Some science fiction stories deliberately court controversy. Some stir controversy through the issues they want to explore. But Ann Leckie’s award winning Ancillary Justice provides a commentary on the very controversies it has become mired in.
Big Ideas in a Big Setting
Ancillary Justice isn’t, on first examination, a particularly controversial book. A far future space adventure that is also a reflection on the nature of identity, it follows the quest for justice of a character named One Esk. One Esk is an ancillary, a soldier who is normally an extension of the personality and body of a spaceship. But One Esk’s ship, Justice of Toren, is dead, leaving Esk isolated in a way she has never experienced before. A large part of herself is gone, and the story slowly reveals how that loss came about, as well as what One Esk intends to do as a result.
It’s a form of scifi that’s reminiscent of Iain M Banks – space opera on a galactic scale, with an unusual political and social set-up. Action and reflection are connected, so that the story’s big ideas don’t get in the way of its progress as a narrative. I thought the story was good and the ideas embedded in its world fascinating.
Controversial by Timing
Ancillary Justice is a story about identity, and the big ideas shown through the setting are all about that. Leckie does an excellent job of portraying a very different sort of consciousness, in which Justice of Toren experiences the world through a hive mind of ancillary units, including One Esk. The overwhelming loss that One Esk feels at being separated from this, her loss of identity and need to create a new self, features in the story.
The connection between language and identity is also explored. The culture One Esk comes from does not see gender differences as a high priority, and so their language does not have separate male and female pronouns. For most of the story, only female pronouns are used. This demonstrates a different understanding of what makes us who we are, and by its sometimes disorienting nature forces the reader to consider their own understanding of identity.
All of which sounds to me like a perfect fit for science fiction. How better to explore different concepts of identity than through far future civilisations and alien races? Honestly, I’m not sure this story could have been told in any other genre.
If it had been released at any other point in time, Ancillary Justice‘s big ideas might have just been curiosities. But it was released, and won awards, at a time when conflicts between liberals and conservatives are creating deep cultural divisions, particularly in America, the dominating force in international geek culture. By presenting identity, and in particular gender, in a particular way, the book pleased liberals and aggravated conservatives. The praise and awards heaped upon it added fuel to the fire.
But what most struck me, as I got to the end of the book and thought about its place in that conflict, was that Ancillary Justice, whether deliberately or by coincidence, provides a commentary on that conflict and on its own place within it.
Conservatives vs Liberals… In Space!
I’m going to be vague here, but there are unavoidable spoilers ahead. You have been warned.
It would be hard to argue that Ancillary Justice doesn’t reflect current divisions in the United States, and which are also seen in different forms elsewhere in the world. As the cause of Justice of Toren‘s demise is revealed, it becomes clear that there is a conflict taking place between conservative and liberal elements in the Radch, the empire One Esk calls home. This is tied directly to the book’s interest in the nature of identity and shared consciousness, and becomes the driver for the tense final act.
One Esk is not interested in the sides of this fight. She blames them both for things she has lost, and her search for justice is indifferent to the sides in the conflict or how she will affect them. Liberalism and conservatism mean nothing to her – she is concerned only with the personal.
But the two sides push her again and again to make a choice, and her concerns for the people around her ultimately force her to take a side. By her very nature, she finds herself reluctantly part of the struggle.
Ancillary Justice, much like One Esk, could on first reading appeal to both liberals and conservatives. On the one hand, the blurring of gender and identity boundaries is very liberal. On the other hand, this is militarily oriented scifi about a soldier indifferent to cultural and political concerns, who just wants to deliver a very individual and violent form of justice – a fittingly conservative sort of story. One Esk, the story’s protagonist, never even makes an ideological choice in favour of conservatism or liberalism – her decision to pick a side is far more personal and pragmatic.
Whether intentionally or not, Ancillary Justice therefore provides a commentary on what is happening to many people, and even books, in the current debate. Trying not to take a side in an increasingly polarised conflict, the actions and views of one camp ultimately lead them to associate with the other. Was Ancillary Justice meant as a liberal book? I don’t know, but the minute certain conservatives started attacking it, it became a powerful symbol of liberal science fiction.
So what does Ancillary Justice ultimately say about taking sides in a conflict like this? To me, it contains much of the uncertainty I feel. Sure, One Esk takes a side, and that could be seen as a call to arms. But she remains reluctant and wary of the conflict itself, as well as those she is siding with. This isn’t a clear cut call to take a side and throw yourself in. It’s more like choosing a lesser evil.
I’m reminded of an experience I had over a decade ago. I was on an anti-war march in London, and I found myself walking alongside a group of protesters who were chanting that the Israeli and American presidents were murderers. In a general sense, those protesters and I shared an agenda – the American and Israeli actions they opposed were ones I opposed too, and I had joined the march because I didn’t want to remain unheard. But the vehemence of those chants, the equation of politically motivated warfare with murder, and the hateful tone they turned upon the other side – those were things that made me deeply uncomfortable. It’s one thing to say that you believe in something, but it’s quite another to condemn, dehumanise or ignore the concerns of those who don’t agree with you.
Perhaps that’s what Ancillary Justice is about – the challenges and discomforts of taking a side. Regardless, it’s a decent story with some excellent thought provoking ideas, and as an artefact of where we’re at now, well worth reading.
After all that, if you’re still looking for some science fiction to read, then my short story collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is free today on Amazon Kindle. It is, as one reader said, “A collection of bite-size short stories ranging from heart-wrenching, through thought-provoking, to mildly disturbing.” What more could you want?