Review: Ancillary Sword

“I find forgiveness overrated. There are times and places when it’s appropriate. But not when the demand that you forgive is used to keep you in your place.”

Ann Leckie

So a shit thing happened in the UK today. I’m not writing about it here; it’s late and I don’t really have anything to add to the conversation.

But I *am* writing. I’m keeping on writing about sexism and racism and heteronormativity and ableism and privilege and all the shitty things floating around in our cultural discourse because I believe (like Mosca Mye) that you should never stop thinking, and that thinking about these things is a step on the way to making them better, the first step and the most important one.

And that’s all. And that’s enough, for now.


ancillaryswordIn Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Ancillary Justice, Breq, the ex-spaceship turned Fleet Captain, is dispatched by the Lord of the Radch Anaander Mianaai to the out-of-the-way Athoek system, ostensibly in order to protect it from the ripples spreading across the Radch empire after Mianaai’s disastrous personality split. Local politics soon sees Breq and her small retinue visiting Athoek planet, where much of the Radch’s tea is grown; there, Breq comes face to face with the terrible shadow of imperialism, as she witnesses first-hand the treatment of indentured tea-pickers shipped in from annexed planets.

So the book, like Ancillary Justice before it, is invested in exposing the flipside of imperialism; the human cost of huge SFnal armies floating across summer blockbuster screens. It’s a work of subversion, in other words, reimagining a familiar genre to delve into the assumptions (of maleness, of whiteness, of rightness, of singleness) at the heart of it.

Unfortunately, in doing so it runs right into the genre’s structural problem: which is, of course, using an institutional, strategic view to think about individual human issues.

What do I mean by that? Breq is a very, very senior member of military personnel, who was, moreover, literally built to enforce and represent Radch superiority. Her worldview is one which contains tactics, politics, high-level analysis. It can’t really encompass the plight of the unprivileged individual, the debt slave whose brother is being blackmailed into performing sexual favours for the daughter of the plantation owner. The result is that the slaves all the way at the bottom of the ladder, those who are so insignificant as to be visible from Breq’s military viewpoint only en masse, are flattened into a faceless body which is being wronged, utterly passive, there only to shed light on their owners’ characters.

And so, when we have a super-powered individual like Breq swooping down onto a planet to make things better for the slaves, and swooping away again when she’s done, we get a distorting effect which effectively erases two important dimensions to slavery (and, remember, Leckie’s project is precisely to probe slavery, to reveal how military SFF distorts our worldview): firstly, the experience of those suffering it – so we get a White Saviour narrative – and secondly, the fact that slavery is always institutional, and not solely caused by a few unpleasant individuals. Because Breq has significant political power, she can work as an individual to change the system. But because she’s a representative of that system, she makes it look as though the system itself isn’t the problem.

So Ancillary Sword fails; but it’s an ambitious failure, a failure that is at least reaching in the right direction. It keeps, quietly, insisting that gender doesn’t have to matter to readers of traditional genre narratives. It does, at least, recognise that guilt and responsibility are not clear-cut in situations of oppression: Breq has had a hand in enabling oppression throughout her career as a military vessel, and the slave who commits an act of violence against her employer is guilty as well as being a victim. Ancillary Sword makes an attempt where most novels are pleased just to rest on their laurels. And, some days, that’s all you can ask.