Enter into Neth Space and you will find thoughts and reviews of books and other media that fit the general definition of speculative fiction. This includes the various genres and sub-genres of fantasy, science fiction, epic fantasy, high fantasy, hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, new weird, magical realism, cyberpunk, urban fantasy, slipstream, horror, alternative history, SF noir, etc. Thoughts are my own, I'm certainly not a professional, just an avid reader avoiding his day job.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is a book
that people who follow this blog have probably heard about by now, a lot. Many
of you have likely read it, and those that haven’t should certainly consider
reading it, if for no other reason than it seems to be at the top of many
people’s award nomination list (it’s already on several shortlists) and I’ve
seen people calling it something along the lines of the most important science
fiction book in the last decade.
the big ‘BUT’.
All of this
buzz, and I’ll even elevate the buzz to hype, essentially results from one
aspect of the book – how it uses pronouns. The primary society of this book
treats gender in a way fundamentally different than any of the dominant societies
of our world. Gender is simply not a distinguishing characteristic of people
and the default pronoun is ‘she’. This results in some interesting observations
and confusions in other cultures and a default view of all the characters in
the books as female rather than male. This rather simple shift can have a
pretty significant impact on expectations.
Now, I want
no confusion on this point. The above aspects of the book are great. SFF needs
more interesting treatments of gender, race, etc. and this is a book that has
people talking. These are important issues that SFF as a genre is particularly suited
to addressing since it can make up pretty well whatever it wants as default
conditions. To put it lightly, it’s unfortunate how often the default conditions
mirror our own society with little to no reflection on why.
Ancillary Justice as a novel is boring. The plot seems…absent. Sure there is a plot
and it involves some potentially interesting exploration of artificial
intelligence as well as discussions on where a society as a whole should go.
BUT, while I won’t call the plot secondary, it’s entirely uninteresting. The
characters are less interesting than an inflexible wooden board. I didn’t know
or didn’t care what the character motivations were. I didn’t care how the book
would end. I DIDN’T CARE.
If a book
can’t make me care about the plot or its characters, then it’s almost certainly
a complete waste of my time. And that would be the case – any other book like
this and I wouldn’t have finished it. I doubt I’d make it 50 pages in.
the hype, the buzz, the talk about how this book is such a wonderful
exploration of gender. Only the whole gender thing – it’s really nothing. It’s
simply a part of how things are in Leckie’s world society. Which is great,
which is how things should be. BUT it didn’t add anything to the story. Nothing
of interest (at least to me) was explored in any depth. Not gender. Not the
interesting religious implications of an AI-lead, galactic-spanning theocratic
empire. Not the politics of an empire ripping apart at its seams. Not the
impact of a xenophobic society expanding through a galaxy. NOTHING.
After a fair
bit of thought, I think it really comes down to my expectations for Ancillary Justice after seeing so many
people I often agree with praise this book so highly. I was expecting something
new, something exciting. Ancillary
Justice is none of those things. Ursula le Guin was exploring gender in
much more important, more shocking, and more meaningful ways 50 YEARS AGO.
takeaway is simply this. Seeing this book get so many accolades, so much
attention, only emphasizes just how stagnant SFF is as a genre. With relatively
few exceptions, the genre that’s best suited to explore what’s possible, what
should and should not be, what our own expectations say about us and everything
in between doesn’t do any of that in regard to many fundamental aspects of our
And I can’t
decide if that depresses me or pisses me off.