Welcome to the inaugural posting of the Non-Binary Book Club! This is a review (with the mildest of spoilers) of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (2013), which won the 2014 Hugo and Nebula Awards–and our hearts.
What’s the Non-Binary Book Club?
Our focus is on books (and media) about characters with non-binary sexualities, gender identities, or gender expressions. That is, characters who are bi/pansexual/queer-identified, or whose gender expression or identity is not strongly fixed to the gender binary (may include agender, transgender, gender-nonconforming, gendervariant, genderfluid, intersex [as identity], non-binary, genderqueer, et al). We tend to read speculative fiction novels (as opposed to non-fiction, including autobiographies), but graphic novels, comics, and short stories may be on our list.
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.
Major themes: the intersections of gender, colonialism, religion, language, race/ethnicity, music
The Potential of Sci-Fi
LM: Personally, I’m sick of “gritty” speculative fiction replicating instead of criticizing social issues. Rape is not a proper plot device; neither is fridging women; people of color exist; queer people exist (and don’t have to be “tragic lesbians”!). Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and the sequel Ancillary Sword do not deal in tired old tropes. This is new; this is fresh; this is the future!
For a brief overview of why you should read this:
-the vast majority of the characters are not white
-Radchaai culture and language are non-binary in terms of gender identity, expression, and sexuality
-the series (especially the sequel) is a stunning criticism of colonialism and abuse of power
-the main character is a freakin’ (part of a) space ship
She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain…. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, rarely made much sense to me. (p. 3)
Because her first language (Radchaai) has no gender distinctions–no gendered pronouns, titles, nouns, etc.–Breq is often unsure of any other character’s gender identity. Breq uses “she/her” like singular they, basically.
LM: When Radchaai are speaking their own language, it’s impossible to know anything about the characters’ gender, and I actually like that. I personally always want everyone to be women and/or nonbinary because I think people have a tendency to project themselves (the very obvious aspects, like race and gender) onto characters who do not have that clearly written.
LKR: Also the pronouns leave my brain defaulting everyone to female unless otherwise and specifically confirmed (and in many cases the sex of the character is never confirmed so they stay female in my head). I would be interested to see what my brain did if a neutral pronoun was always used from the beginning, especially the first time I read it – even knowing that ‘she’ is neutral the word shapes my image of the character without conscious processing. Maybe I should get an e-book version and control+f replace ‘she’ with ‘hen’ from Swedish or just ‘they’.
…In one of my favorite short stories, Hiromi Kawakami’s Natsu yasumi (“Summer Break”), the gender of the narrator is completely unknown and completely irrelevant. Because I love the story, I translated it to use in Japanese literature classes. The first-person narrator takes on the gender-neutral “I” or “you” in the story itself, but the students talking about the story in English must make a choice concerning the third-person pronouns they will use and always disagree about whether the narrator is female or male. What I’m trying to say here is that, while Japanese is by no means completely gender-neutral, the gender of every single person and thing is also not automatically built into the language. This is totally normal and only becomes a problem in translation.
LM: I had this incredibly freeing moment around the half-way point of the book when I just stopped trying to “figure out” everyone’s gender. My concern with the characters’ gender really bothered me because I’m still unlearning harmful messages about the gender binary, and this just went to prove that even someone like me, who is genderqueer, has internalized awful social messages. But when the flashback story on Ors really got going, I had this moment of “Wait, is Awn a woman? You know what? It doesn’t matter! None of this gender stuff matters!” It was very liberating to be able to see all the characters’ actions and personalities as totally divorced from gender norms.
LM: In a language and culture without gender distinctions, how would people conceive of their gender? I think about this a lot in terms of myself–if I had grown up around other nonbinary/genderqueer people and everyone used “they,” would I feel differently about myself?
There’s also no one way to be nonbinary, so would it have been like Radch, with everyone doing exactly what they wanted for gender expression without social pressure to conform to the gender expression that appears to suit one’s assigned sex at birth or one’s sexuality?
LKR: I would argue that gender is socially constructed and that any physiological elements of gender holding on from pre-history are probably optional in an FTL-capable future society – so if you grew up in the Radch without much contact with cultures that did retain meaningful/socially relevant gender expression, the very idea of your sex being linked to how you were supposed to act in the real world via this mediating construct of “gender” would be hard to understand.
“I saw them all, suddenly, for just a moment, through non-Radchaai eyes, an eddying crowd of unnervingly ambiguously gendered people. I saw all the features that would mark gender for non-Radchaai – never, to my annoyance and inconvenience, the same way in each place. Short hair or long, worn unbound (trailing down a back, or in a thick, curled nimbus) or bound (braided, pinned tied). Thick-bodied or thin-, faces delicate-featured or coarse-, with cosmetics or none. A profusion of colors that would have been gender-marked in other places. All of this matched randomly with bodies curving at the breast and hip or not, bodies that one moment moved in ways various non-Radchaai would call feminine, the next moment masculine. Twenty years of habit overtook me, and for an instant I despaired of choosing the right pronouns, the right terms of address. But I didn’t need to do that here. I could drop that worry, a small but annoying weight I had carried all this time. I was home.” (p. 283)
LM: Also, when asked to definitively state the characters’ genders, Leckie replied,
So, Seivarden is conclusively male. Breq has said so [p. 4, in a conversation in another language], and Breq knows Seivarden extremely well, so. Breq herself, well, her gender is kind of complicated, isn’t it. I mean, our culture, at least, mostly assigns gender by looking at genitals. But of course, One Esk will have had pretty much any and all sorts during its life as part of Justice of Toren, and Justice of Toren itself wouldn’t have a human gender. I don’t think Breq sees herself as being gendered, really.
The other characters—some of them I’ve assigned a gender to in my mind, and some I haven’t. Even the ones who began with a particular gender ended up being a bit…slippery by the time I was done writing. And I kind of like that there’s discussion around that, too, so for both those reasons, I think I’ll decline to give genders for the characters who began with them. – Ann Leckie for i09
Sexuality and Relationships
LM: The most important relationships between characters aren’t romantic. Some characters have purely sexual relationships with each other. Some characters have a great deal of platonic/nonsexual/nonromantic love for each other. I don’t like to definitely say whether characters are sexualities that I am not, but I would argue that Breq is asexual (and aromantic). While there are some characters she cares about deeply, though not romantically, she finds their sexual attractions toward others amusing at best.
Because everyone is non-binary in Radchaai culture, we don’t actually know if sexualities other than sexual/asexual exist in their culture. Although class and the patron/client system factor into sexual/romantic/familial relationships, no one is ever shamed for liking another character based on gender. It follows that if the concept of gender is completely thrown out the window, the concept of queerphobia would be as well.
“The gender thing is a giveaway, though. Only a Radchaai would misgender people the way you do.”
I’d guessed wrong. “I can’t see under your clothes. And even if I could, that’s not always a reliable indicator.”
She blinked, hesitated a moment as though what I’d said made no sense to her. “I used to wonder how Radchaai reproduced, if they were all the same gender.”
“They’re not. And they reproduce like anyone else…. They go to the medic…and have their contraceptive implants deactivated. Or they use a tank….” (155, large print ed.)
So everyone is non-binary and the equivalent of pansexual, but romantic relationships aren’t the be-all end-all of important relationships between people.
KH: I’m not saying that gender doesn’t matter, of course, but I found the posthuman aspects of the novel to be much more compelling. I mean, can we just talk about how cool the Justice of Toren is as a narrator? Because she is so cool. Although I’m not going to volunteer to become an ancillary anytime soon, this novel sold me on the idea of having multiple bodies and multiple points of consciousness divided over space and time. I can imagine that, with such an identity, trying to linguistically differentiate between the different genders of multiple physical manifestations would get real old real fast. I almost wonder if the author’s decision concerning Breq / the Justice of Toren’s pronoun usage was almost secondary (ancillary?) to the concept of being a diffuse consciousness.
This is a bit of a tangent, but I remember being really upset as kid when I watched the scene in the first season of the Sailor Moon anime when Usagi realizes that she’s Princess Serenity and starts to regain her memories. The anxiety I experienced stemmed from the worry that, if you become two people, then you would effectively lose your individual identity. The same anxiety is expressed in many sci-fi “hive mind” scenarios. One of the most frightening of these scenarios are the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who are represented, as many hive minds are, by a seemingly female-gendered entity. Not only do I appreciate how Ann Leckie has steered her artificial intelligence away from the conservative fears concerning connected minds, but she’s also made the “femaleness” often associated with “hive matriarchs” a more neutral and even kind of awesome aspect of the situation. And this is what I really love about Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie is of course demonstrating the dangers of a more technologically advanced world, but she’s also showing us its fantastic possibilities.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I, for one, welcome our posthuman future.
Post-Human Colonialism and Racism
LM: One other huge element of importance to me was the biting commentary on colonialism, cultural imperialism, and racism. The Radchaai empire has expanded beyond the Radch, annexing planets far beyond their original one. Leckie noted in the book notes that she was inspired in part by the Roman Empire.
What I like about her commentary on colonialism is that Leckie exposes the truth of racism as hatred and bigotry by removing the key element so ingrained in historical and contemporary racism that people can’t overlook in real life: our cultural baggage about skin color. Races and ethnic groups wear different clothes, speak different languages, have different traditions, and those are the target of bigotry in the Radch. Also, only the Nilters, who have been annexed but aren’t the target of the bigotry on Shis’urna and in Ors, have light skin; all the other races and characters are described as having dark skin.
There’s a particular scene in chapter 4 in which Jen Shinnan, a character from the upper-class ethnic group in power on annexed Shis’urna, hosts a dinner party for some of the Radchaai officers. Jen Shinnan goes on a rant about how the ethnic minority group has weird customs (group housing) and are unsophisticated as such–they aren’t really people!–and how the majority group is a target because the minority hates them for working hard and having nice things. Every time Jen Shinnan makes a false, racist statement, like her ignorance of customs about entering an Orsian home, Breq tells us why and how she’s wrong, and Radchaai Lieutenant Awn, with whom the reader is supposed to sympathize, can barely contain her anger at Jen Shinnan.
This section is too long to quote, but this part really strips away the cultural baggage that can make racism in contemporary culture harder for racial majority (or in power) to see clearly.
This book deserved every award it won.
Coming Soon: Bonus materials for Ancillary Justice! Late-night texts, fan art, fan mixes, and more!
Our next book(s) will be The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce. Stay turned for the announcement!