Ancillary Justice is an important sf book. The nominations and awards are justified.
I love how Leckie uses pronouns. The main character, One Esk, is from a human culture, the Radch empire, that doesn’t distinguish between genders, so she refers to everyone with feminine pronouns regardless of how they identify. This is a great effect. It makes me very aware of my internal assumptions. Like most white male Americans, when I imagine a character, I default to white and male unless it’s otherwise specified. But this book doesn’t allow it. In addition to the pronouns, there are a few mentions of skin tone – the majority of the Radch empire are people of color.
Although the pronouns are a world-building detail, One Esk’s genderless perspective never becomes central to the plot. This book handles gender in a radical way but it isn’t about gender like Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, to which Ancillary Justice has been contrasted. In most other respects, the Radch empire is your typical tyrannical, imperialistic space opera empire. I’m not sure if that’s a missed opportunity, or if it’s more progressive to depict a society without gender as otherwise the same as any other human society.
The other way that Leckie is innovative in her pronoun usage is that, although this book is written from One Esk’s first-person perspective, One Esk is part of a ship hive mind. Her consciousness is distributed among multiple bodies. In the present time of the story, we only see events from the view of one body, but in the alternating flashback chapters, we get sequences where the I telling us the story jumps from location to location. This POV becomes even more complex because One Esk is just one division of a larger ship consciousness, the Justice of Toren. Fortunately, Leckie handles these transitions smoothly. It’s the pleasant buzz of intentional psychedelia, not a confusing mess.
At first I was a bit disappointed with this book. I read Annalee Newitz’s review, where she compares Ancillary Justice to Iain M Banks’s Culture series. I don’t think that Ancillary Justice is quite at that level. For example, both Surface Detail and Ancillary Justice feature embodied ship consciousnesses as major actors. But Banks’s Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints feels less human and more alien to me than Leckie’s Justice of Toren One Esk. Maybe that’s part of Leckie’s point.
The motivations of characters are sometimes opaque. There were sections that I had to re-read, not because of the pronouns, but because I wasn’t sure why a character acted in a certain way. There was payoff when I made it to the end but the journey could’ve been smoother. The key is to this novel is to remember that One Esk is an unreliable narrator.
However, this is Leckie’s debut book. I can definitely see the potential for future books to match Banks’s achievement. We know we’re getting more glimpses of this galaxy since this is the first of a loose trilogy.
As far as comparing Ancillary Justice to the entire Wheel of Time series for this year’s Hugo Awards goes, that’s a tough vote for me. My emotional connection to the Wheel of Time is so strong from years of being a fan and anticipating future volumes that I can’t be objective about it. I can’t make up my mind.