When it comes to fiction, there is a middle ground that I like for plot. I’ve read a good deal of pulp, but there isn’t a single pulp story that I can recall with clarity because the stories aren’t there to convey any sort of deeper sense than the action and motion of the plot. On the other side of things, most of the books that I’ve give up on are ones that are incredibly over engineered. I imagine a guy (it’s always a guy) who has turned the shed behind his house into a writer’s nook and fetishizes every historic detail of his piece and then amplifies that effort by putting those sprinkles of authentic description in quite liberally.

In the past couple months, the two games that have gotten at least a couple hours of my time every week have been Diablo III, which if it has a story, I didn’t catch any of it, and Dying Light, which does have a story, but I’m pretty sure I wrote something like that when I was in high school. The purposes of either game is not the story.

Every now and then, there comes a story that has plenty of action and the times in between shares a story that is meaningful and important. Usually I find this in sci-fi more so than in other genres. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes are all great examples of great plots, the appropriate moderation of action, and a detailed, living universe without the author shoveling needless details into our laps.

Added to that list is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. I knew nothing going into the book other than it had a Hugo Award and it’s sequel had netted a Nebula Award. The first thing that I found to be of note is that the protagonist speaks a language that doesn’t acknowledge gender, so the feminine pronoun is used nearly exclusively in the entire book. Initially, I had thought that this would be some sort of narrative gimmick the author had chosen to insert modern social stressors into the futuristic story that I’d tire of by the third chapter, but that is not at all what happened. From the standpoint of how it works with the story, it’s occasional remarked that the protagonist unintentionally (or intentionally) bungles up gender pronouns when addressing people who belong to a culture where acknowledging gender is important. This is a bit of a pressure release valve, because it’s always a humorous bit of the story and takes off the edge of the idea that this is a stance the author is taking on modern ideals. However, intended or otherwise, as a reader this regularly gave me thought provoking moments. Because of this narrative theme, most of the characters in the story the reader has no idea what gender they are, and at times I found myself starting to guess from plot clues, and then I’d pause and ask “Does it matter?”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a positive review from the middle of last year that focuses on the female gender pronouns. The subtitle of the review is:

In a world of only female pronouns, Ann Leckie’s sci-fi novel poses disturbing questions

The issue is that the review doesn’t really touch on the actual disturbing questions. NPR and io9 both have positive reviews that dip into some of the other issues the book brings up. One of my favorite minor characters in the story is a high priest of a planet that has been violently annexed by the dominant human government in the universe. In it, he petitions the ranking officer overseeing the occupation to not leave, taking her ancillary troops allowing someone else to return with human troops. Ancillaries are extensions of warships that are humans who have been horrifically integrated into the ship’s AI. Human troops are the new default as the ancillaries are controversial and seemingly more expensive. The high priest argues that ancillaries will never rape or assault or humiliate his people, while human troops will. This was a mind bending question for me: someone is arguing for mechanized oppression, because humans are too cold hearted.

The second one from the same characters was arguing for the new oppression of the Radch versus the old oppressors on the planet because the old higher ups would kill someone then have to distribute a justification of why it happened. The Radch would kill someone, say they were causing trouble, and move on without any more ceremony. The honesty of it seemed to appeal to him. Also, a mind bender for me.

For as much reading as I do, this was one of the rare ones I would try to schedule time in my day to get just one more chapter in to see where the story would take us. I cannot recommend it enough.