Okay, yeah, I’m late to the party. Late to a lot of things. Wouldn’t worry about it. So: Ancillary Justice, from Ann Leckie
Published in 2013, this is Leckie’s debut novel and it picked up a hailstorm of awards including just about everything on offer from SF and fandom. Thus, in picking up the book (late, like I said) I was kind of on tenterhooks: hoping for the best, fearing mediocrity and a poor year in genre fiction. (They happen.)
The upshot is simple: this is a thoroughly worthwhile book. I’m not sure it’s the kind of explosion-and-fireworks thing I’d expect to garner all those awards (Gibson’s Neuromancer — another debut novel that bagged a slew of prizes — made a much bigger impression on me, for example) but it’s an exceptional debut, and a very fine novel in its own right. And that leads me to the Big Question: what the hell is all the fuss?
Don’t answer that. I know. I’ve seen it. Consider it a rhetorical question.
On the one hand, we had a bunch of people screeching about “political correctness” (I think) and insisting the novel wasn’t worthy. I can’t argue as to worthy simply because I haven’t read the rest of the contenders from that year, but I can say it’s a good novel and on its year it may well have deserved everything it got. Better folk than I judged some of those awards.
Then on the other hand, I’m seeing another set of people marveling at how new, groundbreaking, brave, insightful, etc etc it all is. Now… those folk are also late to the party, because as a long-time SF reader, I’m quite happy to say there’s absolutely nothing new or confronting in Leckie’s novel. Sentient ships? Dime a dozen. (Iain M Banks, off the top of my head. The Culture series.) Gender questions? Old news. (Theodore Sturgeon: Venus Plus X, 1960. Ursula K LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness, 1970 for a Hugo and a Nebula) Multiple bodies? Hive-like intelligences? Eh. Seen it all before.
So now the “groundbreaking brave insightful” people are shouting at the “politically correct and unworthy” crowd and they’re shouting back and everybody is winding themselves up into a tanty of truly toddleresque proportions and really, I’d like to just say something rude to shut everybody up and get on with it… but there is one little thing.
This article here wherein it is pointed out how much trouble Leckie had selling the book because of the gender pronouns she chose.
That ain’t right.
This is a good book. It’s a very good book. It’s entertaining and thoughtful and it addresses a raft of themes and ideas which have long been considered important in SF and outside, and it’s worth your time to read it. Most of all, it is a science fiction novel and there should never, ever have been any question of its publication simply on grounds of gendered (or otherwise) pronouns.
Not ever. That fight should have been done and dusted at least forty-six years ago, if not more. If you’re in publishing and you handle SF and you’re afraid of a few gender-confusing pronouns, then you really don’t know your audience and you’re probably gonna miss out on publishing quite a few excellent, high-selling novels like this one purely because you haven’t managed to evolve up from your dinosaur brains yet.
Is the book brave, edgy, and empowering? Well, not to anybody who grew up reading science fiction. But perhaps to a new generation of readers who haven’t had the chance to examine the breadth, depth, and power of the genre they’re inhabiting now — perhaps to them it’s a touchstone. Which is lovely, and why not? Cultural touchstones change from generation to generation.
Is this book “politically correct” or somehow belittling of other traditions in SF? Again: no. Not to anybody who grew up reading science fiction. SF has been a broad church for a long time. Even back in the day, when it was cheap-ass pulp fiction there were still writers who were trying out strange and dangerous ideas, subverting norms, and pushing boundaries.
Pushing boundaries: isn’t that what we do in science fiction? I’m ashamed to find that the ideas in Leckie’s book apparently still do represent boundaries to some people, some institutions. As fans of science fiction, I really thought we’d dealt with all of this two generations back.
Apparently not. Apparently there’s still some work to be done.
But you won’t achieve it by vote-rigging the Hugos. Nor will you achieve it by threats of violence, nor by shrill denunciations and finger-pointing and righteous sloganeering.
Science fiction is, and has been since its inception, a very big field. You’re never gonna like all of it. Nor are you gonna like everybody in it.
Nobody says you have to, either.
What you can do is learn to be tolerant, and not behave like an asshat – no matter which facet of the polygonal prism you happen to inhabit.