iteration of herself who is telling the story has not noticed those changes. AI ships are designed to have feelings, and she's always known that she has them; what she is unclear about when she is no longer a ship is the ways in which her feelings affect her actions and motivations. As a ship, she was possessed of nearly limitless military power and skill, and, due to her many bodies, could do things such as holding an unbroken surveillance pattern over an entire city while simultaneously carrying out a political negotiation and doing domestic chores for her human officers. As a single body, she is incapable of thinking of herself as a human person, even when human limitations bring her up with a start. Notably, she does not even think of herself as Radchaai, because to be Radch is to be human and vice versa; she also can't notice that her beliefs about herself are not reflected in the way everyone else around her thinks of her and treats her. She misjudges motivations and politics in one set of ways as Justice of Toren and in another set of ways as One Esk Nineteen, but because of her continuity of consciousness, she has trouble believing that there can be any difference. And yet, the philosophical question continues to trouble her: is One Esk Nineteen really the same person as Justice of Toren?
All of the novel's other major characters can, therefore, because of this narrative parallax, behave in ways which make no sense to the narrator at all, or which she grossly misinterprets, but about which the narrative gives us enough information to draw our own conclusions. This is particularly interesting in the case of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, who is far more involved in the Radchaai government than most leaders can dream of being, since Anaander Mianaai consists of thousands and thousands of bodies containing the same consciousness. Mianaai, immortal, multi-gendered, self-reproducing, has been the ultimate authority on every major question for the Radchaai for millennia. Any citizen can speak to Mianaai just by putting in a request for it, although if it isn't important the wait may be a couple of months.
It becomes clear fairly early that One Esk Nineteen hates Anaander Mianaai, and that as Justice of Toren she was ambivalent. But one of the book's more interesting puzzles is the question of what Mianaai wants with Justice of Toren, and later with One Esk; what this multiple consciousness, possibly once human, and possibly still classifiable as such, considers when faced with a similar sort of mind which has never been human but may be starting to be now. These questions, and many others, are explored by Leckie in depth, and, as mentioned previously, without any simple answers. Even though this book is the first of a loose trilogy and a sequel is anticipated, the complicated versions of the answers are produced thoroughly enough to bring the novel to a satisfying end.
It would be remiss to conclude this review without mentioning one of the novel's other major aspects, Justice of Toren/One Esk Nineteen's use, or lack thereof, of gendered pronouns. The Radchaai are as a culture entirely agender. They make no distinction whatsoever between genders biologically or in any other way (their medical science is advanced enough to enable anyone to sire or to bear a child). Sexual relationships are conducted without gender considerations. Because many cultures which aren't Radchaai have gender differentiation, but the specific signs (clothing, hair, mannerisms, etc.) other cultures use to differentiate gender vary wildly from culture to culture, most Radchaai cannot keep track of that sort of thing and default to using one pronoun for everybody. In this text, that pronoun is "she." Occasionally, the reader can deduce from biological specifics that some character or other is male, but this is not reflected by the narrative in general.
The reading experience is a little similar, in this way, to Samuel R. Delany's Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand (1984), a novel in which "she" is the default pronoun and "he" means that the user sexually desires the person in question. Both novels lead the reader to ask: why is the default in this book "she," and not a gender-neutral English pronoun, such as "they," or "hir"? In the Delany, this may be because both the principal characters and the author are men who find other men sexually desirable, but also clearly due to the author's intention of detaching the reader from the standard ways of thinking about English pronouns, and the assumption of male-as-default which is found throughout English literature. A book in which the female is default is a profoundly othering experience, a change on levels of thought which are utterly unconscious for many readers accustomed to the literary products of a patriarchal society.
Leckie clearly also wants to gain this change, this sense that there is no reason, in a truly neutral system, for the feminine pronoun not to be the default. That is, however, the extratextual reasoning. In-text, the answers in Ancillary Justice are less clear. The one that seems likeliest is that "she" is the pronoun of One Esk Nineteen's body, which she learned upon leaving Radchaai space, and which she therefore applies in the place of all pronouns, since her narrative was originally composed in Radchaai. There are other reasons which can be conjectured, but the textual evidence is slim. It is something of a weakness on the book's part not to make this more clear, even though the effect of the device is so interesting, and, to this reader, soothing.
And that's especially true since the lack of gender and sex-based discrimination is one of the few things about the Radchaai which is not, culturally, basically terrible to the book's assumed audience. The Radchaai commit atrocities up to and including genocide on a pretty regular basis, the punishment for disobedience is death, they pack large numbers of people into suspended animation to be revived only when they are needed as mind-wiped ancillaries, they are hierarchical to a point which goes beyond ludicrous, Anaander Mianaai can do anything she wants at any time and may well be in power forever, all their neighbors hate and fear them, and the entire system is rigged regarding everybody. But they have no sexism and no homophobia, full stop.
What's interesting about this agendered society, as a worldbuilding device, is that there is a pretty clear sociological reason for it, and it makes sense for the Radchaai to work this way. It would have been imposed from the top down by Anaander Mianaai, because it utterly distinguishes the Radch from their neighbors, to the point where non-Radch can identify Radchaai nationals by their misgendering-in-foreign-languages problems. It is part of what keeps the Radch sphere a cultural polity, what makes them one unified thing. Seen that way, this element, which can be seen as utopian by the standards of the book's audience, is also and additionally another aspect of the unrelenting dystopian control. This kind of ambiguity, in which both the pleasant and unpleasant attributes of something are not only present, but present in ways which reflect history and culture and the ways people change over time, is one of the things which makes this book so astonishing for a debut novel.
Another is that, despite the sheer amount of content packed into it and the conceptual complexity of most of that content, the book remains not only readable, but clear. It is not confusing even during the most complex of the factional interplays, and Leckie takes full advantage of the many-bodied nature of her narrator to make sure the Justice of Toren thread delivers information in a truly comprehensive fashion. The prose is precise and not overwrought, the invented terms are not clunky, and the emotional impact is subtle and powerful. Let's hope we see a great deal more of Leckie in the future, and let's hope it's all of this impressive quality.