Last year Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice won almost every major award in science fiction. It’s the story of Breq, a hive mind consisting of a sentient starship and its crew of networked soldiers. When an act of betrayal destroys the ship and all but one member of its crew, Breq sets out in her last remaining body to seek revenge. Breq’s story is told against the backdrop of the Radsch empire, a delightfully complex and colorful milieu. Leckie worked hard to create a plausible future free of any incongruous modern trappings, a common pitfall of far-future sci-fi.
“It’s more easily noticeable in older science fiction,” says Leckie in Episode 120 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “We’ve got this future society and the technology’s all very different, but people are smoking cigarettes and using slide rules, and the social relationships are exactly like they would have been in the 50s. You know, the wife is bringing in coffee.”
Wives bringing in coffee is the last thing you’d find in the Radsch empire, where citizens are so indifferent to gender that men and women act and dress alike and are often hard to distinguish, especially for an AI like Breq. The Radsch language also makes no distinction between men and women, a fact that’s reflected in the text by the decision to use the pronouns “she” and “her” for every character regardless of gender. The fact that readers will never really know the genders of most of the major characters has created an interesting challenge for fan artists, who have to rely on personal impressions when it comes to depicting the characters.
“It’s clear that each of these artists who’ve done this have a very definite vision in their mind of what the characters look like,” says Leckie. “And they’re all very different from each other, and they’re all very different from my internal vision of the characters, and yet at the same time they all work.”
This also makes the book a bit of a Rorschach test for readers, who sometimes form strong opinions about the gender of different characters and become convinced that their guesses have been confirmed by the text. Mostly they’re wrong.
“There was one review where someone was saying that … the characters are straight who are involved in sexual relationships,” says Leckie. “And I was like, ‘How do they know that?’”
Listen to our complete interview with Ann Leckie in Episode 120 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Ann Leckie on the pitfalls of portraying music in fiction:
“I think a lot of times our culture has an attitude toward art and the production of art that separates artists from the rest of us, like making art or music or painting or whatever is some magical thing that you have to be inspired to do, and special people do it. Sometimes when somebody will write a character who’s musical there’ll be touches of that, there’ll be an almost Mary Sue-ish ‘they play and sing beautifully and all the animals stop and listen.’ I’m exaggerating, but that kind of fetishization of music and musical talent and singing, I’m not comfortable with myself. … I feel very strongly that art—and music in particular—is something that really everybody has some kind of ability to do, and that when you separate that out as something only special people can do, who are specially talented, you cut off that avenue of artistic expression for tons of people who would be able to enjoy it otherwise, but who think of it as something they can’t do, and I feel kind of strongly about that.”
Ann Leckie on writing from the point of view of Breq:
“Like a lot of writers, I’m a serious introvert, and talking to strangers, going out into a place—the grocery store or whatever—and talking to somebody I don’t know is really very difficult. … In college I got a job as a waitress, and in a lot of ways it was not a fun job, but in a lot of ways it was really very beneficial, because I didn’t know how those interactions were supposed to go with people I didn’t know well. But working for several years as a waitress you learn really quickly a couple of default scripts, so you know exactly what the interaction is going to be when the person sits down at the table. And then after a few months I’m like, ‘Oh, I can switch it up a bit. I can say, ‘Hey, it’s pretty rainy outside,’ and get a particular response to that. … And that’s something I found really very useful. But what it means is that I’m not the kind of person that those interactions come to naturally, and so when I’m thinking about Breq, I’m thinking about my own experience of, ‘Here I am talking to a person, now I need to pick a script.’”
Ann Leckie on criticism of her use of pronouns:
“I’ve been surprised at the number of people who were really angry that I tried to convey gender neutrality by using a gendered pronoun. Even if it was ‘she,’ which undercuts a masculine default, they feel as though it would have been much better if I had used an honest-to-goodness gender-neutral pronoun, and that would have conveyed it better. People have also been feeling angry that the male characters in the story are persistently mis-gendered, because they’re continually referred to as ‘she.’ I understand where that’s coming from, and 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.”
Ann Leckie on ancient religion:
“It’s a common part of the narrative of the history of Christianity that it was ‘real’ religion that involved real spirituality and real faith, and that’s why it’s completely superseded the more pagan polytheistic practices. I grew up Roman Catholic in a majority Roman Catholic city, and it wasn’t until I was about college age that I discovered some of the attitudes people who aren’t Catholic have toward Roman Catholicism—that it’s pagan superstition which has been superseded by true religiousness. … I’m not Catholic anymore, I’m an atheist, but I find that really offensive and hateful. If you look at anybody’s religious beliefs and practices that aren’t yours, they seem kind of shallow, and they don’t make sense, and they don’t have any resonance. … It’s really easy to look back, particularly with the way we’re taught in school about Greek and Roman paganism, that they’re just these stories, and these stories ‘explain’ why there’s lightning or why there’s winter and why there’s spring, because otherwise they didn’t understand it, they were just so ignorant, right? I think a lot of ancient polytheistic religions worked very differently from the way that Christianity works, but I do not think they were any less important to the people who lived those religions.”