Warning: Rant follows.
Knowledgeable responses to SF require a certain apprenticeship; it’s impossible to approach SF criticism without a certain familiarity with many SF texts. Just as a wonderfully articulate casual reader cannot simply pick up “The Divine Comedy” or “The Name of the Rose” and begin a nuanced enjoyment of both books, a SF newbie must work her or his way into the specialized narrative structures and vocabulary of SF. The gender treatment belongs to the category.
Lecki’s so-called inventive approach to the treatment of gender is simply awful. I found myself having a hard time trying to follow the personal pronouns, eg, the character of Seivarden, who is referred to as both he and she in the novel: In some parts of the novel personal pronouns can't be relied on convey to whom the narrator is referring. The text can be utterly confusing at times, and Leckie took the easy way out. When things got too complicated, personal-pronouns-wise, in many parts of the novel Leckie defaults to “she” to avoid making things too damn complicated.
If one wants to read a wonderful treatment of the gender “issue” in SF (or elsewhere), read Ursula K. Le Guin. Almost all of Le Guin’s novels have at their core the gender concern. In Le Guin’s take she basically wants to call attention to those characteristics which are associated with one’s sexual identity but which are learned rather than genetically caused. See for instance her approach to The Gethenians in “The Left Hand of Darkness”. The Gethenians don’t have gender characteristics, having instead sexual potency and identity that only lasts for a month (during a period called Kemmer). During this period a person becomes a sexually male or female, with no predisposition toward either (vide Le Guin’s essay in terms of gender experimentation in SF). Le Guin’s has always been able to fully explore this. Lecki’s approach is cartoonish because she is not able to give Seivarden the samemanwoman characteristic that Estraven (in “The Left Hand of Darkness”) has. Instead what we have is a big narrative mess.
It’s a sorry state of affairs when a novel like this one is able to win the Arthur C. Clarke award. It’s detrimental to SF that this novel is getting all the praise that it seems to be getting. If this is the best SF can do at the moment, we’re in deep shit, SF-wise. This is one of reasons I’ve almost altogether stopped reading SF… still in rant mode, it’s quite incomprehensible how a novel like “The Adjacent” by Cristopher Priest does not get any more notoriety. It’s a far superior SF specimen.
Let’s summarize the “problems” with Lecki’s novel:
- The plot is boring as hell;
- The characters are as interesting as an inflexible wooden board (on a side note, if the book’s characters are not interesting, then it’s certainly a complete waste of my time);
- The exploration of gender is cartoonish to the extreme, ie, it didn’t add anything to the story;
- Nothing of interest was explored in any depth:
- Gender (it felt gimmicky);
- The religious implications of AI;
- The galactic-spanning theocratic empire;
- The politics of an empire ripping apart at its seams;
- The impact of a xenophobic society expanding through a galaxy;
- There's not enough science behind the fiction
So. What’s the point? I’ve read it because I was curious to know why “The Adjacent” didn’t won the Arthur C. Clarke. After reading “Ancillary Justice” I still fail to understand the rationale. Why all the hype, the buzz, the talk about this book? I think it’s another successful case of a devious book publishing strategy. Or maybe Lecki has a better marketing machine than Priest.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent have explored gender in much more shocking, and more meaningful ways a long time ago.
Bottom-line: Should it be read? Absolutely. I’ve been reading SF for close to 40 years. In today’s SF, and with a few exceptions (eg, Greg Egan, Christopher Priest, Maureen F. McHugh, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Susanna Clarke, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, Ted Chiang, etc), SF as genre has become stagnant. For me SF (the written kind) is still the best medium best suited to explore what’s possible, what should and should not be, what our own expectations say about us and everything in-between and under the sun. The gender treatment in this novel is unnecessary, is distracting, and contributes nothing to the story. It all felt like a huge pothole.
This state-of-affairs both depresses me and pisses me off in equal measure.
NB: SF = Speculative Fiction.