Review: The Imperial Radch trilogy

Amy Gilligan reviews Ann Leckie’s series of SciFi novels, set in a post-gender galaxy.

Recently I found myself racing through Anne Leckie’s excellent Imperial Radch trilogy: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Mercy and Ancillary Sword. It’s a great SciFi series, but also quite political, addressing questions around imperialism, workers’ rights and especially gender. There is also a lot of tea drinking. Leckie well deserves the awards that she’s received for creating an absorbing and complex universe that is both thoughtful and humorous.

Book cover of the first part of the series, Ancillary Justice
Book cover of the first installment, Ancillary Justice

The story is narrated by Breq and centres around the dominant group of humans – the Radchaai. For the last two thousand years the Radchaai have been annexing other groups of “uncivilised” humans. If any resist they either get frozen for future use as ancillaries for the ships’ artificial intelligences or killed. The first book is set on the brink of civil war, and uses flashbacks showing how cracks began to develop in Radchaai empire. The second and third books are focussed around the Athoek system as the civil war develops.

If you’re expecting SciFi you won’t be disappointed – there’s space stations, aliens, gates for travelling quickly between star systems, guns where bullets travel precisely 1.11m and the ability to regrow body parts including lungs and legs. All of these make for an excellent story on their own. But the political messages are one of the things that, for me anyway, made it particularly interesting. Imperialism and the rigid system of patronage in Radchaai are rightly critiqued. Workers in a tea plantation go on strike for fair wages and better conditions. The nature of consciousness and what it means to be a ‘significant being’ is explored. The thing I found most compelling, however, was how gender is explored.

Throughout the book feminine pronouns she and her are used for all characters when they’re speaking Radchaai. This isn’t because everyone is a woman, but rather because the Radchaai don’t have genders. While Leckie has received some friendly criticism (and has explained her reasons for doing it) for using a feminine pronoun rather than a gender neutral one such as Zie, having nearly everyone who is talked about being addressed as ‘she’ does have a powerful effect.

Initially I did think everyone was a woman. Women as soldiers, ships captains, temple priests, civil servants, doctors, ruthless overlords and so on. This struck me in two ways. Firstly because these are roles its still relatively unusual to have dominated entirely by women, especially when this is their dominant characterisation (rather than their character being ‘a woman’). Secondly, because it seems relatively unusual (at least in many of the books I’ve read) to have just have so many women and to barely have any men mentioned at all. I can think of several books (Lord of the Rings is the one that springs readily to mind) where you can go chapters and chapters without there being any women, but this isn’t something that I’d particularly noted – its not something that seems that unusual. But chapters and chapters with only feminine pronouns was striking.

Eventually, I actually paid attention properly to the story and understood that these were characters without genders. In some ways I found this one of the elements of the book that was hardest to picture, and had to actively stop myself trying to assign genders to people. It certainly serves to highlight the completely pervasive nature of gender (and gendered expectations) in literally everything about how we live our lives – our social interactions, language, clothes, assumptions we make about people – and reinforced the importance of respecting and championing people’s own gender identities.

While I was reading the books I also finally got around to seeing the new Star Wars film (an enjoyable film, but it did feel quite a lot like fan fiction). As many of the discussions I’d seen about the film had been around gender, it was interesting to contrast different ways dealing with questions around gender were explored in Star Wars and in the Imperial Radch series.

Still from The Force Awakens, featuring Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and BB-8. via IMDB
Still from The Force Awakens, featuring Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and BB-8. via IMDB.

The most recent Star Wars film does represent some advance in the portrayal of women compared to previous ones: Rey can repair and drive the Millennium Falcon and manage to escape pretty well on her own form the First Order. Its great to see her tell Finn (who she has just met) to stop holding her hand. But she is presented very much as an anomaly. People are constantly expressing surprise at the things that she can do. And Leia, despite being the Rebel general, isn’t even told what the plan is. The position of women in Star Wars: Episode VII – the Force Awakens seems to me to reflect the gains that have been made since the first films were made, but are limited in their imagination to the dominant expectations of the society we live in. The Imperial Radch, on the other hand, presents a different situation to our world, but one that forces you to question the way gender is in our society.


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