In 2013, Ohioan debut author Ann Leckie cleaned up all of the major science fiction awards with Ancillary Justice, a slow burn, pseudo-gender-neutral, dual timelines, interstellar space opera that spans thousands of years. It makes sense, even without looking at the other titles it was against, but Ancillary Justice is not to every taste.
On a frozen tundra planet, far outside the boundaries of the Radch, a person who goes by the name of Breq finds someone that she used to know thousands of years ago, when she was not known just as One Esk, but as nineteen other names, and as Justice of Torren. A literal space ship. Every second chapter cuts back to Breq’s life as One Esk, an ancillary of Justice of Toren. As Breq trudges toward her goal of nineteen years in the snow, One Esk discovers that the political climate of the planet that she is in the midst of occupying has more than one brand of social unrest underneath its surface.
Gendered language is the element of Ancillary Justice that must be mentioned in any reasonable discussion of the book. Breq comes from the Radch, where there is no disambiguation between gender and everyone is referred to with a blanket “she”. Breq is continually frustrated that, in the nineteen years that she has been on her own, each planet has its own gender signifiers and that she constantly has to tiptoe around offending by getting it wrong.
This was viewed as progressive in 2013, but it has a different pall to it in 2020. Leckie’s approach is not exactly complex, but it does have the desired effect of muddying the characters in the mind’s eye and, as Breq is ultimately born of a machine – and not assigned any gender at birth – it ties in thematically. As in real life, gender in Ancillary Justice is just a word, and only the most boring of scolds would take issue with having to think of everyone between its pages as “she”. It’s notable, but not disruptive and, unlike other genre authors, Leckie has not even attempted to craft the seeds of a fake language to italicise at will.
More potentially problematic is the characterisation of Breq in her One Esk guise, whereby she has a personality split amongst her fellow ancillaries and her mothership, and Leckie can describe what is happening from multiple sets of eyes and cameras all at once. By grounding the narration in One Esk while letting us know what is happening in other parts of her network, Leckie simultaneously makes a case for a split AI across multiple outlets being capable of individual thought and making the book eminently readable.
As with many books set across duelling timelines, the early parts of Ancillary Justice lose momentum as they chop and change, and as the reader has to scramble to put things together. There are also unresolved issues about the core conflict of the story taking place over a thousand years, and then twenty years, and then one, but ultimately you have to shrug these issues off.
Like the best of those books set across multiple timelines, the moment that Ancillary Justice dovetails is remarkably satisfying. All of the heavy work that went into building the story pays off: an almost paper thin and loathsome sidekick in the rescued Seivarden develops genuine dimensionality, and Breq herself, with someone to actually bounce off, has her edges considerably softened without compromising her character. Leckie’s character work is her secret weapon, and their gradual unfolding is the book’s secret delight.
The unified storyline truly builds up steam and opens Ancillary Justice into something else entirely; a book that had been largely static and literally cold becomes colourful and intriguing. Leckie throws out so many new concepts while tying others together that it could be almost overwhelming were it not for Breq’s steady narrative voice, one which relies more closely on context than out and out exposition. Ancillary Justice shifts from contemplative science-fiction to something high-octane and exciting, incorporating all that has come before into a minor supernova of a conclusion.
Ancillary Justice does have some of the genre shortcomings of a trilogy; having spent so long setting its own table, in the final stretch it rushes towards the aforementioned explosive finale while also leaving much hanging for future volume. Ancillary Justice lives in that paradoxical space between being a self-contained novel and a jumping point for further adventures, but it does just enough work to satisfy rather than starve the reader; of course it is much easier to say this from the vantage point of not having to wait years between instalments.
Ancillary Justice is the start of something and, if all of the blurbs about sentient space craft are anything to go by, it started a new vogue in science-fiction storytelling. It’s not that it’s not quite like anything that ever came before it, but Leckie has put together a consortium of characters and events that gel into something both cohesive and mysterious. Though it follows multiple precedents from the precious metal ages, Ancillary Justice is not exactly entry level science-fiction. It takes a while to click, but it clicks so very well indeed.