I started reading science fiction with a copy of ‘Ringworld’ by Larry Niven that my brother owned. I went on to read the classics: Asimov, Clarke, Silverberg. When I attended the science fiction/Fantasy fan club meeting at university, I argued strongly on the side of SF in the debates ‘What is better, SF or fantasy?’ Clearly, it’s science fiction! Duh. Why is this even a thing? Though this was that days before Harry Potter and Mieville; I might have to concede defeat on those fronts.
In my years of SF reading I’ve become far pickier about the sorts of things I want to read. I recently discovered Reynolds, Stross, and Stephenson, there are a lot of great authors out there and even more so-so ones. I thought I’d read all the good stuff. I’ve read obscure. I’ve read recommended. I was bored. I had reached a point where I was giving up on finding anything that floated my boat.
I was bumbling around the internet one day when I decided I needed more books. I looked up the winners of various SF awards to get inspiration, and one book kept cropping up: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
I thought to myself, “How good can it be, oh well, lets give it a go.”
It’s kind of like, when you visit Agra, and it’s a giant seething tourist trap mess of a place, and you think “There is no way the Taj Mahal can be worth this, like the taxi that broke down on the way here and while it was repaired I had to sit for five hours in a hot roadside café drinking the only thing they had cold – and that was Fosters – and then getting to Agra and checking in to the worst hotel I’ve seen – and being followed and abused by people trying to sell me a bag of peanuts” – but you know what, the Taj was so worth it. It was glorious. Even worth the Fosters. Yep. That good.
Ancillary Justice is the Taj Mahal in the midst of the SFF landscape of Agra, shining as an example of delight in a morass of so-so writing and boring plots and meandering shambling series. I have been blown away by this book. I’m glad I didn’t start the series until Ann Leckie had a chance to complete the trilogy because I was able to get hold of the next two books immediately. I did not have to wait.
I’ve never read a book which handles gender so utterly astonishingly well. But for me, the thing that Leckie truly does brilliantly is the personal interactions that happen when people just plain old get down to liking each other. I have decided that the appeal for me in this book are the originality of the origins of the protagonist (and how that is handled), and that this book has such affection written into and between it’s characters.
The main character looks out for, and looks after, other people throughout the story, and they also look after her. It’s all based on basic, glorious, humanity. This is what’s lacking in so many other books, and it’s so real.
It’s what happens in real life, translated to a galactic, interstellar story. How many times do you work in a crappy job, but you don’t leave because you like the people? They don’t even have to be friends, you don’t love them, they are not besties – but you happen to find them good to be around: you look out for them and look after them because you merely really like and respect them, and you enjoy your work with them. Gentle affection has very little place in most SF, where many characters are written because they are in conflict with other people, in love with other people, or on a quest to fetch something for some reason. There is hate, there is love, but not often is there basic comfortable caring friendship. Or the willingness to make a move that may cost you, because it’s the just thing to do.
I lent my copies of this trilogy to my bestie, who started a howl of protest that she had to put this book down to go to bed. I agree with that sentiment utterly. I want them back. Time to reread them, it’s been a few weeks now! And to be fair, another friend didn’t like the book at all, so I’m guessing it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Oh yeah, tea.
The author is obsessed with tea. And that made me drink far more tea while I was reading Ancillary Justice, and frankly, it’s time for tea now, I think.
I’ll have an Earl Grey, hot.*
* To mix science fiction universes. If you don’t get the reference then I suspect you are either much older than me or much younger. Either way, go forth and engage Google.