Ancillary Justice – by Ann Leckie

Cover of Orbit edition

Style – Written in first person from the point of view of the main character, Ancillary Justice is perhaps most famous for its pervasive use of feminine pronouns, indiscriminately applied to all characters regardless of their physical features and personal identities. The protagonist is, in fact, a sentient AI created by a culture that assigns no importance to sex differences, and whose native language is entirely gender neutral; as such, Breq finds the entire concept and semantics of gender hard to grasp, and despite the occasional effort to adjust to local customs, she tends to address everyone in the same way.

While in universe Breq might as well have flipped a coin to pick her favourite set of pronouns, it’s impossible to ignore some form of authorial intent behind such a choice: in our culture, in fact, masculinity is generally perceived as the default state, and femininity as the (quirky, quaint, diminutive) exception that needs to be pointed out. If Breq had casually misgendered everyone as male, the discrepancy could have easily slipped out of most readers’ minds – after all, there’s no lack of classic fiction with an entirely male cast. By calling everyone “she” and “her”, on the other hand, the author draws attention to the unusual role of gender in her worldbuilding, in a way that only the most absent-minded reader could unsee.

Breq, even in universe, is communicating in a language that’s not her native one, and the book is dotted with hints to what is lost and gained in translation: gendered terms and expressions are the most obvious case, but other references are equally important to the worldbuilding, as well as to exemplify how language both shapes and is shaped by our cultural assumptions: for instance, in Radchaai the same word is used to mean both “citizen” and “civilised”, preemptively erasing the very concept of any valuable culture developed outside of the Imperial boundaries – and while the author doesn’t necessary dips into full linguistic relativity, one can’t help but wonder how much all this implies for the Radchaai’s perception of self and others.

While language and its subtleties play a significant role in Leckie’s worldbuilding, her writing style doesn’t come across as overly complex or obscure – quite the opposite, its thoughtful simplicity is what allows us to navigate with little guidance the fairly alien world we’re thrown into. Leckie doesn’t over-explain her setting, instead she gives us just enough information to get our bearings, allowing us to discover her world smoothly and organically; she only sparsely indulges in descriptions, but when she does so, she focuses on details that are essential to quickly establish both rules and ambience of her universe.


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