Ann Leckie was at home in St Louis, Missouri, on the night of the Arthur C Clarke Award ceremony back in May. Up for the UK’s most prestigious science fiction prize alongside an impressive roster of names—including elder statesman of the genre Christopher Priest—she was delighted to be shortlisted, but didn’t think her début, last year’s Ancillary Justice, stood a chance.
“The life of a @ClarkeAward nominated author: I am drinking tea, and shortly I will be folding laundry. Might even get out of my PJs,” she wrote, laconically, on Twitter. And, minutes later, in one of the best, least-planned reactions to winning a literary prize this year: “OH MY FUCKING GOD . . . I was not expecting that.”
“Well, I didn’t think I was going to win,” Leckie says over the phone. “I thought maybe James Smythe would win . . . but I didn’t think I stood a chance. So I was sitting on my couch in my bathrobe thinking ‘well, whoever wins I’ll say congratulations on Twitter’ . . . and then the announcement came and I was like, you’re kidding me.”
Ancillary Justice is narrated by a starship that used to control the minds of thousands of brain-wiped soldiers (or “ancillaries”), who were used to “annex” other planets. Now the starship’s artificial intelligence is housed in just one human body. After the Clarke Award win, it won the Nebula, beating big names including Neil Gaiman and Karen Joy Fowler. Now, it has has won the best novel prize at the Hugo Awards—becoming the first book ever to take all three prizes.
Ten months after Ancillary Justice was published Leckie sounds astonished, still, at its success—the début has sold 30,000 copies worldwide to date, she estimates—as well as nervous. She’s gearing up for the release of the second book in her space opera trilogy, Ancillary Sword (October, Orbit), and she’s “apprehensive because the reception for the first book was so out of control, so beyond what I ever expected, that I’m kind of feeling like people are going to read the second book and go ‘she fooled us, she’s really just a talentless hack’”.
In the first book her starship, the “Justice of Toren”, now residing in the body of Breq, was out for revenge against Anaander Mianaai, the one-mind-in-many-bodies ruler of the galaxy-spanning Radch Empire. In the second book, Breq has had her revenge—or part of it, at least. She is working for the Lord of the Radch, who sends her to the one planet where she will agree to go: Athoek, where the sister of Lieutenant Awn—the officer she killed and “the one person she feels she owes something to”—resides.
Leckie describes the books as “space opera” and as well as dabbling with the boundaries and confounding the clichés of this well-trodden SF sub-genre, she also plays, successfully and mind-bendingly, with conventions of identity and gender. Not only does she give us Breq—“I had once had 20 bodies, 20 pairs of eyes, and hundreds of others that I could access if I needed or desired it. Now I could only see in one direction”—she also provides a universe in which gender is unimportant. All characters are referred to by Breq as “she”, regardless of their gender.
“It’s such a small detail that has such a huge effect,” says Leckie. “I did it because, very naïvely, I thought it would be interesting to have a society that genuinely did not care about gender. But when I sat down to write the first couple of novels and I was using he and she for everybody, I was like, ‘this is not giving me a society that doesn’t care about gender’. And I thought and thought and finally I decided ‘what if I just used “she” for everybody?’”
Leckie was advised by friends to drop the book because “nobody’s going to buy it”; by that stage, she couldn’t bear to. “I said ‘well, you know what? There’s no reason to be writing if it isn’t what I want to write.’ So I’m going to do it and I’m going to say to myself, ‘if they don’t want it this way, then it’s just going to have to be a deal-breaker.’”
Leckie had always known she wanted to write, and—as a fan of authors from C J Cherryh to Jack Vance—that it would be science fiction she would be writing, but she never quite knew how to begin. She studied music at university, and went on to work in various jobs—dinner lady, waitress, receptionist, recording engineer—but never in anything that would become a career, conscious of where she wanted that career to be. In 2002—a stay-at-home mum at the time, with two small children—she took part in National Novel Writing Month, and churned out 50,000 words of fiction in a month. That novel was set in the universe of the Radch, and was partly cannibalised for Ancillary Justice.
Trying to get a novel published felt like too much of a leap, however, so she concentrated on short stories. There were a lot of rejections. She attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, where she was taught by major names in the genre including Octavia Butler and Connie Willis. Her stories started to sell, and then “do pretty well”, and after six years or so, with her youngest child in school, she decided to return to novels.
The concept for her universe came to Leckie while child-wrangling. “Little kids are wonderful and adorable and sometimes they’re hilarious, and I love my kids to bits, but spending eight, nine, 10 hours a day when it’s you and a toddler and an infant is not very intellectually stimulating. To some extent I was really chewing over these things [in order] to have something to think about which wasn’t diapers and noodles.”
Ancillary Justice came out against a backdrop of huge upheaval in the SFF world, with accusations of sexism flying against the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, of which Leckie had been a secretary. Was her decision to so firmly address issues of gender—both in the text and in choosing to be published as Ann Leckie (she debated A T Leckie)—deliberate? “It’s not entirely coincidental. Those conversations have been going on for a while,” says Leckie, carefully. “I think it’s sort of coincidence that they hit fever pitch that year . . . but at the same time not entirely a coincidence because I was sort of thinking about ways to handle gender in the book, partly because of my awareness of those conversations.”
Her success—and the fact that every Nebula Award winner this year was female—is a sign things have moved on, surely? “It’s hard to say,” she says. “I feel like the field over the past couple of decades has gone through a cycle; the 1970s was full of débuts by these amazing women writers and . . . 10 years later, it was like ‘look, women don’t write science fiction’. I’d like to be really hopeful and think this is a sign it is moving forward because there has been all kinds of recognition of great women writers. I really hope it doesn’t turn out to be another cyclical thing.”
For now, Leckie is preparing to visit London for the Hugo Awards and concentrating on the third book in her trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Once that’s done, she “would definitely be interested in staying in this universe”, although she’s not planning to continue writing about Breq. “My plan is to say, ‘book three, and that’s that story,’” she says. “But the universe is a nice big one, largely on purpose. There’s lots of empty space.”
ISBN 9780356502410/ 1405525855,
US publisher Orbit, Hachette Book Group (USA)
Rights sold Luitingh Sijthoff (Dutch), J’ai Lu (French), BARD Publishing (Bulgarian), Heyne (German), SiAl (Hebrew), Gabo (Hungarian), Fanucci (Italian), Tokyo Sogensha (Japanese), Muza SA (Polish), Art Grup Editorial (Romanian), Fantastika Book Club (Russian), Edicioines B (Castilian Spanish)
Editor Jenni Hill
Agent Seth Fishman
1966 Born in Toledo, Ohio
1989 Graduated from Washington University in St Louis
2002 Took part in National Novel Writing Month and started writing "in earnest"
2005 Attended Clarion West Writers Workshop
2013 Published Ancillary Justice
- Leckie's Ancillary Justice optioned for TV
- Jeffrey Archer | “I think people love a simple story. There’s no erotica, there’s no ghosts or gore and I think around the world the public just like a good story”
- Holly Webb | "Yes, there are a lot of pink and sparkly books, but there are also lots of series where the girls are very strong characters"
- Jane Streeter | "There are problems but there is also lots of positivity out there"
- Liz Kessler | 'I don’t like conflict. There’s no part of me that wants controversy from this book'