In 2011/2012, two SF works formed a conceptual pair: Morgan Locke’s Up Against It and Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier. Both are ambitious space operas that take place on belaguered space habitats. Both brim with originality and bravura, field a host of complex issues, portray fluid/non-binary genders, use non-Anglo settings and are as hard SF as can be (provided you don’t count orbital mechanics as the sole hard science, as genre fundies do; Locke is a chemist, Slonczewski a biologist and their first-hand expertise shows). Both obey marketing directives: they are parts of projected trilogies and have adolescent protagonists. In Up Against It, a sharply etched adult woman thankfully shares center stage. The Highest Frontier is more Harry-Potter-in-space but the quirks and gender of its protagonist mostly redeem the YA concession. The Highest Frontier got a lot of recognition, including the Campbell award. Up Against It went by almost unnoticed.
I gamma-read these two, so I already reviewed them extensively, if privately. This was not the case for the paired set of 2013: Deborah Wheeler’s Collaborators (a standalone) and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (first volume of the now-obligatory trilogy). Like their 2012 counterparts, these are ambitious space operas that tackle many issues. Whereas the 2012 two focus on can-do survival and are relatively small-scale (no galactic empires), the 2013 ones focus on colonialism and gender in Le Guin and Cherryh’s wake, but their scientific concepts are more SF-traditional. Both use multiple narrative viewpoints – condemned as “romance cooties” in SF circles, though the technique is routine in literary fiction – and have made conscious decisions about pronoun use, of which more anon. Like the divergent fates of the 2012 pair, Ancillary Justice got a rousing reception whereas I count formal reviews of Collaborators on the fingers of one hand.
Collaborators is obviously descended from Le Guin kernels but carves its own unique path. Following The Left Hand of Darkness it posits the Bandari, single-gendered humanoid aliens who polarize slightly when in estrus and a bit more during gestation. Like Le Guin (who defended her choice until she retrenched in short stories that featured Gethenians), Wheeler uses exclusively male pronouns for the species. And similar to the settings of Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, Collaborators shows how a non-terrestrial culture interacts with a stranded human starship whose crew, bolstered by its formidable technology, forgets that they are not gods and interfere heavily in the politics of two adversarial nations. The major conflict is nuanced by ambiguities and dilemmas on all sides and at many levels.
Wheeler’s Quaker beliefs are visible (including the refusal to indulge in charismatic saviors) and the parallels to the havoc wrought by imperial-nation interventions on earth are clear. The alien biology and first-contact dynamics are handled unusually deftly; the narrative polyphony weaves complex melodies and harmonies. Wheeler’s world is effortlessly immersive and teems with fully realized characters. At the same time, the human side is conveyed almost exclusively by male characters and the Bandari occasionally leave behind them a Wraeththu-like whiff.
Ancillary Justice posits the Radchaai, a galaxy-wide dominant polity that is rather obviously modeled on imperial Rome futurized by the customary space opera panoply (nanotech, up/downloading, FTL) and replete with cultural-specific quirks to quickly individualize the groups within it – including the author’s own unabashed love of tea. The Radchaai, the obverse side of Banks’ Culture (with ship Minds to match), share the Romans’ casual, pragmatic cruelty including the citizen privilege boundary. Their resources permit them to animate corpses from uprisings against the Radchaai with AI “consciousness”. The resulting constructs are used as starship crews and planetary enforcers. These ancillaries are descendants of Cherryh’s Union/Alliance azi and of the Star Wars stormtrooper clones: essentially cheap disposable zombi.
The protagonist Breq (a now-isolate ancillary who harbors a portion of the AI consciousness of a once-mighty starship) sets out to assassinate a powerful Lucifer/Palpatine figure for reasons of personal loyalty. So the scaffolding is a traditional revenge quest, garnished with Breq’s fraught dealings with an ambiguous ally of once high status – very similar to the currents between Ai and Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness. Like Collaborators, Ancillary Justice shows several worlds and the complex interactions between them. However, the characters in Ancillary Justice are far less sharply drawn than those in Collaborators to the point of blurriness and the novel contains many lumpy passages. Also like Collaborators, Ancillary Justice switches between viewpoints, finessed by the conceit that the ship’s AI is tallying ancillary inputs in situ – a clever dodge though its execution is not entirely smooth, augmenting the murkiness (it would do better in film).
Last but decidedly not least, and a point highlighted in all the reviews of Ancillary Justice, Breq designates everyone with female pronouns. The rationale is that Radchaai make no gender distinctions: their technology allows them biological fluidity, so that familial/client status has now become the primary hierarchy marker. Hence Breq either cannot comprehend or chooses not to master such distinctions in non-Radch cultures that have them.
The 3.5 people who have read my writings know my views on colonialism, gender and their intersection. It’s good to see the ubiquitous pseudo-inclusive “he” subsumed for once and it’s fun to hazard guesses at the genderings that are left truly ambiguous. However, I think that the conflation of grammatical, cultural and biological gender blunts the story. The former is arbitrary and would be unavoidable in many languages (it’s an acid test for true fluency). The middle is a battleground frought with both promise and peril – but it’s unlikely that the status-conscious Radchaai would not have other distinctions. The latter, whether one chooses traditional or novel terms, whether one adheres to gender binaries or not, is one that an advanced AI would sense, even when diminished.
One could argue that we’re seeing a carryover of Radch arrogance by a multiply unreliable narrator. However, the fact that Breq’s inability/unwillingness to distinguish gender (which type?) is constantly mentioned, explained and defended puts it in the “protesting too much” category: it punctures the immersive membrane of the narrative, turning the device into a self-conscious flag rather than a fully integrated (and hence submerged) core context. It doesn’t help that the primary antagonist is given many trappings of a male/masculine terrestrial, which shows how hard it is to write truly gender-blind narratives.
Caveats aside, both the 2012 and 2013 space opera tangled pairs are intriguing; it will be interesting to see where their sequels go. The pronoun issue is vexed, though Anglophone SF is lucky to only have to worry about third-person singular pronouns. Melissa Scott, always a forerunner, put down five sets of pronouns in The Shadow Man way before this became the burning issue in SF that it has become. Other writers did without pronouns or expanded their vocabulary: neologisms aside, why not press the neutral option or the third-person plural into service? Female- or male-only are clumsy instruments to designate either mono/multi/fluidly-gendered species or cultural gender blindness. We need different mindsets, and different words, for such horizons.