In an introduction to her 1969 science-fiction masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin sought to correct the assumption that science fiction is about the future. “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive,” she wrote, advising readers looking for predictions to resist looking to science fiction writers:
It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen.
There’s perhaps no science-fiction series as descriptive of our current political and cultural moment or as insistent that we open our eyes to it as Ann Leckie’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning Imperial Radch trilogy. In Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and the newly published Ancillary Mercy, Leckie imagines a space opera thousands of years in the future and thousands of light years away—a perfect vantage point from which to consider how we humans imagine ourselves right now.
In the far-future space of Leckie’s trilogy, the Radchaai Empire has controlled a vast portion of the galaxy for thousands of years through the annexation of human-occupied planets. The enormous spaceships Radchaai use to annex and regulate planets are installed with artificial intelligences; these A.I.s control “ancillaries,” people from conquered planets who are implanted with technology that wipes out their identities and renders them human appendages of their ships. (The three novels in the trilogy are named after the three classes of ships: Justice, Sword, and Mercy.) The protagonist of the series calls herself Breq; she was once an ancillary and is the sole survivor of the destruction of the Radchaai ship Justice of Toren. Breq is One Esk Nineteen, a single segment of Justice of Toren, but she also is the A.I. Justice of Toren—its last remnant. If that seems hard to wrap your head around, well, that’s rather the point: At the heart of Leckie’s series is a profound grappling with the way identity—our very sense of self—is imagined, is regulated, and shifts over time.
As the series opens, the Radchaai Empire is at a pivotal point: A treaty with a much more powerful alien race has compelled the Radchaai to discontinue annexing planets. Anaander Mianaai, lord of the Radch, has ruled the empire absolutely for 3,000 years by using clones of herself linked via telepathic implants, providing her the longevity and ability to preside over every annexation and to be present in provincial palaces throughout the galaxy. In Ancillary Justice, Breq is out to kill Mianaai (or as many of the Mianaais as she can) to avenge the destruction of her ship and crew. Along the way, Breq discovers that Mianaai is actually a house divided: A pro-expansionist Mianaai and a pro-reform Mianaai have been moving against each other in secret for a millennium. In Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, Breq uneasily allies herself with the reform-minded Mianaai and takes command of a ship to protect the inhabitants of a planetary system from the oncoming civil war.
As a narrator, Breq provides insight into how complicated the legacies of empire are: One Esk Nineteen of Justice of Toren is at once victim, instrument, and a product of Radchaai expansion. One thing Breq is not, though, is Radchaai. And that gives her a clear-eyed understanding of how the end of annexations threatens not just the economic engine of the empire but also the very core of the Radchaai identity. When Radchaai annex a planet, they make the native inhabitants (those who are not killed or turned into ancillaries) into Radchaai. Ethnic distinctions become irrelevant (or are supposed to, at least), and local religions are subsumed. The very word Radchaai means “citizen.” Of course, the uniformity of Radchaai identity obscures a more complicated reality: Every citizen is entitled to basic food, shelter, and medical care, but wealth and influence are still concentrated among older, well-positioned families, and native divisions are often exploited for gain.
So what happens when a people who believe themselves to be an “agent of order and civilization” no longer have anyone to civilize? What happens when resources become scarce? And how can the Radchaai reconcile their values of “Justice, Propriety, and Benefit” with their legacy of slavery and exploitation? When confronted by Breq, Anaander Mianaai admits the outcome: The Radchaai will inevitably fragment. “To stop,” she says, “will mean completely changing what we are.”
As the action of the trilogy unfolds, the question of what, exactly, Breq and other A.I.s are also comes to the forefront. The Radchaai design A.I.s with emotions out of convenience to themselves (“Without feelings, insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things,” explains Breq) and to compel them to want to serve the Radchaai. The result is that although they are regarded as merely equipment, ships are powerful and complex sentient beings. Ships love their officers and feel incomplete without their ancillaries. “It’s funny,” the ship Mercy of Kalr tells Breq when she comes aboard as commander, “You’re what I’ve lost, and I’m what you’ve lost.” The idea of an ancillary—a ship—commanding another ship is so novel that it challenges the A.I.s to consider their autonomy. Breq asks Mercy of Kalr if it would like to be a captain, to which the ship responds, “I don’t want to be a captain. But I find I like the thought that I could be.”
Central to Leckie’s trilogy is how important it is to feel a sense of control over one’s identity and how being recognized is a precondition for having power. These themes are not exclusive to one particular time or place, of course, but Leckie taps acutely into the feelings (and fears) that drive current American politics and movements for change. One of the chief pleasures of the trilogy is just how many wrongs Breq tries to make right and how committed she is to making incremental progress even when problems become fraught and complicated. Breq’s actions are underscored by her profound grief, anger, and shame that give way, even if just a little bit, to the solace and hope she finds in her crew and her makeshift family of A.I.s. The end of Ancillary Mercy is satisfying because it is so very un-Radchaai: diverse, messy, and honest. “In the end,” Breq realizes, “it’s only ever been one step, and then the next.”
As Le Guin does in The Left Hand of Darkness, Leckie does some ground-breaking with gender in her trilogy. Radchaai culture doesn’t differentiate gender, so Breq refers to all characters by using the default she pronoun. When she encounters people from cultures that do differentiate gender, Breq frequently gets it wrong. The result is that, with few exceptions, readers never really know the “true” gender of Leckie’s characters. (I’ve used feminine pronouns throughout this piece to refer to all persons because, like Breq, I’m really just guessing.) Leckie could have chosen a truly neutral pronoun or made one up, but her use of she is a reminder of the pervasiveness of the default male pronoun as well as what gets erased by it.
Leckie also provides only a scant amount of physical description for her characters. Beyond noting that Radchaai are generally dark-skinned and making occasional broad-strokes comments about characters’ ages or physiques, Leckie focuses on revealing characters via their actions and preferences. A character’s fondness for a tea set, or her feelings toward another character, becomes the key attribute around which we have to imagine her. This offers a reader a huge imaginative opportunity, a freedom to visualize these characters in a myriad of ways. But it also engenders a real sense of uncertainty: Am I seeing these characters in the right way? What assumptions am I bringing to the way I’ve imagined them, and what does that reveal about me? Ancillary Justice has been optioned for television, and if it gets made, the series of casting controversies that will inevitably ensue will surely reveal a whole lot about the current state of pop culture, too.
Together, Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword have won just about every major award in science fiction, including the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards. They’re worthy of all the praise they’ve received and deserve an even wider audience. But they’re also among the novels that outspoken conservative science-fiction writers and critics think are destroying the genre through liberal politics. It’s unsurprising that works by women and people of color are so often targeted by these critics: At the core of their complaints is a fear of losing power within the science-fiction community and losing control over what it even means to be a science-fiction writer. (More anxiety about identity!) But they cloak their arguments in appeals to transcendental virtues and accusations of snobbery, as in this rant by campaign leader Brad R. Torgersen about Ancillary Justice:
How transgressive! How daring! We’re fighting the cis hetero male patriarchy now, comrades! We’ve anointed Leckie’s book the hottest thing since sliced bread. Not because it’s passionate and sweeping and speaks to the heart across the ages. But because it’s a social-political pot shot at ordinary folk.
Torgersen couldn’t be more wrong. Leckie is deeply concerned with ordinary folk, but her definition of ordinary does not merely include white hetero cis dudes like Torgersen. And her Imperial Radch will most certainly continue to speak to the heart across the ages but not because it tries to avoid its cultural moment. In fact, it’s precisely because it is so descriptive of this moment that it will endure.