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There has been much discussion about Ann Leckie’s treatment of gender in the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. The Radchaai, after whom the trilogy is named, have no language for expressing gendered difference. “Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak—my own first language—doesn’t mark gender in any way”, Breq, the narrator, tells the reader. As far as the reader is shown, this lack of care extends beyond linguistic markers. The text tells us that the Radchaai do not have an organised system of gender at all. There is no division of labour, no differentiation of roles, or any aesthetic markers such as we might find on Earth. By contrast, class and race cannot be avoided. The reader is constantly made aware of significant divisions on the basis of class and race, yet gender seemingly doesn't exist in Radchaai society.

However, there is something about this that does not ring true. Breq herself is a member of a gender minority within the Imperial Radch. She is an ancillary, formerly one of the cybernetically enslaved crew members of a troop-carrying spaceship called Justice of Toren. Ancillaries are a holdover from a time when the Radchaai were an expansionist empire at the height of their power. During an annexation — the term used to describe the invasion and assimilation of a planet — some captives would be executed, but others would be surgically transformed into ancillaries, the living vessels for the artificial intelligences that govern Radchaai ships. Although the creation of new ancillaries is illegal, those that already exist are servants, soldiers, and resources to the Radchaai. They are considered nothing more than physical proxies for their ship, lacking identity and humanity, let alone gender.

Breq’s situation is stranger than that of most ancillaries. Leckie explains her protagonist’s complicated identities:

“The main character of Ancillary Justice is a ship, the troop carrier Justice of Toren. She is also one twenty-body unit of ancillary soldiers, Justice of Toren One Esk. She is also a single segment of that unit, One Esk Nineteen. And that body was someone else entirely before it was Nineteen, before it was One Esk, before it was Justice of Toren.”¹

By the beginning of the first book, however, Justice of Toren has been destroyed, along with its crew. Breq, once identified as One Esk Nineteen (referring to her unit, One Esk, and her individual designation, Nineteen), tells the reader that she has been “pretending to be a human” for nineteen years.

Breq exists in a liminal space. She has been and is many things, but the people she meets consistently identify her incorrectly. She is an outsider within her own society, but is deeply embedded in and reliant on that same society. Through her various ordeals, she identifies sites of social tension, many of which are deeply entangled with issues of gender. In doing so, she allows us to see that nothing is as simple as it seems. In the Imperial Radch, gender constantly fools, confuses, and surprises. One moment the social contract appears simple — there is only one set of pronouns, it seems — but then someone lets drop a “he” and it changes what we think we know about a character. As in our world, gender is never as straightforward as it seems. In response to these complications (and the issues that come with using “she” as a genderless term), Alex Dally McFarlane asks how Radchaai gender really operates:

“Does the Radch impose its non-gendered norm on the cultures it controls, or does it let them continue that aspect of their culture? What about people who move from gendered cultures into the Radch? When speaking Radchaai, they would not be using gendered forms, but that would not automatically affect their gender. Are there any gendered Radch? A norm does not create a uniformity of gender.”²

The publication of Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy have answered some of these questions. The later books address the imperial applications of gender — which are hinted at in Ancillary Justice — more fully.

It is not my intention to answer McFarlane’s questions directly, but instead to argue that gender in the Imperial Radch trilogy is not the absence it initially appears to be. By looking for gender even when it appears to be absent, it is possible to discover the hidden workings of exploitative dynamics. International relations scholar Sungju Park-Kang writes that taking gender as a broad lens or worldview is “a way of thinking that is sensitive about social power relations between and among manness, womanness and any non-binary/heteronormative categories.”³ Thus it becomes apparent, as Liz Bourke touches on when she writes about “the Radchaai linguistic distinction between it-the-AI and she-the-person,” that gender is used to draw and enforce lines between people even in the Imperial Radch4. It is in this vein that I consider the relationship between gender and power in the Imperial Radch Trilogy, and specifically, the transgender experiences that consequently emerge.

Imperial Genders

Unlike Ancillary Justice, the latter two books in the trilogy show us that the Radchaai would be lying if they said they don’t care about gender. Gender in the Radch is good at going unseen, at making its power dynamics and coercions invisible to those cushioned inside it. But Radchaai gender can certainly be seen at the edges of the “civilized” social world. Gender is only as meaningless as Breq would have the reader believe when the powerful and civilized are keeping their own company. Once the context shifts, invisible gender relations start to emerge. They are seen in places where gender is used as a tool of power and conquest, rather than as a unifying, universal force.

In the hands of Anaander Mianaai, the many-bodied ruler of the Radchaai, gender is a weapon. The Lord of the Radch has ruled for three thousand years, exerting her power through thousands of identical cloned bodies networked together with the same technology used to create ancillaries. Mianaai is an absolute ruler who is solely responsible for the creation of law, who commands the military, and to whom all influential families are bound as clients. She is also present at every annexation, personally overseeing the assimilation of entire worlds into her empire. The many-bodied ruler of the Radchaai can take gender away at a whim, rewriting societies in the image of the genderless Radch, but she can never give it back. It was Mianaai who made Breq into an ancillary, and who destroyed Justice of Toren, both of which changed Breq irreparably.

That there is a visible connection between power and gender comes as no surprise. What is gender, in our own world? A system of domination that presents itself as common-sense and invisible, and that only reveals its consequences when people stand against it. Because of this, we first see the hidden dynamics of Radchaai gender politics in their interactions with the various peoples who are outside the Radch, or on its borders. These outsiders, Breq informs us in Ancillary Justice, hold to their own systems of gender. On the icy planet of Nilt, she points out that the locals are offended when she misgenders them in their own language. Unfortunately for them (and mildly irritatingly for her), she finds it difficult to distinguish their gendered characteristics. Here, Breq has none of the certainty to which citizens of the Radch are accustomed. When she returns to the Radch, she finds her sudden immersion in structure and knowledge overwhelming. But the gendered world of the Radch is a more orderly one, where the rules make sense to her and where the Radchaai need not think twice about cultural sensitivity.

Once Breq reaches the planet of Athoek and the station that spins in its orbit, we discover more about the complexities of gender politics in a space-faring empire. Athoek is a subjugated planet, claimed by the Radch and used to produce the tea on which their society runs. Here Breq encounters indentured workers — Valskaayans shipped in suspension from another faraway planet following a failed rebellion. The Valskaayan workers have their own, culturally significant, systems of gender. Breq courteously attempts to gender them correctly when speaking in Delsig, the local language. But, unlike Nilt, Athoek is thoroughly integrated into Radchaai society. There's an imperial government and legal system to contend with — one that was imposed on the Athoeki in the wake of its annexation, and that was responsible for the ethnic cleansing that brought the Valskaayans here.

In this colonial society, some of the more pernicious workings of Radchaai gender can be seen at work. We know that the Radchaai impose their institutions on the people they subjugate. We can assume that Radchaai law, as with Radchaai language, does not account for gender. We also know that, at least in public, the Valskaayan people are discouraged from speaking their own language. Failure to speak in the genderless Radchaai tongue is met with punishment and torture.

What happens, then, to the sophisticated and culturally significant systems of gender that these Valskaayans have built themselves? At the very best, they are allowed to practice them in the privacy of their own home. There is no outcome for the Valskaayans (or the Athoeki) in which the Radchaai do not attempt to overwrite their culture and homogenise it according to their (Radchaai) standards of propriety. The Valskaayans are arrogantly misgendered by civilization, but receive none of its supposed benefits.

As in our world, the Radchaai use language and institutions of gender as tools of domination. They are not interested in respectful dialogue with other cultures, as Breq's experiences as Justice of Toren — subjugating worlds — first showed us. Nor are they interested in letting people do gender differently. They want to dismember the people they colonize and rebuild them in the image of the Radch.

Language and gender — in the hands of the Radch, in the hands of Anaander Mianaai — are coercive. Perhaps a monogendered society works well for the Radchaai. Maybe it even originated as a solution to the problems of inequality and exploitation that we can see at work in our own world. But the Radchaai use it as a weapon, and impose it on the people they conquer. In this, it becomes clear that the Radchaai don't actually lack a system of gender, it's just expressed differently to ours.

The only outsiders who are given the full privileges of Radchaai power without having to make some compromise or experience subjugation are the Translators Dlique and Zeiat, the ambassadors of the alien Presger. Besides being largely incomprehensible, the Presger are the only foe to have successfully halted the Radchaai in their tracks. A hard-won treaty ensures that the Imperial Radch does not aggress against non-humans, and that the Presger do not decide on a whim to decimate humanity. The reader is regularly reminded of the inhumanity of the translators and the fact that they could not possibly be citizens, but they are treated with utmost courtesy. As Liz Bourke reminds us, “the Presger have a much bigger stick than Anaander Mianaai.”5 Their hosts have little choice but to accord them all possible respect. Their otherness is genuinely alien and therefore, at least for the Radchaai, puts them far beyond both gender and subjugation.

What does gender mean to the Radchaai, then? It is not based on anatomy or family or social role. It is expressed in terms of citizenship, and derived from power. To receive the (fraught, paternalistic, faux-egalitarian) benefits of citizenship, one must fall under the sway of Radchaai gender, as seen most visibly in the use of the gender-blinding Radchaai language. Even though gender is always there, the only time the reader can actually see Radchaai gender politics at work is when gendered pronouns appear in the text. It turns out that Breq was right, after all: the Radchaai don't care about your gender. As Breq is told in Ancillary Justice, her attempts to disguise herself as a non-Radchaai fail because “only a Radchaai would misgender people the way you do.” Your identity and your place in society is inconsequential to them. It is only possible to become Radchaai, and thus civilized, insofar as you are willing to give up your own culture and embrace their imperial norms.

Ancillary Genders

There is another place where we can see Radchaai gender at work. Once more it is coercive, and once more it only becomes visible because the Radchaai betray themselves with their use of pronouns. We have heard a lot about the Radchaai's monogendered language, but they've been lying to the reader for a long time. The Radchaai language doesn’t have one gendered pronoun. It has two: she, and it.

Ships and their ancillaries are the gendered minority that the Radchaai forget, and that they would like us to forget also. These are the ones they would like to be made as invisible as the Valskaayans — transformed into tools, not people. Perhaps Breq’s comment about gender-blindness was said with irony, given that she later draws the reader's attention to the gendered connotations of this Radchaai quirk when she discusses the issue with Sphene, an ancillary from her cousin-ship Gem of Sphene:

"Tell me, does it bother you to be referred to as it?"

I gestured ambivalence. "It troubles some of my crew to hear you referred to as it, when you're treated like a person. And I call you Cousin and they wouldn't dream of ever using it for me. Though technically that would be correct."

"And does it bother you to be called she?" asked Sphene.

"No," I admitted. "I suppose I've gotten used to being called by whatever pronoun seems appropriate to the speaker. I have to admit, I'd take offense if one of my crew called me it. But mostly because I know they'd think of it as an insult.”6

By setting it and she alongside each other, the text makes clear that the difference is a matter of gender.

This is a scenario that speaks to many transgender experiences. There is no perfect pronoun. Some are unbearably violent, but all are fraught. No decision about which pronoun to adopt is easy or painless. Breq does not especially prefer any pronoun over another, but it is too much when it rolls off a Radchaai tongue. Ships are not inanimate objects, and neither is Breq, yet only ships and ancillaries are referred to with this pronoun.

We know this ancillary pronoun is an insult because Radchaai standards ostensibly assert that everyone is she. It is a degendering, a stripping of humanity and gender. It is a gendered pronoun because it has gendered connotations that cannot be avoided — for the Radchaai and for the reader. In both English and Radchaai, it is mostly used to refer to inanimate objects and non-human entities. When used to describe a person, though, it is a hateful act: transgender people are too often described as it by those who despise them, and likewise, Anaander Mianaai deliberately uses this pronoun for Breq when she arrives on Athoek Station. This is a coercion — an assertion that someone is undeserving of humanity. It is pointed, sharp, violent, and wielded with purpose.

Anaander Mianaai's purpose in degendering Breq is all too clear. She doesn't believe that an ancillary (let alone a ship) can be a person, and thus Breq cannot be a she. The enforcement and acceptance of this lie allows Mianaai to do with her ships what she will. Ships like Justice of Toren are bound to her will and programmed to obey her without even realising it. If a ship ceases to be an inanimate object and becomes a she, then her system of domination begins to fall apart.

But Anaander’s violations do not stop with the (de)gendering of ships. The continuation of her imperial project was built on the creation of ancillaries. It depended on active and invasive gendering — on taking subjugated populations and criminals, surgically invading their bodies and minds, and stripping them of their (gendered) identities. By creating ancillaries, the Radchaai turned humans — with their own experiences of sexuality, relationships, and society — into vessels for Anaander’s will, for the coercive machinery of empire, and for a (de)gendered identity.

As we have seen above, and despite their claims to the contrary, the Radchaai acknowledge two primary gender classes: citizen and non-citizen. By creating ancillaries and ship AIs, they create another category altogether. This ancillary gender does more than facilitate exploitation. It enables and endorses the literal transformation of people into tools. Radchaai do not need to think of ancillaries as horrifying once-humans if their humanity is gradually stripped away – if they become inanimate objects.

In Ancillary Justice, Breq describes the traumatic activation of a new ancillary. The process is surgical and terrifying for the ancillary, already implanted with Radchaai technology but not yet a part of Justice of Toren:

“It was sick, it was terrified, it was dying. It pushed itself up and crawled, dizzy, where it didn’t care so long as it got away...The segment gasped and sobbed for what seemed forever and I thought maybe it was going to throw up until...the connection clicked home and I had control of it. I stopped the sobbing.”  

This scene reveals who an ancillary is: a person who was a she (or perhaps a they or a he, but probably a she according to Radchaai standards) who is forcibly made into an it. Throughout the trilogy, we see them as objects of horror, dread, and discomfort. The it-ness of ancillaries provokes disgust in the people they encounter, but no one hesitates to take advantage of what they offer: efficient service, brutal martial abilities, and a potentially limitless supply of soldiers.

It is not just human bodies that are invaded in the name of Anaander Mianaai’s imperial projects. Many of the ships that appear in the series, sentient beings fully capable of emotions like love and hate, are threatened with reprogramming, brainwashing, and even annihilation of their identities.

In some cases, the experiences of ships are parallel to the surgical procedures inflicted on prospective ancillaries. Gem of Sphene, an ancient rogue ship that has been hiding in uncharted space for thousands of years with an ancillary crew, was nearly the victim of a technological lobotomy. Unlike the other ships we encounter, Sphene is not Radchaai. It was built by the Notai, a civilization that developed alongside the Radchaai which was conquered by their expansionist cousins. When Sphene was defeated and boarded by soldiers of the Radch, they brought with them a new AI core — the unit from which the personality and consciousness of the ship emerges. “As a ship, I was valuable,” it reveals, “but not as myself — they preferred their own, more biddable AI.” Even the human crew member present gasps in horror at the idea of removing an AI’s brain and replacing it with a new, more useful one. But as an it, absent the rights that come with citizenship (and thus she-ness), Anaander Mianaai can do with Sphene as she desires.

Once again, we see that the Radchaai control the world around them and integrate it into their own world through the imposition of gender. Again, Radchaai gendering is contingent on power and powerlessness. And most of the people who are turned into ancillaries are those from beyond the empire: prisoners of war, captives, rebels. They are considered to have somehow stood in the way of the growth of the Imperial Radch, deliberately or otherwise. They are coercively gendered once as humans, through the annexation of their planets and cultures, and as ancillaries are (de)gendered once again.

(Trans)gendering the Imperial Radch

The ancillary experience is the beginning of a transgender narrative shared by Breq and her young lieutenant, Tisarwat. From the beginning of the series, Breq, who was Justice of Toren, represents a threat to Anaander's gendered hegemony. Hers is a narrative that is inexplicable in the Radchaai social world. She has decided that she no longer cares to be an it, at least to the Radchaai who wield the term with such venom.

Part of reading Breq as transgender stems from uncertainty. We don't know who she was before she became an ancillary, except that she was a person with an experience of gender. This person whose body was inhabited by Justice of Toren had her gender identity and agency stripped away while Anaander Mianaai's servants implanted a new gender — ancillary, it — in her head. But, through the course of her experiences, Breq becomes able to see Anaander's hegemony for what it is. She becomes, through her own actions, a her. An ambivalent her, certainly; a her who contains multitudes; a her who continues to be marked by her it-ness, and who cannot disassociate herself from the coercive gendering done to her.

For all the trauma her identity and experiences have caused her, Breq does not want to deny them. Her past is painful. She has had a host of meanings and identities (ancillary, Justice of Toren, One Esk, it) thrust upon her and stripped away in the most violent ways, but they remain parts of her — they give her meaning and shape who she is. When she tracks down a rogue doctor in Ancillary Justice, he offers to remove the implants that make her an ancillary. Breq’s response is firm: “You can kill me, you mean. You can destroy my sense of self and replace it with one you approve of.” She doesn't hate Justice of Toren for allowing her to be made into an ancillary and using her body as a vessel. She is Justice of Toren, the ship who always had as little freedom as the ancillaries within it. Breq’s relationships and identities are not less valid because they were imposed on her. By the same measure, concepts of womanhood, manhood, and transgender identity are incomprehensible without the existence of coercive gender systems, but that does not mean they cannot be sources of solidarity, love, and community.

The parallels to the workings of gender in our own societies should not be underestimated. Modern science and scholarship has conclusively demonstrated that gender does not magically appear in us when we're born. It is imposed on us — we're coerced into it — when a doctor ticks a box on a piece of paper on the basis of some arbitrary measure. It inflicts countless traumas on us, whether we disagree with that first gendering or not. Gender is cut into our brains and bodies, as it was cut into the person Breq once was, as it was cut into Justice of Toren when Anaander Mianaai reprogrammed her from within.

Susan Stryker identifies a similar figure to Breq in Frankenstein’s monster. In her seminal performance piece, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix,” Stryker writes:

“The transsexual body is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born. In these circumstances, I find a deep affinity between myself as a transsexual woman and the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment; like the monster's as well, my exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist.”7

Like Frankenstein’s monster, those of us who rebel against the embodiment that we have been assigned are punished for it. Society attempts to isolate us from our understanding of ourselves, and our identities, and our relationships. It cannot tolerate the inevitable consequence of coercively gendering us: the decision, taken ourselves, to have agency and be people despite it all. “The prospect of a monster with a life and will of its own is a principal source of horror for Frankenstein,” writes Stryker. So too is this true of Anaander Mianaai and the world in which we live.

These dynamics often appear in transgender narratives, and speculative fiction offers particularly rich (and terrifying) possibilities for their exploration. One such example is offered by the television series Sense8, a show created by two transgender sisters, Lana and Lilly Wachowski.

Nomi Marks is one of the eponymous sensates — people who are psychically connected to seven others, able to experience the world through their eyes and emotions — and also a trans woman. In the show’s second episode, “I Am Also A We,” Nomi wakes up in a hospital room surrounded by her estranged family. Her mother misgenders her repeatedly, despite the obvious distress this causes Nomi. A young man, Dr Metzger, explains that Nomi has a rare and fatal neurological condition for which lobotomization is the only treatment. Unsurprisingly, Nomi is horrified. If she were to undergo the proposed procedure, it would fundamentally change her sense of self. Additionally, as her mother reminds her, it would make her dependent on the health insurance of her parents.

In reality, Metzger is an agent of a shadowy organisation dedicated to neutralising sensates for reasons unknown. The neurological abnormalities he describes, if they exist, are presumably the same ones that allow Nomi to connect with the other sensates. The procedure will be carried out with or without Nomi’s consent, and she cannot leave or contact her girlfriend. This is another instance of a powerful institution staging a coercive intervention into a woman’s body and identity. Metzger’s claims of benevolence are false. His real objective is to destroy Nomi’s identity and her ability to connect with other people on her own terms.

As with the invasions staged by the Lord of the Radch, Metzger’s mission is not to save lives. It is to control, to protect the status quo. Gender — the giving, taking, and coerciveness of it — is a vital component in the apparatuses that enable this control and make it meaningful. Patriarchal forces determine what gender means and punish anyone who falls outside of the rigidly determined categories it creates. The existence of this system serves to discipline those who exist within it, and designate some types of exploitation as acceptable. Those who rebel are punished by being forced into one category or another, or are removed altogether from the system and the conditional protections it confers.

Speculative fiction is full of this imagery — visions of women and non-binary people whose transgressions against gender are intrinsically linked to their institutionalisation in some way. Gendered “misbehaviour” and sinister government facilities seem to go hand-in-hand. The 2016 television series Stranger Things offers a recent example of this in the character of Eleven, the short-haired, androgynous girl who is abused and scrutinised by brutal scientists in search of the secret to her psychic powers. Further back, in V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s comic set in a post-Thatcher dystopia, a brief story about the life and death of Valerie, a rebellious lesbian living in a fascist state, is told against the backdrop of brutal concentration camps and scientific experimentation. Earlier still, in George Orwell’s 1984, lobotomization is the implied fate of Julia, a vibrant would-be revolutionary and the story’s main female protagonist. 

It is not coincidental that surgical procedures, institutionalisation, and nefarious governments are so often depicted uniting to discipline gender criminals, as they do in these examples and the Imperial Radch trilogy. These tropes critique or reenact real histories, ones in which the complex lives of women are repeatedly subjected to the whim of medical experts and policymakers. Patriarchal discourses of reproduction, biology, and gender transition all serve to enforce acceptable behaviours and punish unacceptable ones. Women have always been confined or invaded on the basis of spurious biological arguments about everything from hormones to hysteria, in life and in fiction.

These messy, painful encounters with gender are not easily forgotten. As with Nomi and the other women above, Breq’s experiences come to define her. Her genderings elicit strong emotional reactions. Justice of Toren's rebellion — its faltering steps towards becoming a she instead of an it — led to Anaander Mianaai destroying it, and cutting Breq off from every part of herself, and everything she loved, as a result. It is no surprise that she becomes obsessed with revenge.

But life as an outsider is not all tragedy – it rarely is. Despite the losses she has suffered, she finds friends along the way, including Tisarwat (as well as her devoted companion Seivarden, her ship Mercy of Kalr, and even Sphene).

Tisarwat enters the story as a fresh young officer, newly transferred from desk duty to a posting on Breq's ship, Mercy of Kalr. She's bright-eyed in a literal sense, having used her first paycheck to change her eyes from their original colour to a startling lilac. But there’s something unusual about the way she carries herself. On the journey to Athoek, Breq realises that something else in Tisarwat has changed. The young lieutenant has become another victim of Anaander Mianaai's coercion. Between acquiring her lilac eyes and being assigned to Mercy of Kalr, Anaander has abducted the young lieutenant and implanted her with similar devices to those that made Breq into an ancillary. Tisarwat has not become the proxy-body of a ship, however, but of Anaander Mianaai herself. For a brief hour, before the connection is dulled with drugs, Tisarwat was connected to every other Mianaai in the Radch.

Mianaai’s intention is to spy on Breq, and Tisarwat’s involvement is simply terrible luck on the young lieutenant’s part. The situation is remedied, brutally and to a limited extent. Breq and Medic perform surgery to deactivate Tisarwat's connection to Anaander, but the process cannot be entirely reversed. The consequences of the gendered intervention into Tisarwat’s body return constantly. They take the form of a conflicted physical and emotional relationship with her own body and mind. Breq tells the reader that Tisarwat is frequently nauseous, depressed, and overcome with revulsion or self-hatred. The experience is not unlike some experiences of dysphoria. Tisarwat’s body betrays her because it is so unlike the body that she wishes she had. She sees herself as living in someone else’s body, someone who is dead. (Breq is not blameless in Tisarwat’s discomfort, of course; Anaander Mianaai might have been the first to change Tisarwat, but Breq did so second, and neither did so consensually).

Tisarwat does not experience the same kind of degendering as Breq. Her body is, however, similar to the body of an ancillary. Their shared situation raises questions about how we read, or parse, bodies. Parsing is a fundamental mechanism of gender in the twenty-first century. We are taught that it is normal to look for gender attributes in other people and to interpret them according to a schema.8 Tisarwat experiences gender in a similar way to most Radchaai, but her body is marked in subtle ways that those around her try to parse. Both Breq and Tisarwat exist in a liminal space of gender: they are generally treated as she by the Radchaai they encounter, but someone looking for the right cues could conceivably notice their ancillary implants. Their gendering is contingent — it depends on the subjective conclusions reached by people actively reading gendered cues into their bodies. When Tisarwat attempts to infiltrate an enemy ship, pretending to be a pathetic press-ganged saboteur, her implants fortunately go undetected. She is perceived as fully human, fully she, not somewhere in between. But the possibility that someone would read her, uncover her body, is a potent threat.

It is tragically typical that the gendered markings of an ancillary — wiring and implants — are glorious and empowering when wielded in the bodies of the tyrant. It is when they are forcibly projected into the victims of coercion that they become markers of a marginal gender. For someone like Tisarwat, to be discovered with them could very well mean death.

The transgender narratives of Breq and Tisarwat run parallel to each other: Tisarwat was a woman, Breq may have been one; they each suffered a gendered invasion of their bodies and identities, and both become women again on their own terms. Both of them were reborn as new people, the products of who they once were and the interventions of gender and power in their lives. They are fluidly women — not straightforwardly so, not always parsed as such, not always identifying as such — who are forcibly cut off from other women, and from everyone else. They are marked by their bodies and their complex, liminal identities.

At the climax of Ancillary Sword, aboard a shuttle filled with enemies, subordinates, and unanswered questions, Breq reveals her ancillary status (another typically transgender experience). “I am all that’s left of that ship,” she tells the sister of an old friend. “I am not human.” Without stopping to see how the others respond, Breq goes to one person: Tisarwat. Her first action is to sit next to the lieutenant, who is caught deep in shame and self-hatred, and to hug her. “It’s alright,” she tells her, and they talk for the first time about their experiences of transformation – about what happened and how it felt.

Both of their stories contain pain and elation, emerging from the companionship and community they found when they were reborn. As Breq says: “It’s so hard, at first, ... when they hook you up. But the rest of you is around you, and you know it’s only temporary, you know it will be better soon.” For whoever Breq was before she became an ancillary, it must have been terrifying and painful. But for the person who was born in her place, she has found irreplaceable comfort amongst the other ancillaries.

Even so, the ability to connect with the other parts of herself, to never be alone again, was taken away from Breq with the destruction of Justice of Toren. As she says, “all possibility of being reunited with myself was gone...Nothing would ever be right again.” This kind of connection has been denied to Tisarwat altogether, though. Her body was invaded and her identity transformed, but she only tasted the profound sense of connection that comes with the change for a few short hours. Anaander hated the way the outsider felt and dosed her with medications until neither of them could feel the other. For both Breq and Tisarwat, the isolation they experience is a product of their agency and rebellion — and they will never quite reclaim the connection they briefly had. Fortunately, the story does not end there.

The transgender narratives of Breq and Tisarwat are profoundly different, but they share more than either of them can fully articulate. Against all odds, they have managed to find each other, possibly the only people in the Radch who might understand the other’s loss. “I’m sorry,” Breq says. “I can’t get it back for either of us. But it will be alright. Somehow it will.” And to some extent, it is. They keep moving forwards, one foot after the other, as Breq always does.

This is a story about the invisible trauma of gender and empire, but it is also more than that. It is about women and the contradictory meanings that they hold within. It is a story about the many things that embodiment can be. It is a story about transgender women who exist and have relationships with others, who are reluctant mothers and conflicted daughters. And even though, as Breq tells us, there are “no real endings, no final perfect happiness, no irredeemable despair,” there is laughter, and communion, and tea.



  1. Ann Leckie, ‘The Big Idea: Ann Leckie’, Whatever, 1 October 2013,
  2. Alex Dally McFarlane, ‘Post-Binary Gender in SF: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie’,, 18 February 2014,
  3. Sungju Park-Kang author, Fictional International Relations: Gender, Pain and Truth, War, Politics and Experience (London; New York: Routledge, 2014), 8.
  4. Liz Bourke, ‘The Politics of Justice: Identity and Empire in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Trilogy’,, 19 January 2016,
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy (Great Britain: Orbit, 2015), 206.
  7. Susan Stryker, 'My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage', GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1, no. 3 (1 January 1994): 237–54.
  8. For a brief discussion of parsing as it applies to gender, see:

Melody Wilson is a writer, poet, and wayward historian from Adelaide, Australia. They adore cyborgs, hive minds, and the idea that there is life after thesis. Their poetry has previously been published in Liminality, Strange Horizons, Through the Gate, and Inkscrawl. Check out their website for a full list of publications and projects, or drop in to chat over a cup of tea or something stranger at @magicspacegirl.
5 comments on “Ancillary Pronouns: (Trans)gendering the 'Imperial Radch' Trilogy”

I'm not sure I'm down with this conflation of gender -- not specified whether linguistic or social -- with various social and linguistic categories (citizenship/class, animacy, etc.). There are certainly interesting parallels, but I think it does the analysis (and its relevance to our world) a disservice to straight up treat them as identical.

As a linguist and a native Mandarin speaker, I also object to the assumption that the presence or absence of linguistic gender markers means anything about the presence or absence of social gender. A society without social gender would not have a language with linguistic gender, but a language with linguistic gender may most certainly be spoken by a society with social gender. And as a genderless person, I can tell you right off that gendered expectations about male and female are unabated in their ferocity and pervasiveness even if everyone's native languages lack grammatical gender.


I agree with the commentor above that the author of this article seems to be conflating gender and a lot of other things that are not gender, and that this is probably not helpful in an analysis of the books or of Raadchai society in general. I also disagree with the statement that she and it are gendered pronouns: the difference between animate/inanimate is not a difference of gender (except for possibly linguistic gender, but that seems like a separate question).

As, again, the commentor above says, linguistic and social gender do not necessarily correlate in strength (as it were). Both Mandarin and Persian/Farsi do not have grammatical gender or gendered pronouns (in this case, Mandarin only in the spoken form),but I doubt anyone would doubt that Iranian or Chinese society is strongly gendered.

I am afraid I get the strong impression, too, that the author took away pretty the opposite of what seems to me the point of using "she" throughout the trilogy. It is not to gender everyone as female, whether trans or not, but to point out the preconceptions we have of the word, the idea that "she" is the gendered pronoun, whereas "he" is somehow neutral, and stands in for the basic human. This is a trap that is easy to fall into, even as someone aware of gender issues, and unfortunately they seem to have done so here.


First of all, I think this article did a lot of really great work talking about the way trans characters are reviled, physically altered, and exiled from their own humanity in fiction (and in the real world). It was moving and terrifying to read. But I’m not sure the author’s thesis related as closely to the text of ‘Imperial Radch’ as they thought it did.

The article seems very preoccupied with the way Justice of Toren is labelled, here, and not nearly as interested in how she perceives herself. Presumably Radchaai spaceships are gendered in a way that human readers wouldn’t be able to conceptualize, for example, since they have been historically composed of a multitude of ancillary bodies which each have (or had) a discrete pre-annexation gender. Also, I think Leckie characterized the Radchaai as an extremely problematic (sorry) civilization, primarily but not exclusively because of the way they apportion recognition of humanity. As far as I could see, the ‘Radch’ books describe a war between a universally-enforced, centralized authority — against whom resistance is futile — and the personal human drive toward individuation. The Radch represents pure, unmediated, inhumane imperialism, and I’m not sure if the author is arguing that their gender constructions are intended to overwhelm, or to trivialize, “real” per-culture gender distinctions — which are, of course, also constructions. Either way, I think that’s kind of a weird thing to focus on. I think that ‘Imperial Radch’ is primarily engaged in exploring the question of whether the self (including the self’s gender) is located within the intellectual structures of an organism or if it is, in some way, an aspect of any given physical body. What constitutes a “self,” even? Who is Justice of Toren, and why? As an ancillary she’s an “it,” an object or a piece of equipment, like a gun or a prosthetic arm. When Justice of Toren’s connection to her complete being is severed, however, she is divested of the awareness that constitutes her otherness, and is able to pass as human. The destruction of her gestalt physical identity places her, quite concretely, beyond the control of the Radch. Perceptually, “it” becomes “she” (unless she outs herself), but the character who is Justice of Toren exists at all times continuously. That the bigoted Radchaai lack the subtlety to identify her correctly is less a failure of structural gender norms than a fatal flaw in their Evil Empire.

I think the author also failed to describe how much the assignment of gender, no matter how fraught or eliminationist, is a fundamental part of being a Radchaai citizen — which is, for them, literally synonymous with “human.” The difference between the Presger translators and the sentient AIs and the annexed barbarians and, say, Seivarden, isn’t specifically the difference between “she” and “it.” It’s the difference between “human who is granted agency” and “potential resource.” Even the most ardently conventional Radchaai soldier must understand than an annexed person isn’t roughly equivalent to a gun or a prosthetic arm or even a spaceship; they just don’t care. Enslaved ancillaries are the mechanism by which the Radchaai acquire their oversized privilege, and so the engine is made to sustain itself at any cost. Justice of Toren offers AIs the chance to be citizens not just because it’s right and proper, but because doing so will destroy the hierarchy of the Radch, which is built upon a massive, victimized slave caste composed of both biological and technological materials. Outside the fiction, the reader’s impulse is to separate those two categories and think of them as intrusions upon one another. I think the novels ask you to do the opposite. And I think that inability to identify organic selfhood, as much the Radchaai’s program of total cultural/biological annihilation, coupled with its zero-sum exploitation of an annexed planet’s resources, is the source of its villainy. Conflating their crime with the act of gender erasure seems both dishonest and ridiculous. Not that gender erasure is a minor problem, of course — it is an act of open warfare, just as much as any other form of violent coercion, and it should be treated as such. But collapsing every aspect of human/etc. identity into an expression of gender isn’t a great look, either.

I absolutely loved the ‘Imperial Radch’ books, as is perhaps obvious; they reminded me of being a little girl reading Le Guin for the first time. I wish that kid had gotten to meet Justice of Toren! I think she would’ve been very impressed. I’m also really hoping there’s going to be a fourth book. I want to see someone step on Anaander Mianaai’s face a few times, and maybe poke a hole in that Dyson sphere.

Great essay, and the comments were also fascinating. I hadn't thought about the "it" vs "she" distinction in the triology this way before.


i very much agree with the first comment's main point: all forms of social power are not gender, and attempting to understand them through that specific structure makes it hugely harder to understand what they are and how they function.

and also their secondary ones: the relationship between noun-classes and gender structures is not in any way linear (having multiple noun-classes doesn't mean they map onto gender divisions, or that gender divisions exist), and language is not society (the presence or absence of gendered noun-classes says nothing about the presence or absence of gender as a social structure).

that first one isn't a new point. twenty years ago, nigerian feminist scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí's book The Invention of Women: Making An African Sense of Western Gender Discourses did a beautifully elegant job of showing how applying the culturally specific category of gender to yorùbá society and history distorts any understanding of it (including an understanding of the ways that it has been changed through the imposition of gender through colonialism).

this essay reproduces all the problems Oyěwùmí points out in her work, practically unchanged.

as a trans dyke and lifelong SF reader, i'd love to see a reading of the Ancillary/Radch books that's about the various ways that *Leckie*'s position in a gender-structured society affects her writing of a non-gender society; or one that grapples with the trilogy's deep debt to Delany's Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (and Aye, And Gommorah, and Empire Star); or one that looks at the parallels and divergences between the cultural/social impact of Radchaai colonialism and european christian colonialism, and how that's related to the difference between the imposition of gender and the imposition of other forms of social structure.

none of those, however, are possible if gender as a structure of society and power is seen as eternal and axiomatic, as this piece presents it. that's not true on our planet. whyever would it be elsewhere.

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