I finally caved to the pressure and picked up the book award darling of the year, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which has been nominated for every major SF award so far, and is likely to continue that trend for the rest of the year. Having not read many 2013 novels yet, I can’t vouch for its presence on these shortlists without an adequate comparison (coming later), but its exponentially growing accolades are difficult to ignore.
Breq is on a personal mission, a vendetta. She is guarded about her identity, but through her first-person narrative, Breq reveals that she is actually Justice of Toren, a starship, or rather the artificial intelligence of a starship computer that once operated her unit’s corpse soldiers (ancillaries). Unfortunately, her mission gets waylaid when she gets stuck caring for her snooty former captain suffering kef withdrawals and, during that time, she unfolds her story of love, intrigue, murder, and vengeance. We also learn that Breq loves to sing (picture AI-operated soldiers singing in perfect rhythm, but nowhere near one another).
The story itself winds around three major threads: Breq’s present, her recent past of twenty years prior, and her distant past of one thousand years ago, all of which dance around each other, driving the reader to parse out the connected details. Breq is direct about everything but her own story, and the effect can be disorienting. She never explicitly states, “I’m a computer downloaded into a dead human body. And I used to be downloaded into many dead human bodies at one time.” Instead, as she tells her stories, her perspective changes from paragraph to paragraph: she’s talking to her captain in the study, she’s outside speaking with a child, she’s answering the door, she’s continuing previous conversation with the captain with no interruption, the child outside answers her… then the reader realizes that there are actually many of her at one time. And then she (all of the she’s) starts singing. It’s creative and kind of creepy.
By the way, three is the magic number for this novel. Not only is its structure based on Breq’s three alternating stories, but this is also the start of a trilogy. And, as if to acknowledge the puzzling nature of the storytelling, the artwork for this and the succeeding novels is supposed to link together into one combined image.
The big news about this book is Leckie’s characterization of gender. Breq comes from a gender-neutral civilization, the Radchaai, where everyone is referred to as “she” and “her,” despite any differences in sex-characteristics. Only through Breq’s interactions with people of other civilizations do we find out the sex of a few characters, which serves to highlight the irrationality of the reader’s desire to know. We know gender is just a social construct, but wait, that was a guy? The non-genderedness adds another layer to the notion of an AI downloaded indiscriminately into different bodies, even though my simple mind struggled to develop a satisfying picture each character. An important lesson to walk away with.
Gender-neutral context is not new in SF, although there are calls to make it less rare. Even a casual SF TV-viewer has seen this before, so I was pleased that, despite the blurby emphasis on this particular angle, androgyny is nowhere near the focal point of Ancillary Justice. The genderlessness is one aspect of this rich world, it is part of Leckie’s message, but it’s not the point of the story. The gender-neutral nature of the Radchaai civilization simply illustrates that society won’t crumble without pink and blue baby accessories. Unfortunately, the Radchaai are far from idyllic as they find plenty of other ways to discriminate.
The focal point, and the true gem, of Ancillary Justice, is in its characterizations, particularly with the protagonist. Breq is unlike any other AI character I have encountered in SF. She is as methodical, calculating, and perfunctory as one would expect from a computer, yet she is capable of complex emotions. This would seem contradictory until she explains that emotions are a programming imperative, required to make good decisions. But the emotional content isn’t syrupy. Leckie’s writing maintains a systematic quality to even Breq’s strongest emotions, which actually helps to inspire the reader’s distrust of this artificial narrator. Are Breq’s emotions organic to the situation, or simply programmed to make her act a certain way. How much of her behavior is her own?
Despite the cold narration of this digital character, Leckie’s writing manages to be smooth and inviting. When I read a lot of contemporary authors, I notice certain techniques (verbalized emotion and motivation, heavy dialogue) that make me wonder if they are just after a movie deal. This book is no different but, in this case, it wouldn’t be a bad thing. This is a good story, but the way it is written makes it ripe for a movie adaptation. While I enjoy a novel that requires some puzzling out, many people don’t, and a movie would forego much of that, while still conveying the richness of this world to a wider audience. Even the ambigenderness and the AI multi-perspectives would be ideally conveyed on the screen. (And the dreadful bad guy confession in the final act might be more tolerable.)
Ancillary Justice is a good story but, to my befuddlement, it has been called “mind-blowing” and “stunning,” to which I disagree. The writing is not mind-blowing. The world is not mind-blowing. Although rich in SF concepts, the concepts are not mind-blowing. It’s all been done before, and often with more allure. In fact, this is a fairly straightforward space opera that is mainly distinguished by the unique complexity of an AI protagonist.
It’s good, yes, but I won’t be surprised if the novelty of its flavor is spent by the release of the sequel.
If you want to read a strong, complex, character-driven space opera, replete with politics and intrigue, (that far surpasses the Vorpatril series) read Ancillary Justice. If you want to read a mind-blowing SF novel that conveys the nuances of a gender-complex society, the beauty of an ice-covered planet, and the intricacies of unlikely character relationships, you must read the amazing Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.