Welcome to Diversity in Sci-Fi! Today we are reviewing Ancestral Night, a space opera starring a traumatized salvager and a sexy pirate villain.
Title/Author: Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
Summary: On a routine salvage mission, Haimey Dz and her business partner Connla stumble across an enormous spaceship and the scene of a crime. While investigating, Haimey gets infected by something that gives her unusual abilities. They attempt to tow the ship back, but their valuable prize gets snatched away from them by space pirates. Soon Haimey, Connla, and their shipmind Singer are embroiled in something far more perilous than they imagined…
Sub-Genre: Space Opera
Book Format: Paper
Length: 499 pages
Haimey, the main character, is explicitly a black character. Her dark skin turns into a sparkling galaxy when she gets infected by an alien nanotech symbiote that spreads across her body. The villain of the story, Zanya Farweather, is Asian. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the villain being a POC, as long as there is positive POC representation to balance it out, and I did find that this book succeeded in that. However, the clade of “retro-gendered radically cis-female separatists” that Haimey grew up in is called Nyumba Yangu Haina Mlango. This a Swahili riddle: “My house has no door.” The answer is “Egg,” which is fitting for a cult comprised of cis females. Regardless, I personally would not have chosen Swahili for the name of my evil, brainwashing cult. English honestly would have been fine, as there is a ship named the SJV I'll Explain It To You Slowly. There are no other instances of the Swahili language in the text, and using it strictly in a villainous context has uncomfortable implications.
Haimey is a lesbian, and I appreciated that it was an integral part of her character. She mentions right off the bat that she “doesn’t swing that way,” in reference to her salvage partner Connla, who is a pansexual man, and there are several other references to her sexuality throughout. There is no romance in this story, but there is a plot-relevant ex-girlfriend and some hero/villain making out in a moment of poor judgment. It’s not an enemy-to-lover relationship, but I didn’t mind it.
However, there is something that left a nasty taste in my mouth: When a man makes an overture at Haimey, she says "Sorry, I'm a pervert. I only like girls." His response is "You could get that fixed. Isn't it kind of sophipathology to only respond to one gender? When there are literally thousands of options?” Haimey responds with, "It's who I am, and I like who I am," following it up with the internal dialogue "Little white lies. They get us through." Everything about this exchange disturbs me. The implication that being a lesbian is sociopathic, a "social sickness". The lumping gay people in with straight people because they are “monosexual”. The equally harmful rhetoric that implies that gayness is something to be “fixed,” invalidating it in the process. As a lesbian myself, the whole exchange was unpleasant to read, and Haimey’s “little white lies” comment left me questioning whether she really was a lesbian, or simply didn’t like herself for being one.
I enjoyed how gender was handled in this book. When Haimey meets Cheeirilaq, an alien that looks like a giant praying mantis, she thinks, “It seemed to have an ovipositor, so I guessed it was female, but having no idea how gender constructs worked in Rashaqin society, I decided to just keep thinking of it as an it. Enough other critters have called me an it since I left the clade—where they would have taken grave offense—that it’s become just another pronoun.” The clade is an entirely cis-female, gender-critical, radical lesbian cult. In other words, they’re TERFs. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism is, unfortunately, a very real problem in the lesbian community. I appreciated the parallels, since the clade is universally disparaged for their reactionary ideals, which includes brainwashing their children into being just like them, with no sense of individuality. It’s a not-so-subtle nod to how TERFs do just the same. Still, the book isn’t saying that all cis lesbians think that way – Haimey, after all, is a cis lesbian who broke free from the clade’s grip and chose to accept everyone, no matter their gender or pronouns.
This was a difficult book to get into. It started off slow, and it took a while to get used to some of the scientific concepts that were presented. The pacing in general was odd. It picked up a few chapters in and was smooth reading for a good while, but it began to drag again later on.
In spite of my misgivings regarding representation and pacing, I did find it an enjoyable read. There was a lot of talk about various futuristic government models, which intrigued me, and I loved the seamless integration of body mods, low-gravity augmentations, and neurochemical control. It handled trauma and Haimey’s PTSD wonderfully. Another nice touch: when Haimey and Connla docked at a station, it was populated not just by humans but by various alien species. I could read an entire novel about some of those alien species, and wanted more focus on their cultures! The glimpses that we got were great – I very much enjoyed the role Cheeirilaq played in the story, and the Ativahika were awe-inspiring. The world-building was very well thought out, and after a patchy start, I quickly became immersed in the world. Cautiously recommended for readers who can power through the casual lesbophobia.