I love it when you read tons of awesome books on your vacation. The Imperial Radch books, which I read back-to-back, were a great vacation read. They’re thought provoking science fiction wrapped up in good fun space opera, and really that’s all I wanted. I’m going to do one big review for all three books because the things I want to say about the books are true for all three novels, and to be honest I’m not sure that I could really untangle the last two from each other.
Justice of Toren was a warship of the Radch empire. It was all but destroyed and Breq, as she calls herself, is the only remainder of what was once a large and expansive AI. In Ancillary Justice we’re introduced to Breq and learn just what she’s lost and how she lost it. In Ancillary Sword Breq goes to Athoek station, where there is a family member of the human crew of Justice of Toren, and finds there a station in orderly disorder. And finally in Ancillary Mercy Breq confronts Anaander Mianaai, the many bodied emperor of the Radch.
Those are just the bare bones plot outlines, and while the plot is definitely entertaining space opera stuff, it’s the meat of the novel that makes these books so revolutionary. I am not at all surprised that all three of these novels were nominated for several awards, they are sci-fi at it’s thought provoking best. I do think the third novel is perhaps the weakest of the three, but it does bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.
There are conversations about humanity that bounce back and forth between various science fiction novels, and these novels participate in three maybe four of them. This is an impressive feat for just one book series, though one of the reasons I find the third book the weakest is that it doesn’t really engage any further in these conversations and is more about wrapping up the plot and less about the various conversations of what it means to be human.
Lets start with the biggest conversation I think is happening in this book, which is the issue of gender. The question of what gender actually is and what does it mean to have a gender have been questions in various science-fiction books for a while, most famously in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. In the Radch books, Leckie enters the discussion by making it completely irrelevant. She creates a language/culture where gender isn’t specified, and then in the translation to English to tell us the story she defaults to the feminine form. So that children are always daughters, parents are always mothers, people are always she, etc. It’s completely mind blowing the first time you realize that one of the characters is actually male, and because that character is constantly referred to as ‘she’ it becomes hard to remember that fact. However, and this is what makes me love these books, that gender is also irrelevant. The character is just who she is, that some languages, or cultures, (including ours) would gender her as male means nothing and has no significance on the character at all. This character is nicely played against other characters for whom you never actually learn the gender at all. It’s completely brilliant.
This default to the feminine form is the ‘maybe fourth’ issue I mentioned above. By defaulting to the feminine Leckie makes a powerful feminist statement about what it means to be female. As this is so closely tied to the gender issue, it’s hard to separate it out into it’s own conversation.
The second conversation is a much larger and more famous one for science-fiction; at what point does artificial intelligence gain consciousness and become ‘human’, for lack of a better word. Breq isn’t human, she has a human body, and that body was once human, but she herself is the artificial intelligence that was Justice of Toren. She is self-aware and capable of emotion, yet in the culture that created her she is simply and ‘it’, and a tool to be used for the expansion of the Radch empire. Her journey to deciding that she is in fact a sentient being, and so are the other AIs like her, is well done.
The third conversation is a small one about classism. This one is mainly in the second book, but there’s a penetrating look at how humanity, even when it’s trying to be just, can create unjust systems if we’re not careful. In Ancillary Sword Breq deals with a group of leaders on the Athoek station that do not want to admit that they have a class system, and so have decided that the people they put at the bottom of the class system simply deserve to be there.
And on a quick note, I just want to say that I really admire the various cultures and languages mentioned in the book. They aren’t really given much more then a cursory glance, but you can tell they’re there. One of my pet peeves about science-fiction is when the author has a planet that is all one culture *cough*Star Wars *cough*. I might love the story, but I roll my eyes at the idea that a planet has one singular culture or language. The Ancillary novels deal mainly with humans, but they make it clear that human culture and languages vary wildly from planet to planet and within the planets there is an equal variance of language and culture.
However, what I think I admire most about these novels is that all of those conversations is wrapped up in an entertaining story. It’s all well and good to write a message novel, but if that message isn’t delivered in an entertaining way, it’s likely to just get lost and forgotten as propaganda. Leckie neatly sidesteps that with a vast, sweeping story about political rebellion.
As I said above, I think the third novel is the weakest of the three, but even so it is a really good novel. If you’re at all interested in gender issues, or class issues, or simply the question of what it means to be human then you should read these novels. If you simply want an engaging space opera then you should also read these books. Five star novels each. Maybe 4.5 for Ancillary Mercy, but I’m willing to round up.