An interview with Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie was recently named the 28th winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, which celebrates the best new science fiction in Britain. Winning with her debut novel Ancillary Justice, Leckie beat Kameron Hurkey, Phillip Mann, Ramez Naam, Christopher Priest and James Smythe on this year's shortlist and joined the ranks of previous winners, including Margaret Atwood, China Mieville and Lauren Beukes.

An epic world-spanning tale of revenge and determination, Ancillary Justice kicks off a new space saga where one human possessing the AI of a warship has to overcome the limitations of being able to only control one body instead of thousands, and take down those that destroyed it.

Leckie says she has loved sci fi since she was young, particularly 'the sheer space of it – not just “outer space”, but the epic hugeness that's possible. I also love the way science fiction can take real life details and transform them, rearrange and combine them in a way that can leave you seeing things in a new way,' she explains. 'And of course, I love epic adventure and explosions as much as the next girl, and those are often part of the deal!'

She says she started building worlds and stories early on, with her first genre love being the American fantasy and sci fi author Andre Norton. 'I regret not writing her before she died, to tell her how important her books had been to my young self,' says Leckie. 'I also feel I owe a debt to Jack Vance and CJ Cherryh.'

After having short stories published in Subterranean Magazine, Strange Horizons and Realms of Fantasy, Ancillary Justice was published by Orbit last year.

Ancillary Justice, betrayed and trapped in a human body, tells the story in first person and forms an interesting and complex protagonist; not human but not completely machine, driving the story forward with both unintentional humour and a determined desire for annihilation.

Leckie says that the character of Justice and all the AI ships arose out of the world and it felt right to have Justice tell the story. Designed to control both the ship and its own large number of ancillary bodies (humans who fell foul of the expanding Radchaai empire and are corpse soldiers stored until the AI needs to take them over) the ship AIs have been made to be detached from their captains after some went rogue when their captains died, but do have emotions to make them better at working alongside humans. On why she felt Justice needed emotions rather than just being a machine, Leckie says: 'I think some readers are still experiencing [Justice] as “emotionless” and finding it difficult to connect with her on that account, even though it's more a question of her not speaking directly about those emotions. But I built her (and the other AI ships) with emotions for practical, in-world reasons, before I ever started writing. For one thing, it seems to me that increasingly we're finding that emotion is an important part of cognition, not some separate system that, if we could be rid of it, would cease to interfere with our thinking. And for another, human bodies are part of the ships' bodies (at least the ones who still have ancillaries), and human bodies experience emotion. So I could either find some way to remove or work around those things, or I could use them.

'Maybe more importantly, if Justice of Toren has no emotion, there's no story,' she continues. 'It doesn't care about what happened, and maybe One Esk Nineteen [the ancillary body Justice becomes trapped inside] would carry out its orders, but that would be the end of it. It's the emotion that drives the story to begin with. This is, by the way, a problem I see with the assertion that the “objective” view of various problems (social problems, say) is the superior one. Objectively, nothing really matters – in a thousand years' time we'll all be dead anyway. You can only be objective about something you don't actually care about, that you have no stake in, at which point it's so easy to completely dismiss all kinds of things. So to insist that the “objective” view is the right one is to insist that a problem doesn't actually matter.'

In addition to Justice's reserved character, Leckie has also made the Radchaai language gender neutral, represented by the use of 'her / she' for both male and female characters as the story is told in the first person by Justice. This leads to amusing exasperation from Justice when it has to speak in other languages and have a guess at whether the person she's speaking or referring to is male or female, and also raises interesting points from a reader's point of view as to how a character is perceived differently once you find out that a character originally thought of as female is actually male. This has been a problem for some reviewers who find it too confusing. Asked whether there were any strong motivations behind this decision to have a lack of gender pronouns, Leckie says that she is actually surprised that more people weren't put off by it and that's been a pleasant surprise.

'Just playing around with world building, before I ever started writing, I wanted the Radchaai not to care about gender,' she explains. 'I don't know why, it just seemed like it might be fun. And once I started writing, it became clear that this presented challenges. Which is the writer-definition of fun, I suppose.

'I had, as I saw it, a few possible ways to deal with writing from the perspective of a culture that didn't care about gender,' she continues. '“They” was a distinct possibility, but while I am a huge supporter of singular “they” in general, it didn't feel right doing that for an entire novel. (I'm hoping to see someone pull that off, though!) In the end, I went with “she” because it was familiar – every sentence would be easily comprehended for most readers, without the extra effort of interpreting an unfamiliar pronoun – but contested the masculine default that we're so used to.

'I found I really liked the combination of the familiar with the strange that it produced,' says Leckie, 'but I also realized that not every reader would like that, so I spent some time considering if I really wanted to do that, and if the book would be damaged (in my estimation) if I took that out. I anticipated being asked to assign genders to everyone and use the appropriate pronouns, so I figured I should be sure in my mind whether or how far I might be willing to compromise. In the event, it wasn't a problem and has turned out to be something a lot of readers enjoyed.'

A sequel to Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, is due to be published in October this year and Leckie says that this will expand the action into Radchaai space. However, for now she is still coming to terms with the fact her debut novel has won the Arthur C Clarke Prize: 'I was flabbergasted enough to see Ancillary Justice shortlisted, right alongside such amazing books!' she says. 'The day the winner was announced I was all set to congratulate the author of the winning book, very relaxed and pleased about the whole thing. When someone tweeted the announcement I was… extraordinarily surprised is an understatement.

'I'm still kind of just saying “OMG” about it. But I have to admit, it's kind of awesome!'

For more information on Ann Leckie and her writing, visit: www.annleckie.com.

Ann Leckie books reviewed