Ann 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?