Ambiguities of Justice
Ancillary Justice, the first novel by Ann Leckie, went on to win nearly every prestigious science fiction award of the year. And not surprisingly. By SF standards — such as they are — it is an exceptional book. Perhaps the most exceptional thing about Ancillary Justice is that is impressive even by non-SF standards. How often, reading science fiction, does one feel the clear influence not of Heinlein or Asimov but Conrad? How often does the writing make you think, even just slightly, of Hemingway?
That prose is the true hero of Ancillary Justice. No adverb-ripe exclamation-ridden “sense of wonder” this, no streaming technobabble. Leckie’s is (at least initially) the prose of a genuinely military narrator: clipped, to the point, descriptive, relevant. Caesar wrote like this; I would not be surprised to learn Leckie has a passing acquaintance with Latin. Pace and architecture are equally clear, well-shaped and succinct. One has the sense of an orderly mind dealing with the material of its world, and that alone is a welcome experience.
Moreover there is a decidedly moral perspective to the book, and not a shallow one nor one ignorant of the costs or limitations of moral action. In Ancillary Justice good does not completely triumph over evil; evil has its own, not unjustifiable, rationales; and good must sometimes cover its hands with a dash of blood to achieve its worthy ends. Morally, the book appears to inhabit the real world, however unreal the minutiae of its events.
In short, this is a book to read, and to respect. It reminds me of Asimov’s The End Of Eternity, because the authors seems to have forged their way to a tempered style and a moral depth; the distinction being that Asimov arrived at that point via the long hard road of thousands of pages of forgettable swill, and Ann Leckie seems to have reached it first time out, at one stroke. This suggests she may grow, which is a very fine prospect for us all.
But she also may not. Let us get the recommendation out of the way at once: this is a book you should buy and read. That said, for all its many virtues, Ancillary Justice, has notable weaknesses, and weaknesses of the sort that bode ill for the author and her works to come.
One such aspect is the book’s much noted and insufficiently despised misuse of gender terminology. Leckie’s Radchaai, the conqueror race of Ancillary Justice and the background of its narrator, “do not have much sense of gender,” and so the narrator refers to everyone as “she” and “her.”
It goes without saying that this is confusing: one repeatedly pictures such and such a character as female or male only to find out different and have to revise one’s mental picture unnecessarily, even remarkably late in the story. It pulls you out of the narrative and lessens your absorption in the book, and for no critically important reason. Catch on to this gimmick early enough and one forcibly stops picturing characters, which, at best, depletes one’s cognitive investment in the characters. If a good novel is like a dream, Leckie’s practice of calling everyone “she” repeatedly jerks one out of that dream as one ends up playing guess-the-gender from page to page.
The gimmick is not only constantly distracting: it is also stupid. Is it really plausible that the narrator, heir to the massively complete, knowledgable and rich computer database of a sentient starship replete with the informational wealth of a entirely galactic civilization, has trouble telling the difference between a boy and a girl? That such a system would make such misidentifications (particularly considering the narrator’s stated importance of such identifications in dealing with annexed populations) is absurd; so much so that one doesn’t understand why Leckie put it in.
Of course one suspects political correctness. Feminists have long tried to import barbarisms like “s/he” into the language, but Leckie doesn’t use even that comparatively clearer usage: her constant use of “her” mis-labels rather than hesitates to label, and the result is an ongoing, and unnecessary, confusion and lack of clarity.
Is it too much to see political correctness behind another of her conceits, namely that the aristocratic Radsch are dark-skinned and that black skin is considered desirable, fashionable, aristocratic? Were that merely one of the inversions of current social mores that science fiction typically loves to insert into its tales, it would be fine. Combined with the gender-bending, one fears something worse, that this is an author prepared to twist the reader’s arm in the interests of liberal trendiness. Not that there is anything wrong with expicitly left-wing writing, far from it. Danver’s The Watch, Banks’ Culture novels, anything by Kim Stanley Robinson or Ken MacLeod is magisterial. But MacLeod and company are not prepared to allow their book to suffer because of it.
This is not merely irritating and deceptive: it may also be self-deceptive. Because the core story line is pure Golden Age mythos, the classic Van Vogt tale of the peripheral nobody who rises to Supreme Power thanks to Awesome Mental Abilities (and/or A Miraculous Technical Edge). In this case the subtle and innovative plot device — yes, I am being sarcastic — is an alien super-gun that can blow away the otherwise all-powerful bad guy. Leckie spreads her politically correct icing thick, but it can’t be spread thickly enough to cover the stale sf power fantasy wankery of the underlying tale.
And worse. Leckie’s hero (heroine?), Justice of Toren, begins life as an emotionally flat walking corpse, mentally overwritten to serve as a mobile military unit, and progresses in under three hundred pages to assassinating the leader of a stellar imperium not once but several times, and then is promoted to that same leader’s right hand. Exciting? Yes. Unexpected? Yes. Plausible? About as plausible as a resurrected John Kennedy making Lee Harvey Oswald head of the CIA after succeeding in several more JFK assassinations. Far more likely that Justice of Toren be killed outright, or at the very least be emotionally scrubbed again and recycled.
Thus the initial plot line appears to be one of simple egotistical destruction: the system has done wrong and killed innocents, and the hero (heroine?) goes on a suicidal all but certainly impossible mission of vengeance, The Eagle Has Landed style, to kill the linchpin of the system; and if the heavens fall when linchpin is killed, so what? But in the end this would-be toppler of the system rejoins it, only now at the highest levels; albeit connected (let us say) to one of the more moderate factions. The passage seems to be from a flat emotionless execution of essentially fascist governance to a wary but committed execution of essentially fascist governance. I suppose one can call that progress. One can call it regress, too.
This is only a concern if the writer is serious, of course. Likelihood is not an issue when you’re concerned with fantasy, not reality, and with giving the reader, ever inclined to identify with the lead first-person narrator, that sense of total triumph over everyone else that so pleases the frustrated. Better feelings of power than actual power; which is always begin with an awareness of how things actually work.
Leckie does not appear to be a cynical peddler of power fantasies, a popular and populous category in science fiction, but s/he also does not appear to have thought her premises through. As with gender and race, one seems to be dealing an author bent on realism, but a closer look reveals a fantasist, and a fantasist with a shallow agenda. Worse: a commercial agenda. For Ancillary Justice is, of course, the first volume of the now mandatory three: not a standalone work of art, complete and self-contained, which it easily might have been, but a sample intended to addict the reader into buying the next book in the series, and the next, and the next. Hence the dangling plot threads, the not-quite ascension of the narrator to being Master of the Universe. Yet. Save it for the concluding volumes, films and video games. Better for business. Worse for art. (Sure enough, Ancillary Justice has been picked up as an option by a television producer. Just Trek, anyone?)
Stalinism was much reviled for pushing art into its preferred directions. Corporate influence is less direct, but all the more effective, and considerably more insidious. When commercial success comes, the relentless pressure to repeat, recycle, dumb down and take no risks, becomes an enduring companion. Ann Leckie may have the stamina and integrity not to succumb to temptation, but while Ancillary Justice gives us every reason to hope that she will, it also gives us a good deal of reason to think not.
I would not grumble about it if I did not think Ann Leckie had exceptional talent. More than talent: an inclination to stylistic and moral seriousness that, combined with her talent, could lead to exceptional and lasting work. Military SF generally is a swamp of xenophobia, blood lust and unreality, and Leckie’s novel offers brief bright glimpses into what the genre might accomplish in the hands of a strong and sane practitioner.
But Ancillary Justice also has weaknesses that point in quite the opposite direction. This is an author who may well grow, but who may well shrink. The coming books will tell, but the first book’s success makes a latter-day decay far more likely. Yet Ancillary Justice is so good, that I very much hope I am wrong.