A milestone of recent sci-fi, Ancillary Justice has been in my TBR for a while; finally I went in expecting some new stimulating perspective on a number of concepts – identity, gender, power – and I was not disappointed.
Title: Ancillary Justice
Author: Ann Leckie
Publisher: Orbit Books
Publication Date: 1 October 2013
Genre: Science Fiction Novel
Stand Alone or Series: First book of the Imperial Radch trilogy
Synopsis: Thousands of years in the future, humanity has colonized large portions of space; the most influential power is the ever-expanding Radch empire, whose technology includes spaceships that are controlled by AIs and connected to subjugated human bodies – better known as “ancillaries”.
Breq, the main character, is a fragment of the Justice of Toren’s AI, stuck in the body of its sole surviving ancillary after the destruction of the ship. As the story starts, we see her on a quest for revenge against the the Emperor herself – for motives that will be revealed as the story progresses and that are definitely more personal that one would expect from an AI. When she stumbles upon the unconscious body of Seivarden Vendaai, an officer she remembers from her very distant past, she decides to rescue her and to take her along in her journey. As she pursues her self-assigned mission, Breq needs also to confront the events that led her there, putting together the pieces of a complex and tragic scenery.
Analysis: Ancillary Justice follows two main timelines: Breq’s present-day quest for revenge, and the chain of events that led to the destruction of Justice of Toren a couple of decades earlier. Additional flashbacks lead us farther in the past, exploring her earlier encounter with Seivarden and showing how the Empire has changed through centuries. The story is entirely told in first person from Breq’s point of view, whatever that means in each case: indeed, given her peculiar nature and history, sometimes she sees the world as a simple individual, sometimes her consciousness is scattered all over the place, observing events through the eyes of several ancillaries at once. Other elements contribute to make the writing style futuristic and disorienting, such as the frequent use of neologisms, and most notably the fact that Breq, who comes from a culture where gender is irrelevant, typically uses feminine pronouns and designations for everyone, except when she’s making a conscious effort to adapt to a different local language. The result is surely unique and fascinating; this comes at the price of being at times obscure, but is very effective at portraying a society that feels truly distant and unfamiliar.
Essential to the novel is the theme of identity, inextricably tied with that of free will. At a first simplicistic approach, one could expect a stark divide between AIs and humans, individuas and interlinked ancillaries. In the novel, however, we see how even human characters are often struggling with keeping a cohesive identity: Seivarden, for instance, is struggling with her sense of self as a result of being displaced in time, while Lieutenant Awn – another officer who plays a key role in Breq’s past – can’t easily reconcile her background with her current social status. Not to mention Emperor Anaander Mianaai,
As for the Empire, its concept isn’t especially new in itself: a large interstellar domain, driven to conquer and assimilate more and more cultures, so persuaded of its superiority that its language equates the concept of empire and that of civilization; ancient, powerful, based on a strict social hierarchy, but now going through a crisis and abandoning its traditional tenets. The development of such a concept is however still quite intriguing, especially as we follow a very biased point of view, that has been shaped by Radchaai values even as she grows apart from them.
Talking about Radchaai culture, one must mention the role of gender, or its lack thereof, which is perhaps the one thing you would know about this book if you have not read it. Such a characterisic is often discussed when dealing with different human groups, especially when linguistic conventions are involved, however it is not explored as deeply as one could expect. Very simply put, the Radch sees gender as entirely irrelevant and that’s it, it doesn’t come with any special implication or consequence. It’s also worth noting how such an egalitarial approach does not extend to other issues: differences between citizens and non-citizens, higher and lower classes, leaders and subjects are actually very real and a common cause of oppression and discrimination. This may or may not have been intended, but it’s tempting to read it as a rebuke of the idea that all forms of social injustice stem from patriarchy, or that its disappearance would at least lead to mitigate other expressions of violence.
Conclusions & Recommendations: Ancillary Justice surely deserves its reputation, as it’s rich with inventive ideas that not only build a fascinating world, but also incite deeper philosophical questions. It is, as such, an excellent read for anyone who seek for intellectual stimuli in their science fiction. Those looking for easier entertainment, however, may not be as satisfied, since the novel is not as action-packed as its concept could suggest, and especially at first it takes some effort to find one’s bearings in the world it creates.
Content Warning: Death, violence, genocide, slavery, classism.