(Imperial Radch #1)
Publishing year: 2013
Genre: science fiction (space opera)
Some books keep you occupied in moments you’re not actually reading. Sometimes it’s the compelling characters and the struggles these characters go through, and sometimes a book manages to make you think. Not only about the world the author has created, about certain mysteries and uncertainties going on in the narrative, but also about how much certain social constructs are ingrained in our daily lives. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, the first installment of the Imperial Radch trilogy, is one such novel. Though I like to consider myself generally aware of gender norms and expectations, it was striking to realize how much I would instinctively want to define a character as either male or female. Except, most of the time, I couldn’t.
In Ancillary Justice, we follow Breq. Years ago, Breq was the artificial intelligence of the starship Justice of Toren and its Ancillaries – human bodies controlled by the AI of a ship to not only manage said ship, but also work as a soldier in service of the Radch Empire. Certain events had led to the destruction of Justice of Toren and all but one of its Ancillaries. Years later, Breq comes closer and closer to taking revenge. At its core, this first installment is a revenge story. One part of the narrative takes place in the past and showcases the events that lead to Justice of Toren’s destruction, the other part follows Breq’s quest for revenge.
What makes this novel remarkable, however, is its portrayal of gender. The Radch are described as androgynous, and Breq’s native tongue does not have any gender markers. As a result, Breq is not able to easily distinguish one gender from another, which is not only conveyed through its concerns of misgendering the non-Radch people it meets, but also through its consistent use of the pronoun ‘she’. Due to the use of that simple pronoun, I unconsciously began to define most characters as female even though I knew that this was not necessarily the case. In the end, I think there is only one character whose gender I can argue to be confirmed as male. Yet, the urge to place gender labels on these characters was striking. I tend to consider Breq female, but objectively? I have no idea whether Breq is male or female. Justice of Toren could have had Ancillaries of both genders for all I know, but honestly? You might even question whether the concept of gender would be even relevant for an AI. Perhaps the whole point of this gender ambiguity is that gender is a social construct and it doesn’t matter — it’s one’s character and accomplishments that matter.
There are some other interesting things going on with Ancillary Justice. Due to the linked consciousness of the ship and its Ancillaries, the point of view tends to shift a lot, offering an almost omniscient view of certain events while still remaining first person POV. Moreover, there are multiple scenes that question where the consciousness of Toren ends and the consciousness of an Ancillary begins, whether there are any differences in the consciousness and intentions of the ship and of its Ancillaries. The antagonist faces a similar division — all of which suggest interesting questions about identity. When identity is fragmented and is divided from the whole, to what extend is it the same “person”? Can we even speak of a person? These sorts of questions are reminiscent of cyberpunk fiction, but perhaps, considering our main character is an AI, it is no surprise to also find them here.
Philosophical questions about gender and identity aside, Ancillary Justice is also an interesting space opera with a good sense of mystery. As the reader, you’re not entirely sure what Breq’s intentions are or how Justice of Toren has been destroyed until the narrative unfolds. There is, however, a downside: the novel is quite confusing at the beginning, and it takes a little while to get into it. Moreover, the ambiguous pronouns, the rapidly shifting POV, and the many different world-specific terms doesn’t make Ancillary Justice an easy read. I think it would actually benefit from a second reading. There are a few tense action scenes, but there are also plenty of politics and passages dedicated to explain the way the Radch empire operates, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, after the initial confusion you might find a space opera that asks some very interesting questions. Just don’t expect to find out Breq’s gender. You’re not going to, at least not in Justice. Though I have yet to read Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, I think Breq’s gender is going to remain ambiguous — and I believe that’s the point.