Ancillary Justice swept the major science fiction awards in 2014, winning author Ann Leckie the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and British Science Fiction Association Awards—an impressive feat for a debut novel. Leckie refreshes space opera tropes here to create a unique world with surprising characters.
The story is told from the perspective of a rather unusual narrator. The Justice of Toren is a two-thousand-year-old space ship governed by an advanced artificial intelligence (AI) system. Much of the Justice of Toren’s crew is made up of ancillaries. Ancillaries are captured enemy soldiers whose minds have been replaced by the ship’s AI, making them essentially appendages of the ship. During the annexation of a planet, ancillaries land on the surface, allowing the Justice of Toren to see and hear everything that they witness—not to mention launch a truly coordinated attack on the inhabitants’ defenses.
At the novel’s beginning, the Justice of Toren has been destroyed. All that remains is a single ancillary called One Esk, who retains all of the memories accumulated by the ship and the other ancillaries, as well as the consciousness they all shared. The protagonist is thus a zombie soldier guided by the mind of a destroyed spaceship. It took me a few chapters to wrap my head around that idea.
The Justice of Toren serves the Radch Empire, which has conquered all of the human-controlled planets in the galaxy. As is to be expected in a space opera novel, the Radchaai are ruled by a ruthless overlord. But Anaander Mianaai is far more complex than Ming the Merciless. For one thing, Anaander employs a technology similar to that which connects the Justice of Toren to its ancillaries. The Lord of the Radch has lived for millennia, occupying thousands of cloned bodies at the same time. A key source of Anaander’s power is the ability to be in many places at once, always observing and always moving the pieces around the board. But the story gets interesting when the Justice of Toren receives conflicting orders from the Lord of the Radch.
If you have been reading closely, you may have noticed a lack of pronouns in the preceding paragraph. That is because Radchaai culture provides the other truly unique feature of the novel: gender has no importance. This comes through linguistically. Because Radchaai lacks gendered pronouns, our narrator One Esk refers to everyone as “she.” One Esk is also incapable of detecting gender differences. With a couple of minor exceptions involving non-Radchaai characters, I had no idea about the gender of any characters, even in romantic situations.
I found this frustrating at first, but as it became clear that gender was irrelevant to the story, I stopped thinking about it. This is what makes Ancillary Justice special: it renders gender meaningless. I am not sure I have read anything with human characters about which I can say the same thing. This novel calls into question the significance our society places on gender. The Radchaai know nothing of misogyny, homophobia or transphobia. A society in a genderless future in which all members are known simply as Citizen has something to recommend it.
Yet the Radch is far from a utopia. Beneath Anaander Mianaai’s iron-fisted rule is an aristocracy of Houses. For much of the history of the Radch, one’s station in life largely depended upon the House to which one is born. Something of a meritocracy has recently emerged, although most Radchaai cling to the idea that to be well born is to be well qualified. They greet with skepticism and thinly veiled hostility those born into Houses of little significance who manage to test into positions of leadership.
Through flashbacks to One Esk’s time as the Justice of Toren, the novel reveals the ancillary’s motive in the main narrative for pursuing an impossible task—to kill Anaander Mianaai. Ancillary Justice succeeds in rendering a spaceship human. But more importantly, it also challenges our very notion of gender and does so with little more than a clever use of pronouns. Few works of literature can boast of a similar achievement.