I, like many others, took notice of Ancillary Justice when it was nominated for literally all of the things last year. Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C Clarke… if it was a notable sci-fi literary award, Ancillary Justice was got the nomination. And then proceeded to win all of the awards. Ancillary Justice was the Taylor Swift of sci-fi books last year, it won pretty much everything.
But upon actually looking into the plot of Ancillary Justice, many of my bells started ringing. We have a book about a former spaceship AI who used to control hundreds of ships and cyborg like entities but due to political machinations and possible betrayals, that AI is now restricted to one cyborg body. And due to her being an AI, she has no concept of gender and refers to every person she meets as “she” regardless of visual descriptors or pronouns other characters use.
There has been lots of talk about how this book is confusing, and it’s easy to see why. We’re used to reading characters with a similar perspective to that of ourselves, beings that have one body, and understand the distinctions between gender. On top of that, the race of aliens our AI hero Breq originates from have very unhumanlike views on morality and what constitutes one’s sense of self vs. the community. Ancillary Justice is most definitely a book you’ll need your thinking cap on to fully understand.
However, what was the biggest hiccup in my reading experience was not Breq addressing everyone as ‘she’ despite having beards or saying that she did one thing while her other body did something else. Instead, what kept confusing me was the world building aspects to the book and trying to keep all the different alien races straight.
Within the first 50 pages we have: the concept of Ancillaries, a planet or city called The Nilt and it’s inhabitants called “Nilters,” Radchaai, a planet called Shis’urna, the concept of annexation by the Radchaai empire, a city called Ors, the concept of Esks which are the cyborg equivalent of Ancillaries, the fact that Breq when she was a ship was called Justice of Toren, either another alien race or a subsect of the Radchaai that are called Gareseddai, the Radchaai religion and how it believes fate decides us all, and a God called an Amaat.
You can see how, even for a frequent reader of sci-fi/fantasy novels with deep world building, this level of lore thrown out of the gate can be confusing to a reader. There’s no glossary, no cheat sheet to reference if while reading the book you, for example, get confused about what the Rrrrrr is (answer: another alien species… I think). My brain was able to reconfigure itself and understand Breq’s extremely non human perspective, but I still felt that I was being pulled along, barely comprehending the Radchaai culture and how Justice of Toren was even created.
But for all of my confusion, I still ended up loving this book. Breq’s journey of revenge was very engaging once the pieces started falling into place, all the while we see the events leading up to Justice of Toren’s dissolution into only Breq. Radchaai culture, for as confusing as it is, is quite fascinating once you start to wrap your brain around it. There’s political intrigue and subterfuge and all the while you’re half wondering if the person you’re seeing interact with Breq and the world is actually female or if they’re being misgendered. But it doesn’t matter. None of the characters genders matter. Is Lieutenant Awn really a woman? Is she a man? Her gender plays no role in how she’s viewed within Radchaai culture, does nothing to determine her worth or how capable a soldier she is. We learn through visual cues that Seivarden is male, but that distinction does not change our opinion of him and his actions, does not make him inherently better or worse than female officers Breq served with.
Ancillary Justice is well worth the praise and awards it received, in my opinion. If you’re not particularly familiar with the sci-fi genre, this might not be the book to start off with, as all the aliens and worlds and cultural customs was confusing for a sci-fi veteran such as myself. It won’t be a fast and easy read, but Ancillary Justice is worth the amount of brain power expended keeping track of everything and understanding Breq’s unique perspective.