Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction?
If you have an ear anywhere near the ground you might have already heard of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. It seems to have won every award under the sun and a lot of people are talking about it. With good reason: it’s a brilliant novel.
Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing.
Most of what I read about Ancillary Justice before I bought a copy was focused on the approach to gender. The main character, Breq, comes from a culture where gender isn’t very important and almost always uses the pronoun “she”. Because the novel is told from her viewpoint, it means it is always telling you everyone is female. It also admits that isn’t biologically feasible. So you know some of the characters are male. You just don’t know which ones. And while you could spend a lot of time trying to figure it out, I found it far more enjoyable to assume everyone was actually female. It removed the unpleasantness of gender stereotypes and, oddly, made the world feel more real and rounded.
To invade and take, what, half the adult population? And turn them into walking corpses, slaved to your ships’ AIs.
The approach to gender in Ancillary Justice means that Breq herself is also overlooked. That’s a shame because Leckie has created something wonderful in her. Once upon a time Breq was the AI of a ship. And that ship had ancillaries, human bodies that were connected and acted as extensions to that AI. Think of the AI as the queen and the ancillary bodies as mere worker ants. It’s a horrifying concept totally at odds with the notion of this culture being the harbingers of civilisation. Yet it is so casually accepted, even lauded at times, that it serves as a clever questioning of how civilised civilisation really is.
And then I fell to pieces.
It also means that Breq can be in many places at once and a number of scenes occur in different locations simulatenously. Such an ability runs the risk of confusing the reader, but Leckie pulls it off so artfully, so effortlessly, that I have to applaud her. I was never confused, never lost. Leckie managed to make the fragmented yet unified experience of many bodies feel intuitive without drawing attention to what she was doing. She also does a good job of using these many-bodies-many-Breqs to question ideas of identity without getting too lost in philosophy.
But I never paid attention to you, I’d never have asked if someone was One Esk’s favorite.
Ancillary Justice also has some of the best AI I’ve ever encountered. It seems most approaches to AI has them either as cold and emotionless machines or indistinguishable from humans. Breq is neither of those. She is meant to be completely reasonable, but her fall from grace comes directly from attachments. Breq-as-ship had her favourites; all AIs do. So, whilst Breq doesn’t weep or rage or laugh much, what emotion she does exhibit means all the more for its scarcity. Though Breq probably wouldn’t care either way, you end up liking her.
That said the central mystery wasn’t as compelling as I think Leckie wanted it to be; I kept reading because I was enjoying the experience rather than needing to know what happened. And while Leckie doesn’t spoon-feed the reader, sometimes she didn’t explain her world quite enough; there are a lot of new ideas the reader has to handle in the dark for chapters at a time.
But Ancillary Justice is still an excellent space opera, one of the best I’ve read in a very long time. A good story, a unique protagonist, and clever ideas. I can’t wait to read the second book, which is as high a recommendation as there is.