The joy of genderless space opera: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword

LeckieSome time ago I reviewed Ann Leckie’s debut and multiple-prize-winning sf novel Ancillary Justice. I loved it, and was highly impressed by what I still think is an immense technical achievement: writing fiction in which gender is simply of no importance at all. Leckie has invented a culture in whose language all pronouns are female (no he, no him), and whose honorifics are either male or neutral (Sir, Citizen). This messes with the reader’s mind, beautifully, since it shuts off our conditioning about male and female, and frees up that cultural space to consider relationships without gender, and power balances without sex-based claims.

In the sequel to Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, the strangeness of this concept has not worn off. This is deep space opera, from the school of writing that Elizabeth Moon made successful, in which soldiers are space crew (women and men both, indistinguishable in every thing that matters), concerned about ship systems and keeping control of the databursts while they wrestle with the FTL drive (I paraphrase, obviously, but I love this sf technobabble). Breq, the protagonist of Ancillary Justice, is no longer on her own on a private mission in Ancillary Sword, but commanding a ship, the Mercy of Kalr, with three officers, a doctor and thirty crew. They emerge from space at their destination, a station orbiting the rich and verdant tea-growing planet Athoek, and are immediately challenged by the nervous Sword-class ship on guard, which thinks they are raiders. Breq is, of course, a raider, in the sense that she is there to secure the station, planet and their inhabitants against invasion and infiltration by the Lord of the Radch, the multi-bodied and now dangerously split-personalitied tyrant of the vast Radchaai empire, in whose service Breq was once an ancillary segment of the ship Justice of Toren. Keeping up there at the back?

Breq’s implants connect her mind-to-mind to her Ship, and through Ship to all her crew. This is another clever technical innovation by Leckie (though versions of this occur in all space opera plots where the captain needs to consult the ship urgently). The twist for this novel is that the implant communications make it possible for Breq to be not just the first-person narrator of the story, telling us what she sees, hears and does, but also to narrate what her crew are doing too, when the plot needs that extra level of action replay. It’s beautifully handled, enabling action to be relayed from planet, ship and station locations through Breq’s experience of them rather than by awkward expositions or flashbacks.

How Breq uses this capacity tells us a lot about her character, as in her morals, ethics, professional comportment. She will not invade privacy: when she checks in on Lieutenants Seivarden and Ekalu and discovers them in a post-coital moment, she stays tuned in long enough to check that all is well through their conversation, hormone and adrenaline levels and heart-rates: then she leaves them. Monitoring individuals’ motivations and well-being by their bodily signs is as important as what they say and do. The characters’ attitudes to beauty and kindness are perceived by how they choose and use the ceremonial tea-drinking dishes. Kalr Five, Breq’s batman, fusses over the tea sets for the love of handling them as well as for appreciation of their beauty and their ritual use. Raughd Denche throws her mother’s three-thousand year old set on the floor when she is disinherited for being clumsy in how she manages her vendettas.

Ancillary Sword is expertly plotted. The story whips along niftily, unfolding new aspects of Radch system organisation and the alien cultures it has engulfed over the centuries. Questions of citizenship, power, status and governance are central: this is not a space opera focused on shoot-outs and clenched-teeth struggles suited-up in a vacuum. There is a vacuum moment, of course, caused by Breq’s secret weapon that can put a bullet through anything as long as it’s only 1.11 metres thick. This happens during the single struggle in the lakeside gardens under the dome during which Breq’s shoulder is dislocated so it’s no wonder her teeth are clenched. We are told a few more tantalising details about the Presger, the very strange non-human race who made the gun, when we encounter their translator-ambassador, who is accidentally killed by the Sword of Atagaris’ security detail, which puts Breq and the Sword’s captain into ritual mourning for a whole fortnight, down on the planet, during which time she has time to think more about what else is coming though the Ghost Gate, where that three-thousand year old antique tea-set came from, and whom she can trust to not blow up the bathhouse.

It’s all tremendous stuff, a thoroughly enjoyable read in a fascinating emerging world. Leckie’s storytelling capacities are innate, betraying none of the clumsy formulaic structures that creative writing school graduates often can’t shake off. I’m looking forward to the third and concluding part of her saga, Ancillary Mercy, with great anticipation.