Book Notes: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Read Sep 9, 2020 - Sep 16, 2020

I had read this novel before, in 2014, according to Goodreads. Although I had rated it as 4 stars back then, I didn’t remember anything about it.

Once I started reading, I recognized a salient feature of the book: the narrator belongs to a culture and language that doesn’t use gender markers. The pronoun they use for everyone is “she”, which is meant as a gender-neutral pronoun. I had to keep reminding myself that the characters weren’t all women, that I simply didn’t know their gender. At times I caught myself trying to somehow divine the gender of a character from other traits, like their clothing, or their profession, which doesn’t make sense in our Western culture, and makes even less sense in a book about an alien culture. The experience was very revealing of how ingrained the idea of gender is, and how my thinking patterns really want to rely on gender as a shorthand for making certain judgements and assumptions.

This book is excellent. The main character is complex and well-developed, likeable in all their contradictory, confusing humanity. Even though, according to the culture they belong to, they aren’t actually human. I guess that’s the joke.

The plot is complex and not always easy to grasp, as I don’t have much of an intuition for how a person living in multiple bodies may feel, think and act. But in a way a person in multiple bodies isn’t very different of the ordinary human experience of being conflicted, at odds with oneself, with multiple warring inner voices.

I’m looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy.

Book highlights

“You used to horrify me,” said the head priest to me. “The very thought of you near was terrifying, your dead faces, those expressionless voices. But today I am more horrified at the thought of a unit of living human beings who serve voluntarily. Because I don’t think I could trust them.”

Radchaai have few qualms about killing humans, especially noncitizen humans, but you’re very cautious about starting wars with aliens.

Things happen the way they happen because the world is the way it is. Or, as a Radchaai would say, the universe is the shape of the gods.

“It’s the way they live, all out in the open like that, with nothing but a roof,” Jen Shinnan said. “They can’t have any privacy, no sense of themselves as real individuals, you understand, no sense of any sort of separate identity.” “Let alone private property,” said Jen Taa, having swallowed her chicken. “They think they can just walk in and take whatever they want.”

No one has to work, they just fish in the swamp. Or fleece visitors during pilgrimage season. They have no chance to develop any ambition, or any desire to improve themselves.

And you don’t like my saying that, but here’s the truth: luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience.

Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions.

“It’s so easy to go along with things, isn’t it?” Skaaiat said. “Especially when, as you say, it profits you.”

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