Sword, Double-Edged, Metaphorical Steel

I finished reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword weeks ago and have been turning it over in my mind ever since trying to decide on the best way to talk about it.  As sequel to her surprisingly popular Ancillary Justice, it is exceptional and unexpected.  Yes, it carries forward the story of Breq, the lone surviving aspect of what was once a vast AI, a ship possessing a cadre of ancillaries which formed the extensible components of its intelligence.  Yes, it continues on with an examination of the universe she established and the civil war that is in the process of breaking out.  Yes, we find a continuation of many of the narrative devices and their concomitant concerns.

No, it does not actually go where one might expect such a sequel to go.

This begs the question of expectations, however, which also has to do with whether or not art is obligated to meet specific expectations.  Surprise, after all, is supposed to be one of the chief pleasures of art.  The surprise of the new, of discovery, of revelation.

That Leckie’s sequel does not bend to the predictable is a good thing.  That it then takes us to another level of questioning not only the premise of the work but of our own civilization is a bonus.  That it does this so well is triumph.

Which brings me to my entreé into this review, because going where one might not expect is part of the overall pleasure of this series, which has at least one more novel to come, but clearly offers possibilities for satellite works if not direct continuations.

One of Leckie’s tactics has been to replace the male pronoun with the female throughout.  A simple change, designating all people as “she” and “her” rather than “he” and “his” without venturing upon the complications of actual gender transformations.  A simple change…but with apparently complex consequences for readers.

You wouldn’t think, among self-identified science fictions readers, such a modification would have significant effects.  We should all be used to shifts in perspective.  Writing about the alien, after all, is what a good deal of SF is all about.  We have even grown accustomed to the idea of the familiar being alien, so much so that tales of possession, of cyborgs, of cloning, of genetic modification, even of next-stage evolution are part and parcel of the idiom with which we’ve been dealing for decades.  Yet somehow, it seems, the idea of a human possessed by an alien or an alien masquerading as a human is far more decodeable for some than of the human in all its familiarity being alien.

We write from the basis of the culture with which we are most familiar.  More importantly, we read on the basis of that culture.  For or against or across, our culture, whether we like it or not, supplies the language, the metaphors, the analogies, the foundations of how we perceive all that we encounter.  Science fiction has been one of the most consistent forms of turning that foundation upside down and inside out in the pursuit of its primary effects—cognitive dissonance among them.

So it’s fascinating when a work does something that upsets even the well-traveled carts of the experienced SF reader and leaves confusion in its wake.

Confusion is an effect as well.  Often inadvertent and unintended, it’s a breakdown in the connection between Our World and the world of the text.  James Joyce is probably the one who used this (and both benefited and suffered from it by turns) to greatest effect, and although Ulysses is not science fiction per se, it nevertheless shares many æsthetic conceits with SF.

But Joyce dug deep and deployed many a device to skin the world and show us what lies beneath the comforting patina of “civilization” and his constructs are complex and sometimes labyrinthine.  In contrast, and by virtue of this language called SF, Leckie made a simple surface change and skinned us.

Upon first encountering the device in Ancillary Justice I was at first confused.  But once I realized that confusion came from my subconscious desire to easily and readily “visualize” each and every character without having to bother with “character,” I was delighted.  The device brought me face to face with my own biases and showed me just how dependent I was on a simple biological binary.

But not quite so simple.  As I read on I realized that this reliance on male-female identification markers allowed a certain laziness to creep in to my experience of the world, not because male and female are in any way divisive so much as that they substitute for a suite of often unexamined expectations that come under the headings “normal” and “special.”  Leckie’s substitution of one standard pronoun for another erased those too-easy sets of assumptions and forced one to read everyone as “normal” unless otherwise designated by characterization.

Once I recognized what was happening in my own reception of the proffered device, I was delighted, and subsequently read more carefully, amused at each instance where my default assumptions were overturned and I was forced time and again to deal with each character as unique.  I accepted the text from that point on as a challenge to the norm and have since found occasion to be dismayed and delighted by other reactions which, in their turn, baffle.

Apparently, for some, the initial confusion never abates.  That persistent “she” throughout causes annoyance without ever becoming a normative aspect of the culture depicted.  The reader finds it difficult to either shed the bias being challenged or accept that this is simply a mirror image of a culture norm we already live with with the addition of a special category.  Leckie includes that special category, of course, as an aspect of outside cultures that still retain separate male-female designations, and her main characters must check themselves in such encounters so they do not cause offense by getting the designation wrong.  The very confusion and annoyance complained of by some readers is right there, part of the background of the story.

Because, whether we choose to admit it or not, in our culture, “she” and “her” are special category labels having little to do with the purposes of biology and everything to do with the sociology of biology.  The male pronoun is normative, the default.  One need never remark on someone’s maleness in conversation to comment on a distinction which may or may not be important.  But the introduction of the female pronoun prompts a repositioning of mental stance, a reassessment, however unconscious, that “allows for” a difference our culture says is important regardless of context.

On its simplest level, we expect a binary representation of what is human—the norm and the other. Encountering Leckie’s work, the other is obscured almost to the point of nonexistence, and our expectation that one half of the population should be designated in some way special by virtue of biology is frustrated.  We’re forced to see each and every character as a person, period.

It can, indeed, be a bit annoying, especially when other markers are absent or obscured.  One finds oneself making assumptions about which is male and which female which one suspects are all wrong.  This becomes even more interesting with the inclusion of ancillaries, which are mere biological extensions of an artificial intelligence, sex characteristics rendered irrelevant by this fact.  In Ancillary Sword we find a fully human crew aspiring to behave like ancillaries as a sign of distinction, which sort of adds a third gender into an already obscured mix.

Naturally, sleeping arrangements become problematic.

All of which plays elegantly into the matter at hand in this second novel, which proves to be not only theoretically fascinating but serendipitously topical.  Ancillary Sword is a social justice story.

In the aftermath of the events in the first novel, Breq is made a fleet captain by the Lord of the Radch and charged with securing one of the systems still connected through a functioning gate.  The nature of the civil war beginning to unfold is in itself a twisted bit of political legerdemain—the Lord of the Radch, thousands of years old, is herself a distributed intelligence who has become divided over a policy question involving an alien race.  She is now at war with herself, each side feeling she is the legitimate repository of right action.  The entirety of the Radch (which in many ways reminds one of Austria-Hungary at its peak) is caught between the factions of what once was the embodiment of its identity.  Breq allies herself—itself, since Breq still feels not human, but a surviving ancillary-cum-ship—with the faction that seems to represent a measure of sanity in terms of the realpolitick at hand.  It’s a conditional alliance, to be sure, because Breq has little regard anymore for the Lord of the Radch in any context.

Arriving at the system, Breq finds a world with many problems buried beneath a surface that shimmers with the sophistication and wealth of all that the Radch is supposed to be.  The system itself was annexed in relatively recent history and there are communities of other cultures that were imported as workers.  What soon becomes clear is this is a plantation system and the overlords have become so entrenched in their privilege they do not seem to be remotely aware of the oppression they oversee.

Leckie adroitly sets privilege in opposition not only to right but also as a dangerous distraction in a potential war with an alien race.  Revealing the deeply-imbedded dysfunction is necessary to preparing the system for larger problems ahead, but it is also something Breq, who has seen firsthand what petty power plays over position and privilege can cost, simply will not tolerate.  Overturning an entire system of behavior, though, cannot be done by simple fiat and the subversion Breq employs to undo it is as trenchantly relevant to present politics as it is satisfying drama.

What proves equally satisfying is at the end discovering that the simple device deployed with a pronoun proves as necessary to the revelation—for the reader—of the nature of oppression because it establishes a norm of equity difficult to imagine shorn of the biases we bring to the story.  Because that pronoun challenges us and taunts us to continually pay attention to how we’re reacting and what justifications we use to ignore what may be similar problems within our own society.  It’s a lesson in labels and how potent they can be, especially when unexamined and unchallenged.  Leckie is using the female pronoun to establish a norm we honestly do not embrace and against that norm shows us the asymmetry with which we live quite willingly, powerless to change not because of the force of social pressure but because we often just can’t see a reason to.

Now, that’s what science fiction does at its finest.