by Joe Schuster
Ann Leckie’s mother and father did not want her to read science fiction when she was growing up in the mid-to late-1970s. Leckie discovered the genre in primary school when she used her pocket change to buy a paperback about a boy who helps an extraterrestrial alien from a Scholastic Book Club flyer. When she wanted to read more, her parents, biochemists at the Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis, dismissed the genre as silly and shallow, not worth her—or any intelligent reader’s—attention.
“They told me several times that it was not literature, that literature was about people, and science fiction was not about people but about space ships and laser guns,” she said in a recent conversation at a coffee house in St. Louis, the city where she still lives and writes. “You can tell by their opinion that they actually had not read much science fiction. If I pointed out something that was good, was smart and well-written, they would say, ‘Well, it’s not science fiction because it’s good.’ George Orwell? Not science fiction because it’s literature.”
To steer her in a more suitable direction, Leckie’s parents gave her mysteries to read, because, although mysteries were accessible, they considered them literature: mysteries were about people. Leckie stubbornly continued to read science fiction, so they began giving her work that they understood to be as literary as science fiction could be. “That was how I first read Stanislaw Lem,” Leckie said, “when my parents gave me one of his books.”
Her parents, who have passed away, did not live long enough to see Leckie’s strongest argument that science fiction can be literature: her publication last year, at 47, of her first novel, Ancillary Justice. One of the most decorated in the history of the genre, it is the first book to earn the “big three”—the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and, last month at an international conference in London, the Hugo Award. Beyond its accolades and awards, Ancillary Justice has also earned Leckie attention for some revolutionary choices she made in how she treats the genders of her characters.
(The novel is the first of what she and her publisher project as a trilogy; the second volume, Ancillary Sword, will be released October 7, with the third due next year.)
While Leckie’s parents discouraged her interest in science fiction, they did encourage her to write. “For some reason that I don’t know, they always talked about how I not only should be a writer but that I would be a writer,” she said. When she was ten, her parents taught her proper manuscript formatting on the typewriter. Then, when she was in the seventh grade, she discovered the work of Andre Norton (the pen name for prolific fantasy/science fiction author Alice Mary Norton, who published as Andre because books in those genres by men sold better than those by women) and, Leckie said, she understood for the first time that there was human agency behind the books she read; that being an author was not just a preoccupation but something that a person might do with her life.
“I was spending a lot of time in the library when I was young,” she said. “I would walk there on Saturdays and just sit there on the floor in the stacks and pull things off the shelf, and after I had read some Norton, I realized there were all of these books by her all lined up, and I thought: I want to do that. I mean, who would not want to be Andre Norton?”
Leckie did not pursue writing immediately but went to Washington University, where she studied vocal music. When she graduated, she took on a number of jobs—in catering, as a manager for her alma mater’s faculty club, and as a rodman on a survey crew, among others.
Finally, in the early 1990s, she decided to try writing professionally, approaching it in a methodical, analytical manner that has turned out to be characteristic of her approach to life as a writer (and that may have come from being the daughter of two scientists). She studied the annual Writer’s Market to learn what editors wanted and which markets she might pursue and settled on a specific publication, True Confessions, a pulp magazine that published largely first-person romance fiction. “I chose it because it was something I could find in the supermarket, where I could go and read a number of issues to try to figure out what they wanted, and then I sat down and wrote something,” she said.
She submitted it, and the magazine published it in its October 1993 issue. “He’s My Lover on the Telephone but I’ve Never Seen His Face” was about a woman who suffers a disfiguring accident as a girl but, in the end, finds a man who loves her despite her scars. It was a publication for money (albeit for less than a nickel a word and without a byline), but she learned something from the experience: She hated writing for the mere sake of publication.
“I tried to do another one but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it because they’re so horrible,” she said. For the most part, she put ideas she of writing aside for a few years, until after she married and had children (a son and a daughter) and found herself a bit adrift.
As she recently explained to Locus magazine, “I discovered rather quickly that childcare was going to eat up all of my take-home pay, so at that point, no matter how difficult it was to make ends meet and stay home, that was the only option. I love my kids dearly. But the thing about babies is that they don’t have very interesting conversations. I felt like my brain was leaking out of my ears.”
In 2002, a friend told her about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), in which participants churn out a minimum of 50,000 words over 31 days. Leckie wrote more than twice as many (110,000). While she did not produce a book that she thought merited circulating for publication (it’s still in a drawer), she did discover that she wanted to keep writing and finished another novel the next year during NaNoWriMo. That too sits in a drawer, but she did post it to an online critique site, where someone suggested that she attend a Clarion science fiction and fantasy workshop, an intense six-week program based in San Diego that has included among its faculty Jonathan Lethem, Octavia Butler, Harlan Ellison, and George R. R. Martin. Leckie applied, submitting the second and third stories she had ever written, and earned a spot for the 2005 session, where she would be expected to write at least one new story each week.
At Clarion she wrote a story she eventually called, “Hesperia and Glory,” which is a clear nod to Edger Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels, about a Confederate Civil War veteran who enters a cave in the American west to escape an attack and wakes on Mars. After revising it, Leckie submitted the story to Subterranean, a quarterly journal published by the press of the same name; the issue, which focused on science fiction clichés, was edited by John Scalzi, a Hugo–winning novelist and past president of the Science Fiction Writers Association. Scalzi accepted Leckie’s story, which was her first by-lined publication and went on to earn selection for the 2007 edition of the annual anthology, Science Fiction: The Best of the Year. In all, Leckie has had stories in three editions of the anthology.
Leckie came back from Clarion with more than a story she would eventually publish: In the first novel she turned out for NaNoWriMo, she had experimented with a character that she later abandoned, because she felt she could not make the character compelling and believable. After her six weeks in San Diego, she decided to go back to that character.
“Almost more useful than the advice by the instructors,” Leckie said, “was that you spend six weeks where everyone takes you seriously as a writer. They treat you as one of them. ‘Of course you’re a writer. Of course you’re a writer.’ So I came back with this character I thought I couldn’t do and thought, ‘Well maybe I can try. Nothing will happen to me if I fail.’”
That November, she gave NaNoWriMo a third try, this time writing the novel about that difficult character. At the end of the month, while the novel was still not in any condition to send out, she nonetheless had the start of the novel that, after nearly seven years, became Ancillary Justice. In early 2012, after taking the novel through four drafts, she set about trying to publish it. “I hated it; I thought it was horrible, but I had done everything I could do with it,” she said.
As she had been nearly 20 years before, she was methodical about making her pitch to an agent, going this time to a site called Query Shark, which posts drafts of query letters by writers to potential agents and offers critiques of the letters. Leckie read every letter posted to the site, as well as the criticism and the revised letters that writers posted after their critiques. “If I read enough of them, I thought I would have some idea of how to write one,” she said.
She sent the letter to five agents on a single day—her top five—assuming that they would all pass and she would move on to the next five on her list. But one of the first agents she queried—Seth Fishman of the Gernert Company—responded to her email less than two hours after she sent it. He invited her to send sample chapters and then shortly after asked for the entire manuscript. In June 2012, after Leckie made some revisions he suggested, Leckie had offers from three editors. Before the summer was over, she had a publisher (Orbit Books, an imprint of Hachette); the novel appeared in the US in October 2013.
Ancillary Justice is an ambitious, sprawling, and in many ways elegant novel about treachery and revenge. At fewer than 400 pages, it covers, vividly and compellingly, thousands of years and billions of miles. It centers on a character who calls herself Breq, who is not human but rather an artificial intelligence, created to operate a large interstellar ship called the Justice of Toren several millennia before the novel opens. A significant number of the ship’s crew are “ancillaries,” that is, soldiers and civilians captured in battle, stripped of their individual natures and connected to the AI as her troops as well as her eyes, ears and mouths; the ancillaries retain no sense of who they were before they were “annexed.”
At the novel’s opening, however, Breq has been reduced to a single human manifestation, and through the narrative, Leckie patiently makes plain how the AI lost her ship and ancillaries and—like the people who lost their humanity when they were annexed to her consciousness—a significant part of her identity. Breq is both an interesting character and a means to ask questions about identity. Throughout the novel, characters talk about, for example, whether the individuals whose bodies stand as ancillaries for AIs like Breq are still human and, by the end of the novel, when Breq clearly asserts her own will and acts as the agent of the novel’s resolution, rather than acting as an agent for others’ wills, she does so as a single entity rather than as a being with, potentially, thousands of manifestations.
While technically the novel falls into the “space opera” sub-genre of science fiction, with its star ships and technologically advanced weapons, Leckie made some bold choices that allow it to rise above the clichés of the genre.
One of those is in her structure, which she uses to great advantage to build tension and suspense. For the first two-thirds of the book, she weaves the story through alternating narratives. One centers in the present time of the novel, after Breq has been reduced to her single manifestation and is seeking a powerful weapon to use for her vengeance against the ruler of the empire that created her, Anaandar Mianaai. The other centers on a time roughly 20 years before the present when Breq still exists as an AI with nearly countless manifestations and Mianaai commits a series of treacherous acts that cause Breq to lose those manifestations and, even more, to commit multiple murders.
Because Leckie chose to set the events of the two threads side by side, we get a more vivid sense of Breq as a fully developed character: there is a clearer contrast between Breq as she was before Mianaai’s cruel actions in the earlier narrative and the Breq she becomes. In the earlier thread, she questions little of what those who control her ask her to do. While she sometimes contemplates the logic of an order, she never refuses. In the novel’s present time, she is more cynical, harsher—more focused on her singular purpose, rather than someone who does the bidding of others.
In a fine stroke, Leckie made an interesting decision at the point in the novel when it shifts from its back-and-forth structure to the final third, which runs primarily chronologically: she uses mirrored action at the end of each of the paired narratives. The one that occurs twenty years before the present ends after a crowning act of treachery from Mianaai, when she orders Breq to kill the human she is most connected to; in the event in the present-time narrative that signals the story is shifting into the dash toward its resolution, Breq chooses to save another human (ironically, a former crewmember of her ship toward whom she felt no fondness).
One of the most interesting decisions that Leckie made is in the area of gender: we are never clear whether a character is male or female. When Leckie uses a pronoun to refer to a character, it is nearly always the third-person, feminine singular: she, her, hers. Although she is emphatic that she does not consider the novel “feminist science fiction” (a specific sub-genre that she feels her novel does not fall into), as a feminist she was interested in exploring whether or not the gender of a character matters in the story.
Because of Leckie’s almost exclusive use of the feminine pronoun, a reader may well assume that every character is female, but early on, Leckie gives a clear sign that this is not the case; rather, her characters inhabit a universe where the feminine pronoun is merely the general pronoun. In the present time of the novel, as Breq attempts to pass herself off as a human and not as AI, we witness her struggles to remember which cultures do use gender-specific pronouns and which do not and in that instance, and that instance only, we learn that one of the characters is assuredly male, but in no other case do we know for certain. Beyond this, throughout the novel, Leckie avoids rendering character descriptions that would reveal gender and even in one scene when two characters sleep together, we are not certain whether one is male, one is female, or whether both are male or female.
Her decision here is key to elevating Leckie’s novel out of the tropes of space opera, because it raises a compelling question. She may have made the simpler, and less risky, choice of making her important characters female—providing a counterpoint to the expectation that a hero will be male. We would then have had a novel to point to as featuring strong female characters. But by seldom making clear whether a character is male or female, Leckie asks an even more interesting question: Does it matter what the gender of a character is? Does it matter if the hero or the villain is a male or a female?
That, in the end is what literature does: it makes us see our own world in a new way, makes us question our assumptions about the way the world works. And so, in answer to the question that Leckie’s parents posed decades ago when they tried to dissuade their daughter from reading science fiction: Yes, it is literature.
Joseph M. Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been (Ballantine, 2012), a finalist for the CASEY award for the best baseball book of the year and one of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s 25 favorite fiction books of 2012. A member of the faculty of Webster University, he has published short fiction in the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Missouri Review, among other journals.
Joe Schuster’s previous features: Time, Death, and Grief: The Risky Fiction of Paul Harding, Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn: Ghosts Into Ancestors, Karl Marlantes: An Audio Conversation With Joe Schuster, Experience Required: The Polar Explorer’s Guide to Writing a Novel, Q&A with Joe Schuster,