The story is a far future science fiction, in which artificial intelligence, space travel and cloning techniques have advanced greatly. We meet our main character, Breq, on a remote planet, where, after a search that has taken almost two decades, revenge is within reach. On the last stretch of the journey Breq meets someone from her past. A time when service to the galaxy-spanning empire of the Radch meant controlling thousands of bodies and being reduced to a single one seemed impossible. Breq is determined to carry on with her plans but this meeting with her past complicates things considerably.
The novel contains a lot of elements that space opera in particular is rife with. Cloning, galactic empires, mysterious alien races and artificial intelligence is hardly new to science fiction. Leckie examines what it is to be human through alien intelligence, tackles empires and the morality of their drive to continually expand, and explores discrimination though the treatment of clones. I can think of dozens of books exploring this idea, quite a few of them doing a better job than Leckie is doing here. So far, there is nothing special about this novel.
What is probably the most inventive part of Ancillary Justice, the very thing that makes the book rake in five star reviews by the dozen, is Leckie's treatment of gender. Breq used to be a spaceship controlling thousands of clones. It is never explicitly stated in the novel but one would assume both male and female bodies. Breq is referred to as she but cannot be considered to have a gender, or at least not one that is contained in the male/female spectrum. To make matters more complicated, Breq isn't usually sure whether she is dealing with men or women herself.She often resorts to guesses and throughout the novel most characters are referred to as she, although there is no indication of whether or not they actually are.
Breq herself comments on it once early on in the novel.
"I can't see under your clothes. And even if I could, that's not always a reliable indicator."Leckie's treatment of gender drives home how important gender is in our culture and language. The moment you're not sure, it poses all sorts of linguistic and cultural problems. Leckie doesn't feel the need to drive this particular point home but the reader can't help but wonder how complicated things can get for someone who doesn't fit neatly into either category. Leckie makes it hard on the reader to an extent, especially with the character of Seivarden, who is referred to as both he and she in the novel. The text can be confusing at times, it demands that the reader pays attention to the scene as in some parts of the novel personal pronouns can't be relied on convey to whom the narrator is referring. In other parts of the novel the author simply defaults to she to avoid making things too complicated. The result for me, and I think hat was what Leckie was aiming for, is that for the most part, I didn't assign genders to the characters at all.
The second element that drew my attention in the novel is the concept of ancillaries. Breq is what is left of a starship called Justice of Toren. She is used to controlling both the ship and thousands of clones, or ancillaries as they are referred to in the book. These bodies are not considered human and are easily replaced. Breq ending up in one means she is caught in a situation where she is forced to consider herself an individual rather than the tool the body she inhabits used to be. I'm not entirely sure Leckie makes the most of it. With the loss of her Ancillaries and primary body the starship, Breq has lost not only part of her body but also a large part of her sensory input, memory and intelligence. She knows this but by the time we meet her, she is so used to it that we hardly see her struggle to adjust. That would have been an interesting challenge for the character, something that is fundamental in shaping the creature we meet as Breq. Instead, Leckie chooses to focus on her feelings of guilt over the events that resulted in the destruction of the largest part of her, which I suppose, is more important to the plot.
Where Breq looses her bodies, the ruler of the Radch struggles with the opposite problem. She (or he) is an entity made up of thousands of bodies. It isn't revealed if the Radch is in fact human in origin or an artificial intelligence but she does control thousands of bodies spread out over the empire to govern. It seems like an ideal solution, to be everywhere at once and keep an eye on everything would probably be the wet dream of every tyrant, but what if the various parts of this entity don't agree with each other? There is a certain weakness in this story line. It is never explained how a single mind can keep itself (him, her it, I'm confusing myself now) from knowing what the opinions of its various bodies are. I guess you could see it as something of a multiple personality disorder. Maybe the Radch is human in origin after all. It contrasts with Breq's struggle in interesting ways however, and makes me curious about what will happen when Breq manages to get to the core of Radch's personality.
Does that mean Ancillary Justice is deserving of the whole shelf of awards it is winning at the moment? I don't think so. It is an interesting debut, a Campbell (if she is still eligible) or Locus Award for first novel might even be in order, but I don't think it is good enough to really propel Leckie to science fiction stardom. A novel that leans so heavily on one single aspect to make it stand out in the crowd simply doesn't merit that kind of attention in my opinion. That being said, I did enjoy it quite a lot and I am curious about several dangling story lines I assume Leckie means to pick up in the next book. She is an author to keep an eye on for sure. The second volume is expected in October. I'll be keeping an eye out for it.
Title: Ancillary Justice
Author: Ann Leckie
First published: 2013