Space opera. A place where you can easily slip into writing more male heroes with maybe one female tag-along who ends up being cool.
In her multiple award-winning debut novel Ancillary Justice, first of a planned trilogy, Ann Leckie shows readers that she isn’t interested in the easy way. Her narrator Breq, later revealed to be a “segment” of a larger AI consciousness that was destroyed twenty years ago, shows us within the first five pages when she says: “She was male.”
Ann Leckie has created a system, an empire, where the language is explicitly non-gendered. Therefore, all people are “she” unless identified by name. It’s the old idea of why write science fiction if you’re going to keep everything the same? Leckie’s pronoun choice is a subtly radical gesture, one that has you through the book and forgotting the three characters you know are male, are male. And since her created civilization, “Radchaai,” have a name that literally means “civilization,” it’s easy to see her questioning why male is the default and why patriarchy is the only means of setting up civilization.
This take on gender isn’t an essay, though. This is an action-adventure revenge plot, complete with subterfuge, injury, high-tech weapons, and comradery. Throughout Ancillary Justice the characters also take on other questions, such as colonization, the conversion of people into AI machines, and what it means to be divided against oneself. If anything, loss of a sense of self, the idea of fragmenting away from a cohesive whole, might speak most strongly to our problems of women “having it all.” At times, the way the reader is thrown into the world without any prelude can be confusing. But it is worth it, not only for the way that it makes us questions our systems, but also for how it aligns us with Breq, an outsider herself.
“I saw them all, suddenly, for just a moment, through non-Radchaai eyes, an eddying crowd of unnervingly ambiguously gendered people…Twenty years of habit overtook me, and for an instant I despaired of choosing the right pronouns, the right terms of address. But I didn’t need to do that here. I could drop that worry, that small but annoying weight I had carried all this time. I was home.”
Ancillary Justice, winner of the Nebula and British Science Fiction Awards, is available from Orbit Books.
Catee Baugh is a Virginian poet now living in Hawaii. Her work has appeared in ArLiJo and Indigo Ink’s Modern Grimmoire. In her free time, she can often be found dancing.