Ancillary Justice

ancillary justiceAnn Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is a space opera set thousands of years in the future, when the ruling power in the galaxy is the expansionist Radch Empire (motto: “Justice, Propriety, and Benefit.”) The empire (which, like Rome, adopts other planets’ gods into its own pantheon) uses artificial intelligence to control and enslave human bodies and use them as soldiers: these are called ancillaries. Regular humans are also soldiers. Citizenship in the Radch is the same as civilization; being outside the Radch is the same as being uncivilized and almost the same as being non-human.

The narrative begins some years after the destruction of a starship, the Justice of Toren, when the sole surviving ancillary (and distributed fragment of the consciousness of the artificial intelligence of the ship), named Breq, comes to an ice planet. There she meets an officer named Seivarden in a drugged and precarious condition. Seivarden is someone Breq knew a thousand years earlier (and didn’t particularly like), but she grudgingly takes care of her. The story takes place in two strands. The first is the “present-day” narrative, as Breq, together with Seivarden, search for the reason for the Justice of Toren‘s destruction — and for what is at first glance an impossible revenge. The second strand is flashbacks to nineteen years earlier, when the starship was in orbit around Shis’urna, a planet being formally brought into the Radch empire. Gradually, the two strands weave together as Breq finds out the depths of the conspiracy threatening the entire empire.

This novel is a little hard to describe, because some parts of it are very straightforward (to the point of being banal), and some parts of it are very complicated (to the point of being difficult for me to understand.) Leckie is certainly good at space opera. The pace of the book is exciting, and Leckie’s worldbuilding is in some respects very good. She creates both large and small pieces of the empire with admirable succinctness, letting us figure things out for ourselves. For instance, the Radchaai do not distinguish by gender, and so they use female pronouns for everyone. This means that on other planets and systems, they often misgender people, unable to distinguish for others what is unnecessary for themselves. Leckie doesn’t discuss this much in Ancillary Justice; she mostly lets the pronouns speak for themselves. Her descriptive powers are also good: we can see the bleakness of the ice planet, feel the rich material of new clothes, hear a strange song in a crowded bar. Breq is an interesting character, self-contained and yet unable to help reaching out for connection.

Other parts of this book are not as interesting. Leckie sets empire up as evil without troubling the question much. She’s a bit heavy-handed about questions of class and dynasty: of course the people who come up from lower classes are loyal and brave and smart! Of course the people who are from the established higher classes are cruel and snotty! When a higher-class person gets her comeuppance, there’s a long speech about it, too, and I can’t express how boring that is. I would have liked to see a lot more about what it means to be human and not-human and specifically ancillary, both by Radch standards and by other measures. It’s a bold choice Leckie made not to have Breq desire to be human: she is, I suppose, post-human, and she appears to have no real regrets on the subject. What makes her what she is? Her desire for justice, her likes and dislikes, her interest in song, her power of choice? If this novel is doing much thinking about a version of slavery (taking humans, wiping their personalities, controlling them with artificial intelligence to serve the empire), it’s doing it way below the radar.

My final complaint (and maybe this isn’t fair) is that this book is so serious. There wasn’t a single joke in the entire novel; not a breath of levity. In a few thousand years, will we have evolved out of a sense of humor? I don’t believe it: I think it’s one thing we need to survive. I understand situations being dire, but by the end of Ancillary Justice, I was gasping for air.

My friend Katherine, who recommended this (and several other science fiction novels) to me, says I should read the rest of the trilogy: she says she likes this one least of the three. That’s saying something, since this was really quite good! (Not to mention that it won a TON of awards.) Have any of you read this? What do you think?

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13 Responses to Ancillary Justice

  1. I’m very pleased to read your review because I agree with you. This novel received rave reviews and won countless prizes when it came out, but it never convinced me. For example, one of the key themes of the book is the relationships between men and women because Breq cannot distinguish them. However, this is clearly nonsense because both Breq and the ship to which she is associated are otherwise capable of spotting such nuances as how a person is thinking just from analysing their behaviour and biological reactions. If they are that sophisticated, surely they can tell if they are speaking to a man or a woman. It was all a bit contrived.
    I liked the frozen planet too and some of the descriptions but not enough to read any more books in the series.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, it makes sense to me that Breq wouldn’t be able to tell, because she’s dissociated from all her usual sensors. The ship would be different, certainly. The gender stuff I thought was quite interesting; it was other tropes that didn’t get troubled enough to suit me.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I reacted differently to the humorlessness–I thought it was part of Breq’s point of view, and so liked it because it reveals that she is, despite all other evidence to the contrary, not completely human.
    There were novelties in this first novel that I’d like to see played out–like the gender blindness– so I mean to read Ancillary Sword one of these days.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t mind Breq being humorless, but surely some of the other characters could have cracked a smile? And I don’t think Breq is supposed to seem completely human. She didn’t to me. She seemed non-human — post-human — human wiped out from being human — and it seemed she didn’t want to be human, either. That was actually an interesting choice, since she was an ancillary (slave).

  3. Stefanie says:

    Loved the book, loved the series! What Jeanne said about Breq I agree. In the second book there is lots of politics and lots of class/race stuff but I thought it well done especially since it has much to do with colonialism. In the third book there is a lot of humor and quite a lot about human/not human.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, it did seem that Leckie was getting at colonialism here, but very, very slowly. There was such a lot of thriller stuff (not to mention the Lord of the Radch is Divided stuff) that it was hard to think about the politics and class things. Since you liked the other two books, I think I will probably read them!

  4. I thought the first one was more thriller-y while the second and the third are more meditative. And the third has quite a bit of poignant humor. You might like the rest of the more than you did the first one!

    • Jenny says:

      That’s what my friend said. It sounds from the comments here as if I should continue reading them — something I was a little iffy about at the beginning. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. I think I’ve been a little put off by — I don’t know, exactly. I think it’s at least partly what you identify about the book being so, so serious. It seems really serious, and I like some fun in my sci-fi, so that’s been a factor. I dunno. I do like it when speculative fiction does fun things with gender!

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think I’d have read it if not for my friend Katherine’s recommendation, but it is pretty good. The gender part is definitely not the focus of the book, just something that’s part of the fabric of it with the pronouns. It’s interesting, but not the center of it the way (say) The Left Hand of Darkness or the work of Alice Sheldon is.

  6. Alex says:

    I’ve heard a lot about this one and added it to the wish-list. I’m in a space-opera mood (reading Altered Carbon right now!).

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