Is Ann Leckie the Next Big Thing in Science Fiction?

Categories: Longform

If you're going to do something that crazy, save it for when it will make a difference. —Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice is a multi-narrative beast of a novel. The plot follows Breq, the last survivor of a 2,000-year-old troop carrier called the Justice of Toren. Actually, in a way, Breq is the Justice of Toren — she was an artificial intelligence living within the ship filled with officers and soldiers. Along with its human crew, the Justice of Toren transported thousands of human corpses, or "ancillaries," which can be revived under control of the ship's AI. Breq reanimated and was inhabiting one of these dead soldiers when the Justice of Toren was blown to smithereens. The book follows Breq in her vengeful quest to find out who destroyed her ship, haunted by the memory of her crew "whose every breath, every twitch of every muscle, was known to me."

The opening chapters also reveal the novel's other twist, which is that Breq's culture, the Radchaai, do not distinguish gender. All the characters are by default a "she," like in this passage when Breq enters a none-too-friendly tavern on a frozen, human-inhabited world: "I turned to look at her, to study her face. She was taller than most Nilters, but fat and pale as any of them. She outbulked me, but I was taller, and I was also considerably stronger than I looked.... She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt."

"I just thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to have a society that really, genuinely doesn't care about gender? That they have it, but it's just genuinely irrelevant? That would be kind of neat!'" says Leckie. "I had a lot of people say to me, who would have reason to know, 'You will never be able to sell this because of the pronouns.'"

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This complex, gender-bending world sprang from the mind of a former Catholic who says her religious parents were not always so keen on their daughter's nerdy predilections.

"My parents were not thrilled about the science-fiction thing," she says. "They were hoping I would outgrow it."

Leckie was born in 1966 in Toledo, Ohio. When she was one year old, her parents, both chemists, left Ohio for a two-family flat on Hartford Street in Tower Grove.

Leckie's parents always hoped she would become a writer but imagined she would pen "real literature." And they had some hang-ups about what it meant to be a female sci-fi fan.

"Of course I was a Star Trek fan," Leckie recalls. "I had bought this great big poster of Captain Kirk. I was going to put it up in my room, and my parents told me this horrible cautionary tale about a guy, a grad student who was a big Star Trek fan who wanted to put up a poster of Kirk in his living room. His new wife didn't like it."

The moral of the story, Leckie remembers, was that she should be careful about waving her nerd flag too high.

"Maybe I wouldn't find anyone who would want to marry me," she says bemusedly.

Yet for her fourteenth birthday, her parents bought a Brian Aldiss-edited anthology called Space Opera. They had "resigned themselves," she says, to her passion for the genre.

Leckie escaped the bullying and isolation she experienced in elementary school by binging on Andre Norton's young-adult novels, tales with space battles and wizards and sorcery. By the time she enrolled in Rosati-Kain High School she'd learned that her favorite author was born Alice Mary Norton. She began writing under the pen name "Andre" in 1936 to better appeal to adolescent male readers.

"It is interesting," Leckie says. "When you read something you think is by a guy and you discover it's not, it's a strange kind of experience. It's like there was a shift."

Leckie graduated from Washington University in 1989 with a degree in music, but what followed was a string of jobs that had little to do with her education. She became a waitress and hostess at the university's faculty club for nine years — likely where she perfected her frequent, disarmingly warm smile — before bouncing between temp jobs, even pulling a stint on a land-surveying crew. She married her husband David Harre in 1996, and they bought a house in Shrewsbury. (As it turns out, he is a huge Star Trek fan.)

Leckie gave birth to daughter Aiden in 1996, and then a son, Gowen, in 2000 and opted to stay home with them, though she also picked up part-time work as a substitute lunch lady. It turned out that motherhood inspired her to start writing — in a manner of speaking.

"I never actually really sat down and tried in earnest to be a writer until I'd been home with my kids a couple years and I felt like my brains were leaking out my ears," she says. "I love my kids, but it's really tough to spend all day with nobody but your kids to talk to, and especially when they're not talking yet. So I had to do something."

Leckie's first attempt at a novel came in November 2002. She was inspired by National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo — a yearly online writing initiative that communally motivates people to write a novel in just 30 days. Leckie successfully sketched the first outlines of the Radchaai empire in that exercise. The result — the earliest incarnation of what would become Ancillary Justice — is currently imprisoned in a desk drawer.

"It's very rough," says Leckie.

In 2005 she applied and was accepted to the prestigious Clarion West Writers Workshop, a six-week science-fiction and fantasy writing program in Seattle that accepts only eighteen students per year.

"That was a big decision she made to go there and leave us here in St. Louis for a while," says Harre, Leckie's husband. "That was something that let me know she was serious about this. [I just had to] jump in and support her."

Leckie and her classmates studied under legendary feminist science-fiction author and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Octavia Butler. After returning home, she began to write the novel that would eventually become Ancillary Justice.

"I would go back to it and abandon it, back to it and abandon it," she says, reflecting on the next six years wrangling the novel's complex narratives and heady themes. "It took me a long time to get up the courage to write it."

She began shopping around the finished product in 2012 and found an agent relatively quickly. Orbit Books snapped the novel up. But just before the deal was inked, Leckie says, her agent came to her with some suggested revisions. One of them was to ditch the confusing pronouns.

"I was like, 'No, whatever happens, I'm not going to change that. That's a deal breaker,'" she says. "I sent him this big, long e-mail, and he was like 'Oh. All right.'"

The novel hit shelves in October 2013 and almost immediately began to make waves.

"When I read Ancillary Justice with all the revisions in, it was the first book that I have read by one of my friends where I really felt like this could be part of a canon," says Rachel Swirsky, a fellow Clarion attendee and a 2013 Nebula winner. "It has the same feeling of weight as those very important early feminist books, like [Margaret Atwood's] The Handmaid's Tale. It's got that quality."

Leckie dedicated it to her parents.

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3 comments
WolfBaginski
WolfBaginski

There is a huge amount of not-nice history associated with the idea "woman in a bikini", and that is getting to be noticed. It's not just something in Science Fiction. The same issues are exploding through the businesses of computer games and comic books. I don't get as worked up over language as some — I am not a woman and benefit from the defaults — but I am wondering how your headline is going to seem in another five years.  Somebody is flashing "A St. Louis Mom Is New Queen of Sci-Fi" at us, while the proper headline is "Is Ann Leckie the Next Big Thing in Science Fiction?" It all goes with the same story, the same person, but they present different images, both of the Story-Subject and the news media that presents them.


Writing headlines is a skill, and a distinct one from writing books. It has to catch the eye of a wide audience. They are different versions of the same story, neither of them wrong or complete. But what will they look like when a future researcher finds them in an archive? It's not as though it's a bikini-shot.


Though, looking at one or two other pictures of Ann Leckie, out on the web, and discounting the picture of Kameron Hurley which Google misidentifies, it's not the best of angles your picture editor chose.


We all have to try to do better.



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