Is Ann Leckie the Next Big Thing in Science Fiction?

Categories: Longform
As the controversy raged on — reaching a particularly low point when a long-time SFWA member called Jemisin, who is African American, an "ignorant half savage" — Ancillary Justice was building steam. National Public Radio called it "gripping and stylish" and "an absorbing thousand-year history, a poignant personal journey, and a welcome addition to the genre."

"It's not every day a debut novel by an author you'd never heard of before derails your entire afternoon with its brilliance," raved's Liz Bourke in her review, ranking the book among the best space operas ever written.

The Gawker-owned science and science-fiction blog i09 dubbed it the "mind-blowing space opera you've been needing," and the Guardian called it "thrilling, moving and awe-inspiring."

Jennifer Silverberg
Leckie is finishing the second part of the trilogy, Ancillary Sword. It's due out this fall.

Four months after its release, the book began collecting award nominations. Then it started winning. First, in March, it won the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle award for best debut novel. Next it took the award for Best Novel from the British Science Fiction Association. From there, Ancillary Justice was off to the races — and the Nebulas.

The effects of last summer's SFWA shake-up couldn't have been more clear than at the Nebula ceremony on May 17, 2014. The emcee was a woman — something many of the authors in attendance took note of — and she wore a tuxedo. The event was layered with milestones: SFWA named Samuel Delany its 30th Grand Master, the first black and openly gay recipient of the honor. Frank M. Robinson, another openly gay science-fiction writer whose résumé includes penning speeches for Harvey Milk, was also honored that night. Then the female authors began to win.

"There are certainly going to be those muttering darkly about a 'feminist cabal' that voted en masse to make a point," says Scalzi. "I think that is stupid and not actually what happened. I think what actually happened was we had a lot of excellent writing this year by women in science fiction and fantasy. All the women won because they deserved to win."

At the tail end of the night, the audience sat quietly and expectantly in the darkened ballroom. Stan Schmidt, an elderly, dour-looking editor made his way to the podium. Schmidt edited Analog Science Fiction and Fact from 1978 to 2012. In 2007 he penned a rejection letter addressed to "Mr. Leckie." This time, from the podium, he got her name right.

"The Nebula for a novel goes to Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie," he read, launching the crowd into thunderous applause.

Hugging her Clarion friends and fellow female winners all the way, Leckie — dressed in a shimmering red gown — ascended the stage and took the block of transparent Lucite, embedded with a spiraling glitter nebula and gemstone planets.

"It's an astonishing thing to find that something you've written has connected with other readers," she told the crowd. "I am beyond delighted and amazed. Thank you all so, so much."

Today, Leckie is back in St. Louis and writing full-time. Last week, she sent her editors the final proof of the second book of the trilogy, Ancillary Sword. It's slated to be in bookstores in October. She'll travel to London in August for the Hugo Award ceremony.

She says she's as surprised by her own success as she is by the fact that it occurred in conjunction with so much controversy about gender and the treatment of women in sci-fi.

"It's part of the reason I was so astonished at the novel's reception, because I knew about all these conversations and arguments," she says, leaning back in the orange wingback chair in the Webster University library, her old rejection letters in front of her.

She says she hopes at the very least she can inspire other science-fiction authors to think differently about the role of female characters and about gender in general.

"What I hope is that publishers and editors say, 'Well, Ancillary Justice did pretty well, maybe we can take a risk.' And what I really hope is that a bunch of writers look at my book and say, 'She didn't go far enough.'"

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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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