In a year somewhat lacking in prominent SF titles (at least to my eyes), Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seems to have made the biggest splash. I’m probably missing several other exciting developments, but so far the press for Leckie has far outshone any other release that I have seen. (I admit that this could be more of a reflection on me than the state of the genre, but last year seemed to have one huge book after another coming out. This year, not so much.) As the reviews piled up, I quickly moved Ancillary Justice to the front of the line, knowing that this is a book I could not afford to miss out on.
If this is the very first review of Ancillary that the gentle reader has found, said reader would be better served starting off elsewhere. I’m going to give a quick assessment of the book, followed by a deeper look at random topics that appealed to me. I have no plans of summarizing the plot or giving any other such de riguer information; this essay is a mostly spoiler-free investigation of the meta-textual questions Leckie raises, rather than a proper “book review.” The fact that I’m going to devote the rest of the word count to this sort of thing should signal my overall rating of the book. In short, I am not yet ready to crown Ancillary as the best book of the year, but I do believe that it’s the best 2013 book that I’ve read so far.
The first thing that jumps out, and the first thing that almost everyone talks about, is Leckie’s oddball way of playing with gender. I have seen a few different interpretations of this, with corresponding reactions. Most of these cluster around a LeGuin-ian statement of gender ideals, ala The Left Hand of Darkness, or some sort of clarion call for gender blindness and/or equality. As one might imagine, not everyone is totally cool with this approach, though it’s not always those I expect that were put off by the perceived ax-grinding. I saw things a bit differently. From the very first pages, Breq is clearly unable to process gender and makes constant errors. Breq (and I can’t use a pronoun here, because I have no idea which is appropriate) bemoans these mix-ups in the narrative and is all to aware of her (his?) mistakes. I enjoyed watching the mess, especially when characters take offense at being mistaken for the other gender. Breq’s ongoing frustration amused me greatly. (“This person seemed to have both biological features and apparel choices denoting ‘female,’ but I may have been wrong.”)
I haven’t read, or even looked for, a definitive answer from Leckie. I suspect that the intentional blurring of lines is meant to break down the reader’s perceptions of gender stereotypes and cause a small ruckus. It works – in many cases I have no idea if someone is male or female. The point is, I suppose, that it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter. There is more to it in my view though. Breq is not “human,” Breq is a ship. Further, Breq is a ship that was created by a society, the Radchaai, that uses gender neutral language. Of course, these are all choices made by the author with full awareness of what is going on, but I see the perpetual confusion as a reminder that Breq is not like us. The first person narration naturally leads the reader to identify with Breq, but the fact remains, Breq is a wholly alien creation. Without jarring reminders to the contrary, like someone being unable to correctly say “he” and “she,” I think we become too sympathetic, forgetting that Breq is a thoroughly unreliable narrator.
This is also key to what I think is the central focus of the book: identity. More specifically, identity in a post-human, post-Singularity world. Leckie never jumps out and says what side she’s on, but I see Ancillary as yet another brick in the wall of post-human extrapolation. (Stross, Egan, Vinge, Schroeder, etc.) Breq is easy to like, with her (his?) righteously indignant quest, super-human coolness, love of music, and strangely altruistic mindset, but (s)he is not us. Breq used to be a gigantic ship, with her (his?) consciousness potentially spread through hundreds of “ancillaries,” human bodies whose brains are wholly inhabited by her. Breq has been a part of the ongoing Radchaai expansion, party to atrocities that would likely drive us mad with PTST. She also, and this may only appeal to me, uses the ancillaries to sing in antiphonal choirs. I would totally do this, if I were a sentient starship with a few hundred corpsicles are my disposal. I digress.
Breq’s erstwhile antagonist is the Lord of the Radch, who also has a plethora of bodies at his/her disposal. At the heart of the plot is the question of these bodies’ identities. Never mind pointing out that, even with endearing quirks, Breq is not very much like anyone we know; how are all of these bodies supposed to remain the same person, when they are all out there having different experiences, occasionally getting cut off from the main hive mind, having to form opinions and take initiative, and other such crises that will never bedevil us single-consciousness types. Indeed, the phrase “I’ve half a mind to…” takes on a whole new meaning when half of one’s mind is literally an independent entity.
This is just scratching the surface. Even the characters that are a neat match of one brain – one body have their own identity questions, be it waking up after a 1000 year sleep, or just taking sides in convoluted political questions. I am having a hard enough time summarizing this in a way that makes a scant minimum of sense; I can barely imagine Leckie creating, plotting, and writing the whole thing. It is borderline miraculous that it works, and works so well. Yes, Ancillary demands a certain amount of faith and effort from the reader, but the dividends more than compensate.
The other main vector of Ancillary Justice is colonialism. Breq is not coy with the side effects of the Radch’s perpetual expansion, both on the conquered and the conqueror. She is open about the cost paid by the subjugated planets, but does offer the usual “benefits of civilization” defense that colonialists use. (To be completely fair, there are sometimes technological, political, and economic benefits in colonialism, especially when the stronger side is nominally benevolent. It probably isn’t the dominant society’s right to determine the final cost-benefit analysis, though that is what usually happens.) At the same time, Breq is a window into an increasingly fractured empire, one where some of the leadership is concerned about the economic and emotional addiction to expansion. The conflict underlying the main plot line is the political maneuvering between these camps, with all of the fallout through a spectrum of empire-wide policies.
So this is a book that takes a crack at serious psychological and political issues, attempts a new way of dealing with post-humans and story telling, and puts it all in a New Space Opera setting that will please lovers of galactic empires everywhere. The comparison might seem odd (or elitist), but as I read the book, Carl Vine’s First Piano Sonata played in my head. Like Ancillary, the sonata appeared almost out of nowhere and set its genre on fire with the uncanny way it summed up the major threads of contemporary classical music, fusing them into a bright path leading into the future. If the others out there excited about Ancillary are anything like me, they see Ann Leckie hinting at where SF might go next. The book reminds me, more in its position in the discourse than the details of the story, of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, which also emerged rather suddenly and turned science fiction on its head for a time. Exhilarating stuff.
That, in a large nutshell, is my basic reaction. Not everyone likes Ancillary Justice, just like not everyone likes Carl Vine. I do though, and will push it on everyone I meet.