If Ancillary Justice were a horse, it would have won the Triple Crown. If it were a golfer,
it would have snagged a Grand Slam. But Ann Leckie’s thoroughbred is a sci-fi book, and
it achieved its particular distinction by winning the coveted Hugo Award for best novel…
and the Nebula Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. No previous book ever achieved
that triple distinction.
Ancillary Justice has now been translated into a dozen or so languages,
and also got optioned for a TV series. And did I mention it took home the British Science
Fiction Association (BSFA) Award? By the way, it also picked up a Locus Award for best
first novel.

Yes, Leckie earned all of these honors with her debut effort.  
Her path to success, however, was highly unconventional, and
she is anything but an overnight success. The author of
Ancillary Justice was in her mid-forties at the time of its
publication, and her resume included stints as a waitress,
receptionist, recording engineer, and rodman on a land
surveying team. Although she had made some efforts to
publish fiction in her youth, her vocation as a writer didn’t
take off in earnest until after the birth of her children, and
she sought distraction from the responsibilities of a stay-
at-home mom.  Her decision to participate in National
Novel Writing Month back in 2002 led to the first draft of
Ancillary Justice, but a full decade would elapse before
she completed the work and sold it to publisher Orbit Books.

How would I describe Leckie’s novel to a sci-fi fan who was
trying to decide whether to read it? I would start with a
comparison to Ursula K. Le Guin, who came to fame a half-
century ago with a thoughtful insertion of sociological,
religious, political and gender themes into deftly-paced space
operas. Leckie works from the same playbook, and adds some new twists of her own.
But her book also shows the influence of
Star Wars and Star Trek (Yes, Leckie was a
Trekkie—there’s the making of a limerick there, I’m sure) and other intergalactic thrillers where
devastating weapon systems and high tech battles in outer space juice up the
action, but don’t entirely  replace one-on-one fights and over-the-top personal rivalries
in pushing the plot forward. Mix these two elements, the cerebral and the pugilistic,
and spice lightly with Orwell, Atwood and Vance, and—voila!—you have

But the bold, new ingredients are the most interesting elements in this novel. For one,
the narrator is a corpse.  Or, an ancillary, in the lingo of the Radch empire, the
totalitarian political system that controls most of the universe in which this novel takes
place. Ancillaries are dead bodies that have been revivified to serve as slave soldiers
for the Emperor of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. Teams of ancillaries work together
on battle and occupation missions, and even though they possess a degree of
individuality, they also share a common mind—allowing for a seamless flow of thoughts
and actions between the corpse soldiers. These are
zombies on steroids, my friend.
The Emperor also shares this ability to operate simultaneously in multiple bodies—so
even if an assassin killed one manifestation of the leader, many others remain active,
thus allowing the Anaander Mianaai to survive any number of calamities and, in principle,
to maintain rule forever.

This multi-body perspective allows Leckie to employ some interesting prose techniques,
as she integrates the simultaneous impressions of the different individuals constituting
her ancillary narrator, Breq. But on a more practical plot-driven level, the fact that a
single character can possess more than one body creates a huge obstacle for Breq,
who has decided that she wants to murder the Emperor—but how can you assassinate
a leader who has spread herself over so many planets and solar systems?

I said ‘she’ in describing Breq and Anaander Mianaai, but that requires me to explain
the other intriguing twist in this novel. Our narrator struggles to identify gender cues in
many settings, and can’t distinguish a ‘he’ from a ‘she’. As a result Breq relies on a
universal ‘she’ in describing and addressing people—a practice that occasionally
causes problems when she is speaking about a male in a language that relies on
gender-driven terms and rules. Leckie uses this deliberate ambiguity to good
advantage, and the reader who mentally envisions the passing scenes in the book
must deal with the mind-expanding complexity of characters who are male from the
perspective of their society, but female in the language of the narrator of

Leckie is also skilled in her handling of a complex chronology, with different subplots
taking place at various points in a thousand year timespan. Breq’s travelling companion
Seivarden is a survivor of an Imperial disaster a millennium in the past, and another
key building block in the story involves the mass killing of innocent citizens by Radch
occupation forces more than a decade before the main events of
Ancillary Justice.  
The resonance between past and present is amplified by a mythological-religious
subtext about destiny, synchronicity and prognostication that permeates the belief
systems of the key characters.

It’s to Leckie’s credit that her daring moves in narrative structure soon begin to feel
like the most natural and unobtrusive way of telling her tale.  Many readers will get caught
up in her action story and not even notice how many chances the author is taking along
the way.  The same is true of the ‘big picture’ themes embedded in
Ancillary Justice. If
I were teaching this book in a classroom setting, I could use it to spur discussions on
civil disobedience, stereotypes, religious tolerance and a host of other issues that
rarely take center stage in genre fiction.  But here too the ‘ideas’ are mixed in so subtly
with the energy and pacing of a thriller, that the reader is hardly aware of the many
different levels at which this book is simultaneously operating. The result is the best kind
of experimental novel—namely one in which the experiment is so successful that the
audience is unaware of the many ways it could have failed.

But I do have a gripe with
Ancillary Justice, and it is the same complaint I have
made against many other genre novels. Instead of seeking for closure at the end of
her book, Leckie decides to set the stage for a sequel. This is a characteristic move
in the current day—after all, why aim to create a great novel when you could build a
commercial franchise instead. But it is precisely this kind of decision that shows the
large gap between a literary writer and a genre writer. John Updike wrote sequels to
Rabbit Run, but he didn’t use the ending of book one to build up demand for book
two. Instead he sought for closure and a holistic aesthetic vision. The same is true of
Philip Roth, who would never have distorted the conclusion of
American Pastoral or
The Human Stain to amplify the Zuckerman franchise.  Marilynne Robinson’s Home is
more than a sequel to her novel
Gilead—they each tell the same story from a different
perspective—but she makes sure that each book is self-contained and complete. If
science fiction writers want to be taken as seriously as the shining stars of mainstream
literary prizes, they ought to learn from these examples.  Write the best book you can,
and don’t shortchange the reader in the final chapter in order to hook them into buying
a sequel or prequel or (worst of all) an infinite series of brand extensions.

But I can’t lay all the blame for this at Leckie’s feet. Plenty of other genre writers have
made the same move—and probably with the encouragement of agents, publishers
and readers. And there’s enough skill and bravura in the first 350 pages of
to convince me to overlook the manipulations of the final pages of the book.  
And certainly when dealing with a debut novel, any reservations about a work of this
caliber are more than offset by high hopes for works to come.  Leckie is a big talent,
and now that she has won the Triple Crown of sci-fi, she just might pull off a crossover
victory in that sprawling alien universe outside the boundaries of genre writing.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His
most recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: October 17, 2018
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Ancillary Justice

by Ann Leckie
Essay by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

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Great Books Guide
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Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
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The Misread City
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SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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