Hugo rec: Ancillary Justice

As I've noted before, I rarely read novels in time to nominate them for the Hugo or Nebula awards.

But this book was a special case.

I picked it up off a bookstore shelf back in October because it's by Ann Leckie, author of a fantasy story we published at Strange Horizons; Na'amen enthused to me about it, and it sounded like very much my kind of thing (I should note that the novel is completely unrelated to Ann's abovelinked story), but I didn't get around to reading it until February.

And is it ever very much my kind of thing.

And I've been thrilled to see that it's other people's kind of thing too. It won the Nebula; it's on the Tiptree honor list; it figured prominently on several WisCon panels; nearly everyone I mention it to has read it or is planning to read it; it's gotten high-profile blurbs and reviews. I suspect that with Wheel of Time on the ballot, nothing else has a chance; and it's too late (given that the voting deadline is tomorrow) for my recommendation to make a difference. (I wrote most of this entry in March, but somehow never posted it.)

But it feels weird to have barely mentioned it in my blogging so far, so here are some notes about it. Semi-spoilers, I guess, but nothing big.

My glib one-line summary of my reaction: I came for the gender stuff, and I stayed for the space opera and the characters.

To elaborate:

The first thing that Na'amen told me about it, and the thing that I loved most about it, is that it does fascinating stuff with gender. The protagonist is (essentially) part of a starship AI, currently living in a human body, and she comes from a culture and a language in which gender is unimportant. Her language doesn't have gendered pronouns, and she has a hard time telling the difference between genders in humans. So in her narration, she uses female pronouns exclusively, and in her interaction with humans, she tries but often fails to use the correctly gendered pronouns.

I would, actually, have liked to see Ann take this gender-and-language stuff slightly further, or at least be slightly more explicit about some things. For example, I wasn't sure why they said “lord” and “sir” instead of “lady” and “ma'am.” Also, a lot of real-world human languages use gender for more than just pronouns; there's a line in the book fairly early on that hints at that complication, but there are other lines that seem to suggest that getting gender right in language is only about the pronouns. Then, too, there are a couple of real-world human languages that don't have gendered pronouns, and I'd have liked to have seen that mentioned in passing (assuming such languages haven't disappeared by the time the book is set in). I'm very curious about how the book is being translated into various languages that handle gender differently from English.

I'd also have liked a little more explicit mention of nonverbal gender cues (body shape, clothing, hair, etc) and the ways in which they are and aren't reliable markers in various cultures, and the ways in which individuals define their own genders, and the existence of non-binary genders, and the question of whether AIs have genders; there's a nod to some of that in passing, but again I'd have liked to see a sentence or two more about it. Maybe in the forthcoming sequel?

But those are nitpicks. Overall, this book does more interesting things with gender than anything else I've read in a long time. For the first couple of chapters, the protagonist gives little hints here and there about the genders of various characters (saying, for example, that she must have gotten the pronoun right because nobody got upset), but after a while she stops doing that, and I relaxed into the delightful uncertainty. Are the main characters in the book male or female—or, for that matter, genderqueer or agender or any of various other real-world gender identities? We know the answer for one or two of them, but not for most of them. Why do we care (those of us who do want to know)? How does it change our reading of the book if we interpret them as one or another, or if we try to keep our mental images in a state of uncertainty? What if we imagine all the characters as being female? The whole thing messed with my head in a great way.

I should note that the book has some echoes of The Left Hand of Darkness, presumably intentional. In a book where everyone is referred to using the same gender pronouns even when they're inaccurate, two characters, one of them with ambiguous gender, set out for a long journey across the ice.... The similarities more or less end there; Justice is in no way derivative of Left Hand. But I was struck by the differences in perceptions that the male pronouns of Left Hand and the female pronouns of Justice set up in my head.

Another thing that I like about Ancillary Justice is that it's not only about the gender stuff. I mean, I'd be happy to read a novel focused primarily on exploring these and related gender issues; but in this case, the book also has a galaxy-spanning space opera plot (in a good way) and compelling characters (including characters with multiple bodies, something I don't see often in sf). It examines class and colonialism and identity and privilege in interesting ways, and the question of whether/when to obey orders. I particularly loved the subtleties of the portrayal of Lieutenant Awn.

I had minor issues with various aspects of the book. I didn't really understand the military structure of the soldiers on the ship until nearly halfway through. The climactic sequence felt a little muddled to me. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the aliens. It seems to me that there's a pretty direct causal line from the events at [place name elided to reduce spoilers] to the events a thousand years later at [other place name also elided], where I would have preferred to see a thousand years of a multiplicity of causes. And more generally, a couple of characters who were a thousand years old or older didn't entirely come across that way to me.

But those were all minor concerns. Overall, I loved this book.

I have a policy of not voting in a category unless I'm familiar with most of the works or people in it. So here's a measure of how much I loved this book: I read (or at least read part of) all of the other books in the Best Novel category so that I could justify voting for this one in first place.

(See also Facebook thread for this post.)

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