My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My review of Ancillary Justice first appeared in the Newtown Review of Books - http://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au
Ancillary Justice, the debut novel from American author Ann Leckie, has been garnering a fair bit of buzz around the speculative fiction community over the past few months and has just been shortlisted for this year’s Philip K Dick Award. I have to admit I was at the point of giving up on it after the first few chapters – but I persevered, and I’m glad I did.
The story revolves around the highly stratified Radch civilisation, which is humanoid, spacegoing and expansionary. Earth, if it ever existed, is a long gone memory and for thousands of years the Radch have been annexing worlds in brutal fashion and subsuming resident societies, much like the Roman Empire. By a curious quirk of the Radch language, everyone is referred to as ‘she’, regardless of their actual gender. That’s just one of the surprising things about this book – that it demonstrates how little gender specificity actually matters to the story.
As I said, the start of the novel is fairly quiet. There’s a lot of world-building going on through the narrative. But the seemingly small events that occur in those first few chapters resonate through the rest of the book and gain in significance as we understand more about the Radch and, in particular, the quest of the key protagonist, Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen who, although she looks human, is actually an ‘ancillary’, a human whose mind has been wiped and infused with the distributed consciousness of the battleship Justice of Toren’s controlling Artificial Intelligence. That consciousness simultaneously resides in the ship, in One Esk Nineteen and in the minds of thousands of other ancillaries deployed during the latest occupation of a conquered world. But the controlling consciousness is not a soulless, electronic zombie animator:
Seven Issa frowned, and made a doubtful gesture with her left hand, awkwardly, her gloved fingers still curled around half a dozen counters. ‘Ships have feelings.’
‘Yes, of course.’ Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions. ‘But as I said, I took no offense.’
Seven Issa looked down at the board, and dropped the counters she held into one of its depressions. She stared at them a moment, and then looked up. ‘You hear rumors. About ships and people they like. And I swear your face never changes, but …’
I engaged my facial muscles, smiled, an expression I’d seen many times.
Seven Issa flinched. ‘Don’t do that!’ she said, indignant, but hushed lest the lieutenants hear us.
It wasn’t that I’d gotten the smile wrong – I knew I hadn’t. It was the sudden change from my habitual lack of expression to something more human, that some of the Seven Issas found disturbing. I dropped the smile.
‘Aatr’s tits,’ swore Seven Issa. ‘When you do that it’s like you’re possessed or something.’
For all that One Esk Nineteen is a ‘drone’ of the ship, she does exhibit some unique characteristics: an affinity for music and gathering songs of defeated cultures and a habit of humming. So there’s a dichotomy set up about her ‘conscious’ mind and the possibility that some remnant of her original, wiped personality still exists. Among all the action, the novel riffs on the potential causes and effects of this as well as exploring the idea in other contexts, most notably in the character of the Radch leader, Anaander Mianaai, who, while not a distributed single consciousness, is a series of networked clones, hundreds or perhaps thousands of them, that exists across Radch space in order to exert consistent command and control. The potential weakness of such an arrangement is exposed in startling fashion when One Esk Nineteen is forced into a confrontation with three iterations of Mianaai that results in a cataclysmic event. I can’t say too much, but the main section of the book focuses on the fallout of that event 20 years later when One Esk Nineteen, now seemingly a singleton divorced from her ship and fellow ancillaries, meets up with a Radch lieutenant she knew 1000 years earlier:
The instant my hand touched her shoulder, the red glass shattered, sharp-edged fragments flying out and away, glittering briefly. Seivarden closed her eyes, ducked her head, face into my neck, held me tight enough that if I hadn’t been armored my breathing would have been impeded. Because of the armor I couldn’t feel her panicked breath on my skin, couldn’t feel the air rushing past, though I could hear it. But she didn’t extend her own armor.
If I had been more than just myself, if I had had the numbers I needed, I could have calculated our terminal velocity, and just how long it would take to reach it. Gravity was easy, but the drag of my pack and our heavy coats whipping up around us, affecting our speed, was beyond me. It would have been much easier to calculate in a vacuum, but we weren’t falling in a vacuum.
But the difference between fifty metres a second and 150 was, at that moment, only large in the abstract. I couldn’t see the bottom yet, the target I was hoping to hit was small, and I didn’t know how much time we’d have to adjust our attitude, if we even could. For the next twenty or forty seconds we had nothing to do but wait, and fall.
‘Armor!’ I shouted into Seivarden’s ear.
‘Sold it,’ she answered. Her voice shook slightly, straining against the rushing air. Her face was still pressed hard against my neck.
The world of Ancillary Justice is immersive, layered and compelling, and as a result we understand so much about the framework in which actions occur, it makes for fascinating contemplation about the ramifications of those actions. I was reminded of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels while reading Ancillary Justice. Leckie doesn’t have Banks’s playfully black sense of humour or overtly political sensibility but she certainly knows how to make you believe in her world.
We all love those books we come across once in a while that give us a thrill every time we return to the world of the story. Ancillary Justice is one such book and though it’s early days for 2014, it will take quite a bit to knock it off the top of my list of standout reads this year.
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