The multi-award winning (Hugo Award 2014, Nebula 2013, British Science Fiction Association 2014, Arthur C. Clarke 2014, etc.) Ancillary Justice was American writer’s first novel, and the second book I read in 2018.
The basic setup is a soldier, Breq, who used to be part of the spaceship Justice of Toren (as an ancillary human body controlled by an artificial intelligence) on a quest for revenge. It’s the first book in the Imperial Radch trilogy, with Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy being released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, but can certainly be read standalone.
I’ve had this one on my bookshelf for almost a year, loaned to me by a friend in my writing group who thought I might like it. Having finished it, I can see why – and I certainly did – but on the first attempt I stopped and put the book down for close to twelve months. The amount of exposition dumping in the beginning was just too much.
I felt this issue again on the second read-through, even for a regular sci-fi reader there’s a lot to take in, but this time I persisted. After about the third fourth chapter the plot and characters were developed enough to keep me going, and new information interspersed in what I felt was a more natural way. From that point I flew through the remainder of the book, totally engaged,
There were a few things that I particularly enjoyed about Ancillary Justice. The first is the concept of ancillaries, whereby the artificial intelligence (AI) at the centre of a spaceship (the Justice-class ships are the largest, being massive troop transports) operates through a linked consciousness across multiple bodies, captured humans from annexed planets, whose consciousnesses are essentially scooped out to.
The AIs have additional complete awareness of all the data from non-ancillary humans that are assigned to them via implants. As a narrative device, this allows a first-person omniscient narrator in a way I found unique and liberating in terms of style, where the narrator is experiencing events simultaneously. Having such an ‘alien’ protagonist made for a fascinating read.
“Without feelings, insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things.”
The way Leckie extrapolates this concept of multiple perspectives into the plot is quite fabulous, with a natural challenge for Breq/Justice of Toren to overcome being a device that separates all of its consciousnesses from each other. This additionally plays out into the major antagonist, and allows an Orwellian-esque examination of surveillance and privacy in the book, where the near-immortal Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, is able to access that data of everything those linked into the network do, say and experience biological.
The final thing of note is the treatment of gender and pronouns. The first language of Breq/Justice of Toren is Radchai, from culture that does not treat gender in a binary, male/female fashion – people’s clothes, hairstyle and sexual activities have no fixed gender markers, for example – and so for the majority of the narration Breq uses she/her/woman/daughter, etc. regardless of whether the subject is biologically male or female.
Although initially confusing – and often amusing, for example when Breq had difficulty getting the pronouns right when talking in other languages to non-Radchai – the concept was eventually liberating, and the narrative passes beyond gender as a ‘thing’ allowing me to focus more on the relationships between characters based on what they did and said, without preconceptions. It’s a concept famously examined long ago in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, but Leckie knocks it out of the park, doing it so successfully that it simply becomes a part of the story and world, rather than being something the book is ‘about’. With gender-based power dynamics removed, the book is able to square in on class conflict through a hereditary vs. meritocracy lens.
On reflection, it’s hard to know whether the info dump in the beginning was actually necessary, or could have been better interwoven. It’s something I’m highly conscious of, as a speculative fiction writer myself – most of my test-readers aren’t steeped in the genre. I’m aware that speculative fiction readers are more used to taking in a lot of new information at the start of books than more naturalistic or genre readers.
Regardless, now that I’m into the world, I’m super keen to read the next two books in the trilogy.
Cover image via io9.gizmodo.com