Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is a book that people who follow this blog have probably heard about by now, a lot. Many of you have likely read it, and those that haven’t should certainly consider reading it, if for no other reason than it seems to be at the top of many people’s award nomination list (it’s already on several shortlists) and I’ve seen people calling it something along the lines of the most important science fiction book in the last decade.
Here comes the big ‘BUT’.
All of this buzz, and I’ll even elevate the buzz to hype, essentially results from one aspect of the book – how it uses pronouns. The primary society of this book treats gender in a way fundamentally different than any of the dominant societies of our world. Gender is simply not a distinguishing characteristic of people and the default pronoun is ‘she’. This results in some interesting observations and confusions in other cultures and a default view of all the characters in the books as female rather than male. This rather simple shift can have a pretty significant impact on expectations.
Now, I want no confusion on this point. The above aspects of the book are great. SFF needs more interesting treatments of gender, race, etc. and this is a book that has people talking. These are important issues that SFF as a genre is particularly suited to addressing since it can make up pretty well whatever it wants as default conditions. To put it lightly, it’s unfortunate how often the default conditions mirror our own society with little to no reflection on why.
Here comes BUT again.
Ancillary Justice as a novel is boring. The plot seems…absent. Sure there is a plot and it involves some potentially interesting exploration of artificial intelligence as well as discussions on where a society as a whole should go. BUT, while I won’t call the plot secondary, it’s entirely uninteresting. The characters are less interesting than an inflexible wooden board. I didn’t know or didn’t care what the character motivations were. I didn’t care how the book would end. I DIDN’T CARE.
If a book can’t make me care about the plot or its characters, then it’s almost certainly a complete waste of my time. And that would be the case – any other book like this and I wouldn’t have finished it. I doubt I’d make it 50 pages in.
There’s all the hype, the buzz, the talk about how this book is such a wonderful exploration of gender. Only the whole gender thing – it’s really nothing. It’s simply a part of how things are in Leckie’s world society. Which is great, which is how things should be. BUT it didn’t add anything to the story. Nothing of interest (at least to me) was explored in any depth. Not gender. Not the interesting religious implications of an AI-lead, galactic-spanning theocratic empire. Not the politics of an empire ripping apart at its seams. Not the impact of a xenophobic society expanding through a galaxy. NOTHING.
After a fair bit of thought, I think it really comes down to my expectations for Ancillary Justice after seeing so many people I often agree with praise this book so highly. I was expecting something new, something exciting. Ancillary Justice is none of those things. Ursula le Guin was exploring gender in much more important, more shocking, and more meaningful ways 50 YEARS AGO.
My ultimate takeaway is simply this. Seeing this book get so many accolades, so much attention, only emphasizes just how stagnant SFF is as a genre. With relatively few exceptions, the genre that’s best suited to explore what’s possible, what should and should not be, what our own expectations say about us and everything in between doesn’t do any of that in regard to many fundamental aspects of our society.
And I can’t decide if that depresses me or pisses me off.


Paul Weimer said...

I think there is a significant minority of readers who bounced off this book, as you did.

I am not one of those, but I see the point.

Bob R Milne said...

Hmm. I'm one of those who have yet to read it, but I've been very interested.

A wonderful exploration of gender, and I'll admit that's a definite draw, but only within the framework of a novel with compelling characters and a solid plot.

My excitement is dampened a bit - I generally find my tastes align with yours - but I'll still have to give it a try at some point.

Neth said...


I keep hearing good things about ASCENSION by Jacqueline Koyanagi. It's worth checking into.

Benjamin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Benjamin said...

I'm one of those that enjoyed this, but I can kind of see your point. The gender politics was never the big draw for me though. I rather much preferred the explorations of identity and what can happen when one person is split among several bodies.

Nathan (@reviewbarn) said...

I am with Benjamin, as much as the exploration of gender gets run I think the book had so much more, specifically in the use of ancillaries and immortality of the mind through multiple bodies.

Eh, different strokes.

cmike said...

Damn. This has been top of the TBR pile since all the early positive reviews. But the occasional negative had me finding other things first. And now this... which seems to accurately summarize the nagging doubts I had. Thank you for the review. It will be read, still I think but not as excited. Bet it still wins something though!!!!

Neth said...

Well, as Benjamin and Nathan indicate, opinions vary. I couldn't care enough about the characters for the exploration of identity and such to have any real interest.

Verywierd said...

The whole sex identification thing was so clumsily handled and irrelevant that it was like the author is slapping the reader around the face with it shouting "Look, look, see how radical and different I am."

If their species does have physical sex differences (and by all indications they are human or humaniod), then are they really oblivious to the sex of the cow they are trying to milk or the chicks they are choosing for the egg factory? Do their doctors give out hormone therapy at random? Do their bra and condom sellers market to everyone equally?

So covering your eyes and saying "I'm ignoring the fact that I can see your breasts/beard/genitals, therefore I am unaware of your physical sex," is an advanced culture?

A central AI with many independently moving bodies is not new at all in SF. It is called a HIVE MIND. Corpse drones have been floating around in the Warhammer 40K universe for forever.

So basically, we have the story of a hive that has been destroyed and one of the bees is now going around looking for someone to sting, handicapped by the fact that it cannot utilise one of the major points of physical identification available i.e. size and shape.

I'm not impressed.

Cheapy Cheep said...

Help me out here - is it me or was the part too much like the Manchurian Candidate (I'm referring to the song), and did you also notice in the second half of the book everyone seemed to focus on tea?

Tim Ward said...

I agree. I found the writing to have a very educated tone but the story was boring.

MC said...

I'm up to page 114, and felt the need to Google "ancillary justice boring", given the dissonance between it having won all the awards, and me being bored by it. Although it is supposedly set in an enormously old, galactic civilization, this civilization is shown through two tiny pinholes, with the most unengaging viewpoint character imaginable. I gather from a page on SFFWorld that it picks up a bit around the halfway point, so I'll stick it out until then, but I really can't imagine ever reading any of the sequels.

MC said...

Well, I finished it, and yes the plot that is very vaguely hinted at before finally gets into gear around the halfway mark ... but by that stage, like Neth, I didn't care. The author cannot make an exciting plot if they have given the reader no reason to care whether the characters live or die.

Also, the religious ceremonies and jewellery and flowers and endless mentions of tea were presumably meant to be world-building, but just came across to me as arbitrary, weightless and pointless.

Also, the bit about Radchaai not believing in coincidence (which seems pretty crazy on the face of it) is used by the author as an unspoken excuse for the wild coincidences that drive the plot.

Finally, the bit about the Radchaai language not distinguishing people by gender (everyone is described as "she", but a Radchaai at one point calls Seivarden "Sir" (?!)) came across to me not so much as revolutionary as 1984-style Newspeak (and also as @Verywierd implied, wildly impractical). The language attempts to prevent the speaker from politically undesirable thoughts, and a revolutionary act in this society would be to call someone a man or woman. There is a throwaway bit late on where a group of anonymous Radchaai in a crowd are described as varying in appearance and gender-fluid from moment to moment, but all the named characters are bland, plastic, featureless and unmemorable who may as well be robots.

I will be donating my copy of this book to charity when I get around to it and will not ever again read anything by this author, let alone sequels.

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