The Left Hand of Justice: From Ursula K. Le Guin to Ann Leckie

Binaries are a false start, just like this sentence. Light and dark, left and right, high and low—we all recognize this type of contrastive system. Westerners tend to skew binaries into hierarchies. We struggle to find, or make, or keep, a system of two opposites in balance. Genuine equ/al/ity is scarce in the real world, but science fiction gives us the power to imagine alternative societies. It allows us to reshuffle the parameters of a binary system. That is, break down the familiar system and put it back together in a different order. Two related examples are Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness and Ann Leckie’s more recent Ancillary Justice.

This blog post will be most interesting if you’ve read these books. If you haven’t, expect significant spoilers from here on.

As a quick over/re/view, Ancillary Justice begins with a lone wanderer, calling herself Breq, who comes upon her nearly-dead, much-disliked captain (Seivarden) from bygone wars of conquest. Breq is the one surviving remnant of the vast AI she used to be, a warship with command of many “corpse soldiers” known as ancillaries. Each ancillary shared the same mind as the ship; all were Breq.1 She served the interstellar empire of the Radch during its aggressive expansion. Breq now carries an impossible vendetta to kill Anaander, Lord of the Radch, who herself occupies thousands of bodies.

[1 The ship was Justice of Toren and the lone surviving ancillary was One Esk Nineteen, but if you’re just here for my little blog bit, Breq is good enough.]

The Left Hand of Darkness concerns an emissary named Genly Ai, sent alone to the planet Winter to persuade its people to join the Ekumen, an interstellar confederation. On Winter, the people are ungendered except for a brief time each month, when they gain sexual characteristics and reproduce. The great rival nations of Winter are Karhide and Orgoreyn, both of which doubt Ai’s claims. Estraven of Karhide is the one exception, although Ai in turn questions the honesty of this ally.

Leckie says “there’s no question that [The Left Hand of Darkness] had a very direct and obvious effect on my own book,” although she never elaborates except to say that choosing a universal “she” was partly in response to Le Guin’s universal “he.”

Conversations about these two books always focus on the gendering systems in them. The parallels are clear. Yet for all the obvious similarity, a direct and detailed comparison of the two is rare. These two books intertwine on multiple levels. If Leckie had chosen to do nothing special with pronouns, her book/s would still be a significant ancestor to Left Hand. The pronouns matter in each book because they manifest deeper thematic resonances that permeate, to some degree, almost every aspect of the book: its style, its world and cultures, its characters, the plot points and narrative flow.

A hint of this relationship begins with the titles.2 Ancillary refers to a supporting role in an organization. In the book, it’s the term used for human bodies taken in conquest, implanted with AI and thus converted into the avatar-soldiers of a sentient ship. Most people are right-hand dominant, whether by nature or, in many parts of the world, cultural pressure. If the right hand dominates, and according to these moral structures the right hand should dominate, then the left hand is supportive, ancillary. This asymmetry mirrors the gender binary that Leckie and Le Guin examine in their books. Justice is also linked with rightness, even right-handedness. So one way to reinterpret the title Ancillary Justice is Left Right. There might be further layers of wordplay to follow from this notion (where “left” is a verb, for example), but I’ll desist here.

[2 It seems an author’s name also invites emulation, comparison, or both—a more overt case being George R. R. Martin and J. R. R. Tolkien.]

An essay on tumblr departs from the pronoun debate to make note of other similarities, like the ice-planet settings, cultures of foretelling, and ethnographer protagonists. The tumblr essay instead examines the use of “I” to explore issues of identity, selfness and othering. It doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, but I would add two more core elements that bind these two books together: the role of empire and the growth of trust.

The Ekumen is the nearest to collective goodness we get. It seeks the mutual welfare, free interchange, and advancement of all sapient types in its corner of the galaxy.3 I have not read other Le Guin books featuring the Ekumen, so I can’t speak to its character beyond Left Hand: where we are admittedly getting the perspective of Ai, alone on a distant alien world where his life is devoted to the sole purpose of promoting the Ekumen. (He just might have a rosy-glow sort of bias.) It is, however, striking to me that this powerful organization takes care to reveal itself to new worlds without exerting pressure. The emissary’s weakness is a point of persuasion. And so the momentum of this plot rides on the building of an empire.

[3 In an academic article, Jonathan Hay reinterprets the Ekumen as a neocolonial venture that erases local cultures by subsuming them.]

Meanwhile Leckie’s protagonist seeks to undermine one. The Radch is a conquering machine, responsible for great atrocities and helmed by a person of tyrannical ambition, yet many ideals espoused in the Radch—its commitment to a basic standard of living, for example—are noble. In many cases during the series Breq is working to repair violations of Radchaai principles. Her sense of morality is driven by Radchaai ideals, although she is more invested in extending the dignity of personhood to all people, “civilized” or not. This is perhaps the deepest flaw in the imperial ideology, this sharp division between civilized and uncivilized. It grants unlimited room for prejudice and malice.

Emperor Anaander is in shadow because most of her is always somewhere else, slightly disjointed from the local manifestation of her. As the tyrant, she is always in the light, visible to the people; indeed, her hundreds of scattered bodies allow her to extend her actual presence into all parts of the vast empire. Breq begins in shadow because of her anonymity; yet she is, even at the first, always more illuminated than Anaander because Breq has greater insight, self-possession, and wholeness (not despite but because of Breq’s reduction to one body); and yet Breq continues in shadow since she doesn’t always have a clear path forward, her goals often undetermined, her life passing one event horizon after another where she should be dead.

Breq’s project of subversion is at least as creative as it is destructive. She is the left hand of justice swooping from shadow, from otherness and subservience, to restore balance and goodness, whatever she can within her reach, upon the corrupted elements of Radchaai imperial society. There are different ways to slice and dice who’s left and who’s in shadow, though clearly Leckie and Le Guin challenge a stark dichotomy. Le Guin disavowed “the pretended Battle Between (unquestioned) Good and (unexamined) Evil.” While the Radch figures as Leckie’s antagonist, the big bad empire, if you will, it is not portrayed as a monolithic evil. Breq and Athoek Station claim responsibility for all the people in their charge, and defend the most vulnerable of these, because the Radch encodes its AIs with a resolute commitment to justice for all levels of society. Much of the virtue we may ascribe to Breq originates, therefore, with the imperial machine she opposes. I don’t mean to diminish her agency. She acts for herself as much as any of us does.

Shadows move as light moves. Le Guin’s narrator observes that light and shadow need each other; neither has any definition without its complement. No person or collective in either book is ever reduced to a moral absolute. The Karhides are cold and aggressive, yet more honest than the charming, conniving Orgota. Radchaai officers can be corrupt, brutal, and racist; or they can be generous and resist tyranny.

But these qualities are terribly abstract, like love. We understand them from experience, which varies wildly between people, and there can be no rigorous system to define or measure concepts like love, distrust, evil, justice. That’s probably the main flaw of binary thinking: it tries to fold real complexity into a neat line, or two discrete points. It’s a schematic. It can move us toward a better understanding of the world, but only if we don’t go blind staring at it. So, to avoid staring two long4 at binary concepts, I end with the irreducible human relationship at the core of these books.

[4 The editor begs your forgiveness for this appalling pun.]

Seivarden, an exile who’s long outlived her time, is rescued from drug overdose by an enemy alien-human at the icy rim of civilization. Ai 5matches her in every one of these respects. Sure, I’ve constructed that sentence to emphasize the similarities, but they are meaningful. It’s because these two characters are so vulnerable, and their rescue so formidable, that the stories have such deep emotional resonance. Why should Estraven or Breq choose to help at all? Let alone to the extremities they both endure? Estraven and Breq persist in spite of tremendous risk and scant hope of success, to save someone radically different from them. Their motives are enigmatic, even perhaps to themselves. In both cases, the rescuer and the rescued share nothing except the pains of exile. Also, it seems very much like Breq and Estraven don’t even expect to earn any trust for their efforts. Call it a leap of faith (literally, for one of them). Sometimes a false start is the only way to proceed, and that’s good enough.

[5 Three notes on technicalities: 1. Due to relativistic effects of his journey, Ai was born more than a century before coming to Karhide, though his body’s age is far younger. 2. “Civilization” refers to the Radch or the Ekumen, a biased position that both books (especially Ancillary) aim to deconstruct. 3. While Seivarden is presumably not Earth-born and therefore alien to us readers, we have no reason to assume she is a different species than Homo sapiens.]

A few particulars are reversed. The alien Breq is our POV on Seivarden and the book opens here, while Ai is the primary POV on the alien Estraven, and Ai’s rescue comes very late in the book.

Both aliens are human, however, first by physical and genetic ancestry, second by virtue of qualities we recognize as human: self-determination, complex interiority, pursuit of ideals, the need for companionship, and so on. We might call it the inalienable6 humanity of these characters. As Left Hand makes clear, who’s human and who’s alien depends on who you’re asking.

[6 Editor: This one is perhaps excusable. Perhaps.]

At the heart of each book, what makes them both so compelling, is this vibrant theme of trust and love—with or without romance, however you read the subtext. Such love and trust can bridge the divide between unlike people. These are bonds forged by choice as well as dire circumstance, through sacrifice, against doubt, across species, subverting hate, forgiving betrayals.

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