With this 2013 novel, Ann Leckie has won the Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and, as of last week, Hugo awards, and has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick award. Ancillary Justice has a complex, fascinating plot and in its protagonist a kickass corpse soldier. I picked up the book because the author is a woman (serves my quest to read 50 books by 50 women this year) and it has won so many prestigious awards. I’m often wary of Sci Fi — it’s not my genre of choice because robots and all the sciencey crap bore me — but Ancillary Justice just goes to show that a good story is a good story, genre be damned! It could just as easily be classified as a thriller, what with all the political intrigue and dirty double dealing, and it provides some great discussion material for philosophy and psychology, too.
Ancillary Justice takes place in a space system dominated by the Radchaai, a people with advanced technology and weapons and a huge fleet of troop carriers that police the planets they have annexed. “Radchaai” is another word for “civilized,” and like all conquering nations, they think they’ve done their victims a favor by taking over their planets. The conquered peoples who aren’t killed or turned into ancillaries might eventually become citizens and perhaps clients of the wealthy, old, established houses of Radch. So far, it sounds a lot like Western Civ and the Roman Empire (they even like to adopt the gods of those they conquer), which Leckie acknowledges in the interview at the end of the novel. Two important differences set Radch apart. First, the use of ancillaries, which are not exactly slaves. Ancillaries are conquered people whose bodies are cryogenically preserved for later use as Artificial Intelligence. They are “corpse soldiers,” no longer human, no longer in possession of memories of their previous lives. Ancillaries serve as a ship’s intelligence, its computer, I suppose, and all the ancillaries of a given ship are linked to a single collective consciousness (hello, Borg!). They are the eyes, ears, and muscle of the ship and its captain, and they can simultaneously report to each other and the ships’ officers. They are deadly and have an enormous creep factor for the locals. Our hero (or perhaps heroine) One Esk, the novel’s narrator, is an ancillary of the battleship Justice of Toren, which has been on patrol for 2000 years. The second difference from western empires is the emperor herself: Lord of the Radch Anaander Mianaai, absolute ruler of Radch for 3000 years. Anaander Mianaai, has thousands of genetically identical bodies that are all linked like ancillaries; thus she can be physically present in all provincial palaces (and anywhere else she chooses to be); she makes the law, is commander in chief, and is the high priest of Amaat; all Radchaai are her clients. In other words, Anaander Mianaai is absolute ruler in a way that no Earth emperor ever has been.
When the action starts, One Esk, who now calls herself Breq, has landed on a remote, frozen planet. It has been nearly 20 years since she became “single” — unconnected to her ship and other ancillaries. We discover that they have been destroyed and that Breq is on a quest related to that destruction. Her mission, which is slowly revealed throughout the novel, pits her against the highest powers of Radch. For reasons she cannot herself explain, Breq picks up a “stray” named Seivarden Vendaai. Seivarden served on JoT a thousand years ago and One Esk/Breq recognizes him, although he doesn’t recognize her. Breq recalls not caring much for him back in the day. He was a snob from a very prestigious house. Now, he is naked in the snow and nursing a serious kef addiction and withdrawal. Seivardan lost his ship Sword of Nathtas shortly after being promoted off JoT. That event was linked to an attempt at insurrection from a people called the Garseddai, the aftermath of which continues to have repercussions for Radch. The Garseddai insurrection is also linked to the events that ultimately led to the destruction of JoT. I’ll admit that there were times when these various plot lines had me a little confused, but in the end, they all came together in a very satisfying manner.
One of the things I really liked about this novel is that Breq/One Esk, although very smart and strong, has weaknesses as well. For example, she is unaware of the fact that she hums to herself a lot. Moreover, she struggles with identifying gender in others. As a result, she refers to all of the other characters as “she.” The reader figures out that some of the “she’s” are actually “he’s”. For the first third of the book, I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out, but then I realized it didn’t matter. As Leckie writes, “Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak … doesn’t mark gender in any way.” Here’s a world where males and females are totally equal! What really counts in this world is your race and class. When Breq and Seivardan travel together, Breq is sometimes treated rudely because she is clearly not “Radchaai,” while Seivardan is esteemed because he is. Being female would not prevent one from being promoted to captain of a ship or a provincial governor. The real issue in this world is that the “haves” are determined to keep and expand their power and wealth at the expense of the upstart, newly minted citizens. This political division becomes manifest in a most clever and ingenious way in Leckie’s hands.
This is a first rate novel and I sped right through. It’s all the more impressive because it is Leckie’s first novel. And more good news: it is meant to be the first book in a trilogy! I look forward to reading the rest.