“Luxury always comes at someone else’s expense.”
As regular readers of my blog will know, Ancillary Justice has been on my radar for a while now: it comes highly recommended from several trusted sources, not least the judges of the Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and Kitschy awards and the slightly-less-trusted nominations process of the Hugo awards. It’s the Hunger Games of the SFF community: raved about, fangirled over and generally hyped to within an inch of its life.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, I wasn’t entirely whelmed by it; certainly not as whelmed as everyone said I should have been. At its core, Ancillary Justice is pretty standard military SF. Its central character, Breq, is the only remaining fragment of an artificial intelligence which used to be the spaceship Justice of Toren. Breq is an ancillary: an AI in a human body. In its heyday, Justice of Toren had hundreds of these bodies, these ancillaries (who were once living humans, taken from among populations subjugated by the Imperial Radch, the civilisation depicted in the novel); but twenty years ago, some mysterious betrayal reduced this vast, multiple being to a single fragment. Breq’s quest for revenge in the present day of the novel is intercut with the events leading up to this act of betrayal, the narration flipping between past and present.
I’ve said that Ancillary Justice is pretty standard military SF, which is only partly true. The one thing that Everyone Knows about Ancillary Justice (in the same way that Everyone Knows that The Hunger Games involves kids killing each other on live TV) is that the Radchaai are ungendered, and that, therefore, every character is referred to as she or her regardless of sex. This is not, actually, as central to the novel as most critics suggest: Ancillary Justice isn’t a novel about gender in the same way that, say, Kameron Hurley’s novels are.
That’s not to say that that gender detail isn’t important, though, because Ancillary Justice is emphatically a novel about identity, about what identity means and about the shifting sands upon which it’s built. Is Breq the same as Justice of Toren was? How would she know if she wasn’t? And what about the human mind who used to live in her ancillary body? How much of her is human, and does that dead mind have any more right to life than she does? Breq presents as emotionless, but she and the Justice of Toren definitely feel emotions: how are those around her supposed to respond to that?
So these in-universe questions, these questions posed on the level of story, are echoed and intensified by that genderless background. For a gendered person, the mismatch between gender and sex (there are moments in the novel when Breq, speaking a language which does differentiate visibly between genders, refers to characters previously described using that female pronoun as he) renders that cultural background unstable: we have to navigate how we respond to each and every character in the text, simply because our cultural background is so different. The novel destabilises our ideas of identity; it pushes us, vertiginously, into a space in which our cultural assumptions are revealed, shown up; it forces us to rewire our thinking and use that rewiring to reconsider the more overt identity crises of Breq and those around her.
This, then, is military SF subtly reimagined, and it seems to me that reimagining is the most crucial work SFF can be doing at the moment. In many respects, Ancillary Justice is standard military SF, and that’s precisely where its power lies: in proving that you don’t have to be experimental or difficult to be inclusive, to be worthwhile.