Rewriting Gendered Society: A Review of Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice”

The most notable aspect of Ann Leckie’s multiple-award-winning science fiction novel Ancillary Justice? Its pronouns, specifically the narrator’s default usage of “she.”

At least, that’s what you might come to believe based on reviews of the book, and the controversy its feminine pronouns have caused in the world of science fiction. Which is a shame, really, given how many other culturally-constructed norms are tackled and questioned by the book, along with its sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. Personally, I believe the biggest social issue the trilogy takes on is more blatantly political and uncomfortable to face for those of us living in the Western world: the issue of imperialism, and the continued human cost of empire-building even after its “worst elements” are discontinued. Another important political issue Leckie brings into play is systemic inequality, along the intersecting planes of race and class.

Gender is also political though, and Leckie’s manipulation of gender norms is by no means insignificant. In a world where 1 in 3 women experience gender-based violence, trans and genderqueer people face higher levels and unique patterns of discrimination and violence, and a man who unequivocally and indisputably does not respect the bodily autonomy and full rights-deserving personhood of women can become the leader of the free world, gender is an “issue” not leaving political discourse anytime soon, nor should it.

All the characters of Ancillary Justice are female, or at least that’s how it seems to the reader; Breq, our first-person narrator, refers to everyone using “she/her” pronouns, because her own culture and language make no distinctions based on gender. However, she’s had to pick “she” as the default to tell us, the readers, her story. It’s a creative move that means women get an overwhelming amount of representation in the text—it’s hard not to read “she” all the time and think of all the characters as women—while also implying that gender, as a system of categorization or characterization, is actually irrelevant. Leckie’s characters do not adhere to or work against assumed cultural norms about gender roles or gender expression: they just are.

This allows Leckie to put pressure on our rapidly fracturing idea of what gender is and should be in a more than superficial manner. Ancillary Justice is a case study for how speculative fiction, and literature as a whole, can frame social issues or debates in a way that is nuanced, aesthetically resonant, and—while not proscriptive—ultimately invaluable for the gradual reevaluation of cultural norms.

 

GENDER, CHARACTER, WORLD-BUILDING

In the precarious authorial balancing act between subtlety (not too obvious!) and clarity (not too vague!), Leckie tends to err on the side of clarity, making sure you understand the points she is trying to make in a way that sometimes comes across as heavy-handed. A prime example of this is a passage that, out of context, seems simply to summarize Leckie’s view of what an all-gender-expression-inclusive utopian society should look like:

I saw them all, suddenly, for just a moment, through non-Radchaai eyes, an eddying crowd of unnervingly ambiguously gendered people. I saw all the features that would mark gender for non-Radchaai–never, to my annoyance and inconvenience, the same way in each place. Short hair or long, worn unbound (trailing down a back, or in a thick, curled nimbus) or bound (braided, pinned, tied). Thick-bodied or thin-, faces delicate-featured or coarse-, with cosmetics or none. A profusion of colors that would have been gender-marked in other places. All of this matched randomly with bodies curving at breast and hip or not, bodies that one moment moved in ways various non-Radchaai would call feminine, the next moment masculine. Twenty years of habit overtook me, and for an instant I despaired of choosing the right pronouns, the right terms of address. But I didn’t need to do that here. I could drop that worry, a small but annoying weight I had carried all this time. I was home.

In fact, though, this moment of revelation is a part of the character- and world-building projects Leckie has been developing throughout the novel. Breq has just returned to her home civilization after years of exile and hiding. She knows how to take care of herself in unfamiliar places, and is both intelligent and well-informed, and yet she has trouble getting by when she has to pick up on gender significations in the various societies she travels through. It just doesn’t come naturally to her as someone from a society that doesn’t signify gender at all—which immediately lets the people around her know she is Radchaai, even though she’s put a lot of effort into pretending to be from somewhere else.

Though Radchaai society’s lack of gender signification might be laudable, or enviable, the Radch Empire is definitely not a utopia. It’s led by a self-replicating dictator who’s ruled for thousands of years, it’s an imperialist war machine that has forcibly enfolded much of populated space into its empire, and it exploits and perpetuates any social or ethnic divisions already present in the civilizations it conquers in order to aid that ongoing imperialist war machine. There’s no gender-based discrimination or oppression, yes. But everything good comes at the expense of often-brutal interplanetary, expansionist conflict.

Moreover, Breq, though she returns “home,” is not welcome in Radchaai space; she is a traitor to the empire. She doesn’t belong anywhere, really, because though she passes for human, she’s really the rogue AI core of a destroyed Radchaai warship, stuck in a human body. Not surprisingly, gender identity doesn’t happen to be one of her major concerns, and it’s certainly not the basis upon which the reader or anyone else is judging her humanity. All those people with confusing gender significations? They’re human beings, and Breq is something else entirely—or at least that’s what most Radchaai would think.

Given all that, Breq’s observations about gender in her home society, at this point of the novel, tell us more about her as a character (her human-like desire for belonging, the relief that complicates her return to a society she ostensibly hates) than it does about Leckie’s views on gender expression (though that’s present too). She’s not just being pedantic, or provocative: this passage has a narrative place in the story.

 

GENDER AS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT

There’s also a more subtle layer to all Leckie’s “gender stuff”—the assumption that underlies Breq’s difficulty with gender distinctions as she moves from culture to culture. The fact that pronouns and proper terms of address and clothing styles all change based on different societies’ systems for gender distinction means that gender is, observably, a social construct–nowhere near inherent, or expressed the same way across the board. (Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, it’s a linguistic construct. Breq uses “she” to describe everyone because she’s speaking in our language; in the Radchaai language there are no gender distinctions, because they’re not necessary.)

There are observable examples of gender-as-a-social-construct in our own world, of course. You don’t need to turn to science fiction to find systems outside the gender binary, you just have to look outside the mainstream Western conception of gender.

Gender looks different in different cultures because each culture defines and reinforces its own ideas about gender. As Hazel Markus and Alana Conner note in their research on gender difference—how men and women act differently in the world—those differences don’t exist because men and women are inherently different, but rather because they are socialized from birth to act differently, to perceive the world differently (and, overwhelmingly, to adhere to the “male” or “female” category, and nothing in between or outside). Theirs is at the same time an argument about how large-scale social forces shape individuals, and about how individuals in turn shape their societies, more or less consciously.

By embedding the concept of gender-as-a-social-construct into her narrative, Leckie does important work to normalize that concept. Ancillary Justice isn’t “about” gender, relatively speaking, as the book and the series as a whole focus mostly on other complex themes. But there’s no reason for a far-future science fiction novel to replicate all our modern-day social norms, and acceptable gender expression is a great place to start mixing things up. (It’s all part of constructing a “plausible future free of any incongruous modern trappings.”) National Geographic’s latest issue is on the “Gender Revolution”: an exploration of how “humanity’s understandings of gender—both scientific and social—are shifting.” While we can’t claim we’re close to a “post-gender” society, it’s not inconceivable that humankind will one day look like the Radch Empire, at least as far as gender is concerned.

Normalization is a great way for literature to push for social change. Without explicitly calling for social change (though that has value, too), novels can more passively enact different modes of being, different ways the world could or should be (or maybe already is, if you look in the right places). A lot of evaluative work is still left up to the reader—reading Ancillary Justice on its own won’t convince anyone who thinks otherwise that gender is a social construct, and “should” is not as simple to identify in a novel as in, say, an op-ed or a manifesto.

But science fiction in particular aims to open up the reader’s mind to a whole host of imaginative possibilities; why ignore all the non-mainstream possibilities already actually present in the world? Visibility is important; showing that there can be a lot of different societal systems opens the door for thinking about why the “normal” is so normal. People don’t have to, and in some cases shouldn’t, perpetuate what they’ve directly experienced; as shapers of culture, we can be critical of the normal we’ve been told to accept, and fiction helps us to imagine what things could be like otherwise.

 

OKAY, BUT WHY “SHE”?

Leckie’s “she”-as-default is a way of expressing gender neutrality; Breq refers to everyone as “she,” even those who wouldn’t be considered female in a culture or language that recognized gender difference. Why, then, use a gendered pronoun?

One argument for using “she” instead of “they” or another gender-neutral pronoun is that it would be too confusing. “They” has traditionally been a plural pronoun, and if it were used as a singular pronoun so frequently, no one would have any idea what was going on. Similarly, other pronoun sets like “zie/hir” and “ey/em/eir” aren’t well known enough for a mainstream audience to handle.

That argument just isn’t convincing. This book’s genre is “space opera”–it is literally happening in space. Part of the novel’s far-future setup includes a protagonist who is an AI, and a warship, and used to having control over hundreds of human bodies that consider themselves part of the same “person.” The reader is hit with new vocabulary left and right; even with Leckie’s very clear and direct writing style, it can take a while to get a handle on it all. But importantly, we readers are smart—we can, and do, get our bearings, and come to understand what’s going on. We could have gotten through “they” or “zie” or anything else unfamiliar. (And those are both actually in use today, unlike the fictive AI-warship-with-ancillary-bodies concept we somehow manage to wrap our heads around.)

A more convincing argument for using “she” is the fact that we still have quite a long way to go for women to be well-represented in science fiction. This goes for literature more generally, but science fiction, as a genre, has a particular brand of sexist history that bleeds over into cultural opinions about women in STEM fields (and then, relatedly, the factual absence of women the farther up you go on the leadership ladder in STEM fields). As Elizabeth Garbee has found with her research, the pulp science fiction of the first half of the twentieth century—the roots of modern science fiction—did a really terrible job of representing women, and, relatedly, creating the cultural image of a scientist (shocker: he’s an old white male).

Ancillary Justice radically upends the still-extant trope of women not as smart as their male counterparts existing solely as love interests and damsels in distress, who cannot be the protagonists of the fiction narratives they inhabit. This novel is an example of the kind of thing we need to see in science fiction: fewer bikini-clad warriors posing to attract the male gaze, and a more diverse array of women kicking ass for themselves.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t call for more representation of non-binary or genderfluid characters, or that we shouldn’t push for more widespread use of gender-neutral pronouns–we should. Leckie says as much herself, telling Wired’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy,

“… it certainly wasn’t my intention to make anybody feel like they were being maliciously mis-gendered, and in some ways I share the frustration of folks about the third person neutral pronouns. I wish they were used more. … I think at the time I was working very strongly from an assumption … that in fact gender is a binary, and the implications of that do turn up in the text, and I know some people have pointed it out, and they’re right, it’s there, and had I been writing it now I probably would have handled those moments a little bit differently, but I think I would still have gone with ‘she,’ because I think it has a much stronger, more visceral effect.”

While I’m not arguing that we should ignore any gender representation missteps just because Ancillary Justice is supposed to be radical and revolutionary, I think Leckie has a point. And I think there’s room in the genre, and in the literary world, to smash the cisheteropatriarchy on multiple fronts, with many kinds of gender role- and binary-breaking narratives, of which Ancillary Justice is just one. (Here are some roundups of books already out there.)

I still struggle to get the “default-male” out of my system as I read: I sometimes find myself assuming that first-person narrators are male without any indicators otherwise, or that indicated-by-profession tertiary characters, like doctors, lawyers, and soldiers, are male. It was great to read a novel set in “a universe populated by women.” That the assumed-female people of this universe occupy every kind of profession and display a wide spectrum of personality traits and emotional tendencies? Awesome. That this universe’s physical indicators of beauty only appear occasionally, since physical attractiveness is not what decides assumed-female characters’ worth? (And that those indicators include dark skin and “wideness”?) Awesome.

That on top of challenging cultural norms this space opera trilogy is exciting, engrossing, and thought-provoking? Awesome.

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