Power, Responsibility, and Revenge: Auxiliary Justice A Decade Later

Ten years ago, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice won numerous awards and shot up the bestseller list, fueled by rave reviews. In her first book, Leckie reassembled the DNA of space opera into a surprising production that captured all the wonder of space empires while questioning their goodness. Iain M. Banks, Ursula Le Guin, and CJ Cherryh all had clear influences on the novel, as would any book on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Leckie’s results, however, are unique and well worth revisiting a decade later.

Leckie pinned all of her big ideas on a thrilling revenge story. Blake was the last auxiliary of the massive starship Torunn Justice, and he had one goal: to kill Anaander Mianai, ruler of the Radchai Empire (commonly referred to simply as Raki). As we learn through two intertwined timelines spanning a millennium, Miana is responsible for Blake’s current state and the death of Blake’s favorite lieutenant. Blake is kind of like John Wick and his dogs, if Wick was the last remnant of the spacecraft’s artificial intelligence, now confined to a human body.

Leckie opens with Blake on the planet Niert, a ruthless, isolated planet swallowed by the Rakis. Blake stumbles upon Sebalden, an officer on the Justice of Torrhen centuries ago. Seivarden nearly died from an overdose, but instead of abandoning him, Breq chose to rescue him, even though Breq never really liked him.

In that early scene, Leckie effectively establishes one of the world’s key features: that the Radchai language is gender-neutral. Breq defaults to using her/her pronouns for everyone unless she speaks the language of the colony. We only know Seivarden as a “he,” as Niert’s bartender calls him. Leckie often shows Blake how to find the right pronouns for the language needed.

In today’s genre, many writers deal with gender and gendered pronouns in their work in thoughtful and thought-provoking ways. Leckie does this herself in “The State of Translation,” her new book set in Larch’s world. But what she does in Ancillary Justice is very different. Instead of clarifying the character’s identity, she completely removes the gender factor. Gender is irrelevant in the Rarch space. All humans are “she”. As a reader, the default femininity is palpable until it’s very unnoticeable. It doesn’t really matter to Blake because we spend most of our time in his head. Soon, it doesn’t matter to us anymore, unless we stop to think about how irrelevant gender is in many sci-fi stories (it’s absolutely central to others, of course).

At the heart of Leckie’s story is how she explores power and the responsibility of those who empower it. “Power requires neither permission nor forgiveness,” Blake said, echoing Mianat. But that’s not how Breq behaves. We see this in an early scene where Blake saves Sewalden. Blake isn’t sure why she chooses to do this – and Sevarden is causing Blake a lot of pain most of the time – but Leckie slowly reveals her more complex understanding of power that may always right. This is an aspect of the Imperial Raki series that, when first published, didn’t receive as much attention or generate as much discussion as the books’ treatment of gender/pronouns.

In an effort to spoil the plot of the nearly decade-long trilogy, Blake’s Judge Toren does what Mianet orders. Blake had no choice, as decision-making abilities weren’t programmed into the ship’s artificial intelligence. When Mianaai’s sense of self began to split millennia later, Blake was ordered to shoot Blake’s favorite lieutenant, which Blake did. Wielding power like a blunt weapon ultimately led to Miana’s undoing. Blake brought down Miana with soft power rather than brute force. Even if the artificial intelligences (by Blake’s crew) are freed from their tasks and can only do what they tell them, Blake will have to use her words to convince them to support her in the fight, despite knowing that these mighty ships may make different options. The path she chose was not easy.

While Blake’s larger campaign to change Larch is what drives the plot, it’s not where the deeper nuances lie. Instead, a subtle exploration of power reveals how Blake interacts with both the colonized and those conquered by the colonized. For example, in the tea gardens of the Atok system, planters treated workers like serfs. Blake uses her power to subvert this oppressive class structure without asking permission or forgiveness. While the results don’t always please our protagonist, these interactions reinforce Breq’s understanding that with power comes responsibility…something Mianaai has forgotten, if she knew it in the first place.

Blake’s approach to building alliances, rather than pursuing mass destruction, is what triggered the fault lines that already existed in the Raki civilization. I won’t go into detail here for complicated reasons. The empire can no longer expand, nor can new appendages be made. Once those pressures kick in, those with the most power demonstrate all the ways in which that power can be wielded, from Mianet’s impulse to kill disobedients to Blake’s enlightened team-building. Examining power structures is something science fiction has long done and will continue to do in the far future, of course, but Leckie’s particular approach is worth revisiting now, if only to remember how subversive parts of it were at the time, and how disruptive the rest of it has become over the ensuing years.

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