Last week, I shared the Non-Binary Book Club’s discussion of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. This is a followup post with my own thoughts now that I’ve finished the book. Fair warning, this “review” is pretty much all about me. This book was difficult and challenging and very much worth all the time and effort I put into it, two weeks of time and effort if anyone’s counting, and I’m trying to describe that for you! It’s FOR YOU!
Here’s the description again:
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.
It’s a mesmerizing book. One of the blurbs calls it “assured,” and I like that description. It’s relevant, but that doesn’t get in the way of it being a fantastic book… The worldbuilding is fascinating, a far-far-future humanity with a defined class system, a genderless society (in the dominant people group anyway), and starships with “ancillaries,” humans converted into extra bodies for the ship to use. Our main character, Breq/One Esk, is one of those bodies, separated from her ship and journeying back to the heart of the empire. This book is AWESOME, and the FEELS, the love and righteous indignation and horror at humanity. So, so good.
On that note, I would like to explain why I had such difficulty with this book: autism and gender.
I am somewhat autistic, to the best of my knowledge. I have enough trouble trying to function acceptably in my own culture, so it was hard to read about not only One Esk’s culture, but especially her trying/failing to function in conversation with other cultures. Trying to pass as someone who emotes and expresses they way they do, trying to identify their genders and their politenesses. I was as far as the “feeling like I can’t breathe” stage of anxiety before I figured out it was happening. After that I started taking more breaks and putting in more intellectual effort instead of just letting the book carry me along. I mention that in case you have similar issues and are considering this book.
Connected, but an issue on its own, is that the first third is just confusing. There’s a layered flashback structure that cut away every time I started to get involved, and I felt like Leckie was cutting off her own momentum. Also because of that, all the characters are essentially introduced at once. I had a lot of trouble distinguishing between them, and trying to make everything make sense was just incredibly frustrating. All these difficulties ease as the book goes on, the flashbacks stop, and you start remembering the characters’ personalities and roles, but I still would’ve made a different narrative choice there and introduced characters more slowly.
This book is often noted for its use of “she” as a generic pronoun for everyone, which I pretty much hated. It added to the confusion because One Esk used it for everyone, but others would use “he” for some characters and I couldn’t tell who was being talked about. Why not use a gender-neutral term? If One Esk’s first language doesn’t use gender, why use the gendered pronoun “she” for everyone, instead of “they” or a gender-neutral term from One Esk’s original language? It still irritates me, but I just mentally edited “she” into a gender-neutral term and got used to it by the end. I assume it was used specifically to raise gender questions, so, let’s do that.
I also found this book challenging (and ultimately rewarding) because it brought up a lot of gender issues that I’ve been wondering about for a while.
I can absolutely understand the appeal of a culture with no genders. At first the Raadchai just sounded dulled, less varied, but that went away after One Esk arrived in Raadchai space and we got to see them interact based on their positions and personalities rather than genders. Once it was modeled for me and not explained as an absence, it looked pretty good. In fact, the more I think about it, the better Raadchai non-gender looks. There’s no pressure, and everything is negotiated on a case-by-case basis. (Or in this particular culture, on a class basis. It’s no utopia, it’s just gender-free.)
I do wonder where this genderless ideal leaves those of us who do have a gender. Where does it leave cis or trans people, who feel that they are a certain gender and that it matters? Where does it leave straight and gay people, who are only attracted to one gender? Is it even possible to have genders without people being judged for those genders somehow? What if we had genders, but they were tied to kinds of expression, rather than biology? That might make it better, since we’d choose our own, but also might make it worse and more confining in the long run.
I am female. That matches the gender I was assigned. It matters because it affects how I’m treated in society, so it’s affected my socialization and my current situation. But what’s the point? Is there any intrinsic meaning to my gender? What happens if there’s not? It’s all well and good to say anyone can express however they want and there’s no gender valuation to it at all, but what’s the point of expressing anything in that case? (“Just do it however you want” does not help me at all when I’m trying to understand what’s happening. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve asked “How do you express ___” and been told “just do whatever you feel like doing.” That does not help me convey what I wish to convey. Communication is about making yourself understood.)
Of course, I do feel differently on different days. Sometimes I wanna wear a suit and tie, and it’s way too hot in Alabama to wear a suit but I do wear the tie if I want. Some days I want to wear a dress, and I do. I adore my long red hair and spend a lot of time on it, but I really feel I’d do the same if I were male just because I love my hair. I have more random impulses about that kind of thing than I originally thought a few weeks ago, but would I have an impulse to wear a tie if I didn’t specifically feel like channeling Neil Patrick Harris that day? He’s male, so who knows what he’d wear if he wasn’t. If I don’t care what “being female” is supposed to look like, psychologically or physically, then does it matter to me as more than a reflexive identification? It didn’t matter when I was a kid. I don’t have any idea what the heck my gender even is anymore after these two weeks… and I guess if, in the end, it doesn’t much matter to me, that’s an answer in itself.
Really, whatever change we have will be gradual, and I think we’ve got an okay start. It should be okay to express your gender however you want — and furthermore, it is okay to express your gender however you want. With that as a start, eventually we’ll get to a good place for everyone. I think probably when we get there, “expressing your gender” will just be “expressing your personality,” and that’s okay. It’s okay if we retain genders, as long as they’re equal. And it’s okay to have a gender now, while it matters, just like it’s okay to not have a gender at all.
All those questions are worth asking, and I appreciate this book for asking them and being awesome sci-fi at the same time. I warned you this whole review was about me, but if you’ve made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts about you, gender, or, y’know, the actual book!