Inaugurated in 1987 when it was won by Margaret Atwood with The Handmaid’s Tale and honouring the best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom within the previous year, the Arthur C Clarke award has always pushed the boundaries of what can be defined within that genre. Ms Atwood herself has always denied that label, preferring to regard her work as “speculative fiction” with no leaps of imagination greater than pushing the boundaries of existing science. Expanding the genre while maintaining an eye on humanity, always keeping in mind the people for whom the worlds shift, though Peter F Hamilton, Iain M Banks and Alastair Reynolds have all had their space operas nominated, not for the Clarke Award are leaps into the cold interstellar black upon vast ships powered by strange energies, so when debut novelist Ann Leckie was announced as the 2014 winner with Ancillary Justice, it was all the more surprising.
Set in the aftermath of a change of policy by a previously aggressive expansionist regime, the setup superficially reminds of a more militaristic version of Iain M Banks’s Culture, but it would be unwise to make any assumptions which could leave the reader on ground which may be infirm, which is a game Leckie likes very much to play, though her prose recalls the memory of another celebrated writer whose genre spanning work included science fiction, the dispassionate, resigned “This is what had happened,” echoing Billy Pilgrim’s “And so it goes” in Kurt Vonnegut‘s classic Slaughterhouse-Five, unable to emotionally connect because the resulting wash of grief and assumed guilt would be overwhelming, too much to bear.
As the consciousness of the lost starship Justice of Toren, Breq had many eyes, could be in many places at once, but nineteen years ago on the planet Shis’urna even that near omniscience was insufficient; now reduced to one body she has travelled to frozen Nilt in her quest to seek redress for what was done to her, but on her mission she finds an injured body in the snow, a lieutenant she once knew in her former life, Seivarden Vendaai.
Every icy step forward is matched by recollections of Shis’urna and what followed, where under Radch stewardship locals were appointed to give legitimacy to the annexation, but even among equals there is a hierarchy to be observed. Despite oaths and promises, there is class and caste and familial expectation played out over generations, vast blocks of people over thousands of years, many of them pawns to those better connected.
Obeying rules wasn’t enough: they should have been interpreted to the advantage of the correct houses, and when Justice of Toren’s Lieutenant Awn arranged for a province to be governed by those who would make the most stable arrangement to promote harmonious progress she found herself manipulated into an untenable position, her oversight summarily terminated in favour of a replacement of more suitable inheritance, a substitution with catastrophic consequences for Justice of Toren.
Believing it to be a mistake from the outset, Breq elects to save Seivarden and continues on her interrupted journey to obtain a near mythical weapon which can pass unseen through scans and penetrate armour with which she can enjoy at most a pyrrhic victory by assassinating Anaander Miannai, absolute ruler of the Radch, or one of her at least, as unlike Breq she still maintains many iterations through her vast empire.
While the approach to genre is deceptively standard, even pulpy – the technologies of advanced medicine and starship gates are not examined, they simply are, the Garseddai gun which can change the balance of power an unquestioned gift from the author as much as anything – it is in her carefully chosen and equally consciously omitted words where Leckie has her own concealed weapon.
Through annexation, occupation, the process of subjugating the natives, culling those who are likely to be troublesome, as always in war, it is the women who are the living victims, and with no gender pronouns in the Radchaai language, all the characters in the book are female unless otherwise specified. Men and women express emotion differently, but with no clue of gender expectations given in the descriptions everything exhibited is imagined by the reader in the default female mode until proven otherwise, an unset quantum state shifting with each phrase.
Yet even beyond that, all is far from it seems; Breq has concealed her true identity from the self-destructive Seivarden whose increasing loyalty could be undermined by the revelation, and even Breq herself is not immune to the absolute authority of Anaander Miannai who may already have tampered with her memories and inserted commands within her programming, leading her to question whose mission she is really undertaking. With the second novel in the trilogy, Ancillary Sword, scheduled for publication this October, it is apparent that while Breq’s quest for justice has only just started, she has the comfort that her chronicler is an exciting new voice in science fiction literature.