by Alex King
Wouldn’t it be cool to have a society that really, genuinely doesn’t care about gender”
Science fiction and fantasy stories have long been a popular medium for social commentary. After all, what better way is there for an author to demonstrate the shortcomings of the world around her than to tell a story of where those shortcomings will lead us or, better yet, simply create a whole new world without them? In Ancillary Sword, the follow up to the award winning Ancillary Justice, Anne Leckie has offered a sweeping, space opera style story that posits the question: What if we no longer recognized gender?
“I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a society that really, genuinely doesn’t care about gender? That they have it, but it’s just genuinely irrelevant? That would be kind of neat!'” says Leckie in an interview with the Riverfront Times. “I had a lot of people say to me, who would have reason to know, ‘You will never be able to sell this because of the pronouns.'”
But Leckie did sell it. And it went on to receive all three of science fiction’s most prestigious awards: the Nebula, the Hugo , and the Arthur C. Clarke.
In Leckie’s universe, the dominant cultural force are the Radchaii, denizens of the galaxy spanning Radch empire. Their stories possess all of the familiar trappings of space opera, with an intrepid hero, who’s not quite what she seems to be, traversing the farthest reaches of space to seek her revenge against the empire’s 3,000 year old despot with her alien gun that shoots unstoppable bullets. The biggest twist, though, is Leckie’s use of pronouns. All of her characters are “she,” and some of her reviewers weren’t warm to the idea, including one reviewer’s assertion that using the a non-gender neutral pronoun, such as “she”, misses the point of removing gender from the equation.
“I’m glad Ancillary Justice is doing well and I’ll be reading the rest of the series,” she writes. “It’s unfortunate, however, that it undermines its non-binary future with a device it uses to demonstrate it: ‘she’ is ultimately very frustrating.”
Leckie understands that not everyone sees things from her perspective. Still, she stands by her choice to use gender the way she has.
“I’ve been surprised at the number of people who were really angry that I tried to convey gender neutrality by using a gendered pronoun,” she tells Wired Magazine. “Even if it was ‘she,’ which undercuts a masculine default, they feel as though it would have been much better if I had used an honest-to-goodness gender-neutral pronoun, and that would have conveyed it better…. I understand where that’s coming from, and it certainly wasn’t my intention to make anybody feel like they were being maliciously mis-gendered… but I think I would still have gone with ‘she,’ because I think it has a much stronger, more visceral effect.”
It’s effect can be disarming, especially for a male gendered reader. But for a reader who is otherwise outside the heteronormative bounds, it can also be delightful. So many stories revolve around traditional stereotypes and ignore a pantheon of possibilities available by including diversity in cultures, races, gender identities, and sexual orientations, that it’s refreshing to come across a good story that escapes stereotypical limitations. Leckie’s stories do just that.
Ancillary Sword is a strong follow up to Leckie’s first novel. It also showcased her range in story crafting. Where Ancillary Justice was sweeping in scope and scale, Ancillary Sword is far more intimate. It delves more deeply into the strange and wonderful universe of the Radch, giving readers a look at what day to day life is like so far into the future.
The ruling Radch empire has developed into a society that’s removed divisions based on gender, but retains, and encourages, class and status based distinctions, and all of the inherent troubles and misunderstandings that are the result. The highly “civilized” Radch view their Samirend and Valskaayan cousins as barbarians and savages. The Radch, in turn, are viewed as haughty and overly superior. It makes for interesting conversations and relationships, especially since the main character isn’t really even human at all.
Woven into this intricate tapestry of oppression and rebellion is a mystery built upon the cliff-hanger ending of the first book. Cut off from the rest of the empire, Breq, our story’s hero, must determine for herself who’s telling her the truth, who has hidden motives, and who is secretly supporting tyrant at war with herself. Leckie does a fine job, though, of building intrigue throughout the story. Everytime Breq gets and answer to a question, two more questions quickly appear. From the defiant war ship captain and elitist system governor, to the aristocratic plantation owner and the newly commission lieutenant, who may or may not be an imperial spy, the potential for deadly conflict grows with each turn of the page.
This book is clearly the middle of a trilogy. It builds strongly on the universe of the first book but, just as with poor Breq, the reader is left with more questions than answers at the end, paving the way for whatever resolution Leckie has in store in Ancillary Mercy. But it goes without saying that the follow up to one of the hottest, award winning books in sci-fi today will certainly have a lot of eyes on it.