Having finished this book despite the stingy publisher (thanks, library!), I can now review the entire work. SPOILERS AHEAD. Read at your own risk.
Wow. How the heck did Ann Leckie sneak this one under the radar without the LBQTBBQWHUT? people burning her in effigy in a Two Minute Hate for Bad Think? Are they really that dumb? Do they not see what kind of story this is? And it won awards?!
The answer, apparently, is yes, they really are as blind as the socially autistic AI who can easily learn multiple foreign languages, the majority of which include a lot of really specific hand “gestures” a la sign language, but can’t tell male from female in a sexually dimorphic species, even when visiting cultures that have sex-specific modes of dress. Uh-huh, right, pull the other one, it’s got bells on. Either that, or they’re monsters; I’m going to go with Useful Idiots as the more charitable option.
Of course, the more sinister and probably more accurate reason for the AI’s inability to tell male from female is not, in fact, based on the fact that the Radch Empire is an androgynous paradise where no one cares what sex you are.* It’s probably because the ship-mind was programmed that way as a means of control.
(*This is highly unusual, as the Radch Empire is loosely based on the Roman Empire, complete with dynastic houses and sleeping your way into power, and there’s no plausible explanation for this total blurring of human sex characteristics given. Unless you count some handwavium about having sex change operations so good that the patient isn’t sterilized afterward, and artificial uteri for growing your kids in a vat. Which somehow exists alongside legal surrogacy. I leave to the reader to puzzle out why this is a leap of illogic so fanciful as to be absolutely hysterically funny.)
I am very disappointed with how trite and unimaginative the “reason” behind the excessive use of “she” as default pronoun is, even beyond its ridiculous implausibility. One of the troubling aspects of the Radch Empire is that they’re absolutely obsessed with “purity” – by their standards, of course, which include a great deal of artificial modification, so long as it doesn’t mess about with being bipedal – so much obsessed, in fact, that modified humans who are sufficiently different in appearance are considered “nonhuman.” Yes, that’s right: the sexually androgynous paradise is full of bigoted space-racists! I was really hoping for a decent reason for the whole “she” thing, like all the Radch are female due to sex-selection, reproduce by a tech-assisted form of parthenogenesis, and that’s why they consider themselves and some others as “human” but others (who think they are “human”) are not considered “human” by the Radch. It would have actually made sense that way, but nooooo, we get some lame nonsensical magic-tech excuse instead. Plus institutionalized bigotry against eel-people, even if the main character isn’t racist itself. (I’m offended by that because I identify as a cuttlefish-person, and the Radchaai would definitely discriminate against me for modifying myself to have cute tentacles if I lived in a futuristic world where you could totally do that.)
But let’s move on to the reason I’m rather shocked that this book received such praise: the main protagonist’s society is presented as a utopia for those who hate biology and/or gender roles. It’s also presented as a predatory, colonialist, expansionist empire (hi, Rome!) dependent on subjugating other human worlds and crushing their cultures under its own to survive (hi, every critique of Western colonialism ever to come out of academia!). Oh, and also they use drug-enhanced reeducation on anyone who doesn’t fit in. (Hi, gulags!) That part’s not even a shameful secret! They’re all like, “Yeah, we brainwash people for their own good. That makes us civilized.” If you’re a prospective new “citizen” of the empire who’s causing trouble while the empire is “annexing” your planet, they just kill you. Or possibly take you alive and stuff you into a stasis pod so that you can be used as an ancillary – a live body taken over by a ship AI’s mind and used as cheap, absolutely obedient soldiers. Killing you, of course, in the process. Like demon possession, only you can never be exorcised! This part is quite literally the only thing that the evil empire does that our lovely loyal citizen protagonists ever admit that might be kind of distasteful. Oh, and the evil empire is run by an immortal, absolute monarch whose orders can never be disobeyed and whose decisions can never be criticized. And the only reason they think that maybe ancillaries are a bit distasteful is because “she” said so.
Like, didn’t the LTBBQ ppl always get upset if bad guys were homosexual because it “furthered harmful stereotypes” or something? So how is Ann Leckie not cast into the outer darkness for inventing an entire EVIL SOCIETY of racist colonial monocultural trans-whatever-people? Consistency. They hath it not.
Okay, off the rather chilling implications of that particular storytelling choice. Gray-and-black morality world, I get it. Definitely not my preferred trope, though. I think the author was probably aiming for blue and orange morality, at least a bit, but throwing in every war crime ever committed on the side of the protagonist’s culture was probably not a good way to do that when your protagonist isn’t actually a rebel and goes to work for Darth Vader “I promise to try to be good now” at the end of the novel. /sarc
On to an oddity: at one point, I started wondering if maybe Ann Leckie is deaf or is close to someone who is – there are a TON of “gestures” used as communication between characters. Unfortunately, it’s always a “gesture” and we hardly ever get any actual visual information about the gesture, just someone telling us what it means! Combined with the author’s need to refrain from giving too much visual detail about the characters (lest we figure out their biological sexes, which would be terrible, ohnoes!) it makes this book somewhat frustrating to read even above and beyond the constant misuse of pronouns. The author has deliberately partially-blinded the reader by choosing to make the main character incapable of noting many physical characteristics – having their body language blurred out is just insult on top of injury. Where was her editor, for crying out loud! It’s as bad as introducing all your dialogue with something inane like “She said” every. Single. Time. Aaaaaaaaaaugh.
Sigh. Anyway, I think that Leckie’s definitely got talent, even though she needs a good editor something fierce. That whole no-more-sexual-dimorphism-for-YOU aren’t-I-so-edgy-as-an-author-let-me-fish-for-awards thing didn’t actually do anything for the plot – it could be excised without changing anything significant in the storyline. The other part that bothered me was the way that the EXTREMELY BORING MIDDLE of the story was interleaved with the interesting beginning and mildly exciting ending. I’m sorry, but an AI capable of making the transition from being a troop carrier AND all the troops to being a single surviving individual cast adrift with no support on the edge of civilized space doesn’t know why she’s picking up a stray? A stray that’s a famous ex-military officer who’s her ticket to confronting the Emperor itself?
Hear that shattering noise? That was what’s left of my suspension of disbelief for this tale crumbling into sand-sized pieces.
I’m also pretty much convinced that time-jumping back and forth in your plot should be avoided unless you’re actually writing about time travelers. The whole “I’m an AI on a 20-year mission nearing its most critical juncture for success” part just doesn’t jibe with “Dur, I’m a moron who picks up random drug addicts in the street for no good reason!” At. All. But Justice of Toren One Esk (way cooler name than “Breq”) can’t know what it’s doing until the readers have been caught up with the historical action, therefore the author hands the main character an industrial-grade Idiot Ball until the flashback chapters are completed.
But as well-written as parts of this story are – and it’s entertaining; after all, I finished it – I just can’t vote for a story where the “rebel” protagonist goes to work for this universe’s equivalent of Joseph Stalin at the end. Ugh. … although now that I think about it, that’s probably exactly why it won all those awards: rebellion against biology AND space-communism? How could they resist showering it with accolades?