I picked up Ancillary Justice when I saw it in the bookshop the other week. It’s the debut novel by Ann Leckie, and it’s gathering awards left, right & centre. I’ve seen quite a few reviews in the various blogs I read and I don’t think I’ve seen one that didn’t like it.
The story is set in the far future, when humans have colonised many many worlds across the galaxy. The narrative has two threads in alternating chapters – one is the “now” of the story and the other tells us the back story. The protagonist, Breq, was once an AI for a ship called Justice of Toren. Justice of Toren‘s mind and persona didn’t just reside in the ship as a computer, but were also distributed across several (hundreds) of once-human bodies called ancillaries. When the story begins one of these ancillaries, calling herself Breq, is a long way from home and acting on her own. The backstory chapters reveal the world Breq came from, and what happened to get from Justice of Toren to Breq on her own. And the “present-day” plot is about what Breq is going to do about it. The action takes place on various worlds in the Radch’s galaxy spanning empire, involving military action, intrigue & politics. To avoid spoilers, I shan’t talk much more about the plot.
I liked the different cultures in this world. Leckie has done a good job of creating both a diversity of cultures, and cultures that aren’t just carbon copies of historical cultures with -in-space appended. The one we see from the inside is the Radch, the large empire of many worlds who created Justice of Toren. There’s something of the Romans about them, there’s something of the Chinese, there’s something of the British Empire. But these are resonances and flavours, the Radch is also uniquely itself.
Gender is the thing that most of the stuff I’d read about this book talked about. But it isn’t gender itself that’s a theme of the book, it’s our cultural assumptions about gender and our cultural need to know someone’s gender. The Radch language doesn’t mark gender. I think it’s clear that the humans (as opposed to AIs) are like people in our culture – most people have a gender, most people identify as either male or female. But there is no linguistic or social need to distinguish the genders. Justice of Toren/Breq hasn’t got a gender (and the ancillary bodies are of both sexes), and has no reason to care about the gender of others – which causes Breq problems speaking foreign languages in the “now” strand of the story as she tries to read unfamiliar cues without the backing of memory & resources that she had as Justice of Toren.
What Leckie has done with this is clever: she’s chosen to keep us in the Radch language perspective, and not mark gender except when Breq is speaking another language. Throughout the book the Radch pronoun is translated as “she”, and other gendered words use the feminine form (like “sister” or “neice”). Which means we get sentences like “She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain.”. Why I think it’s particularly clever is that by using feminine pronouns throughout the reader frequently has their mental images shifted by a later piece of information. It makes one’s cultural assumptions around gender suddenly snap into focus. Why has learning this character is actually male changed how you see things? Why is is so disconcerting not to know the gender of characters when it doesn’t actually matter? One of my favourite characters of the people Breq interacts with I don’t think we ever learn the gender of. I realised late on in the book that I had this person pegged in the “female” box, not just because it’s always “her” & “she” but also because of all sorts of social cues that put this person in the “social inferior” box in both professional and personal situations. And that says a lot about my unconscious assumptions, doesn’t it?
The Radch don’t divide people up by gender, but they have a keen sense of social status – which family you belong to, how long your family have been “civilised”, whether you have the right accent, the right colouring, whether or not you dress appropriately. There’s a scene in the flashback section of two (human not ancillary) officers from the Justice of Toren having dinner with two high status locals – shown from Justice of Toren‘s point of view (as the whole book is) we end up with no idea of the genders of the four people but a very vivid picture of the relative social status of the various people. And the miscommunications of that status between cultures, and the unhappiness of the lower status Radch lieutenant with her obvious lower class markers of speech etc. Justice of Toren/Breq is outside this hierarchy – as a ship she is a tool not a person – but exquisitely aware of it. However she makes her own judgements of people based on their actions that don’t necessarily match the heirarchy – which demonstrates how this obsession with birth & rank doesn’t say anything about the person in question: “better breeding” doesn’t necessarily mean a better person.
I mentioned in the last paragraph that Justice of Toren/Breq sees herself as a thing not a person. I think another thing that’s going on in this book is exploration of what it means to be a person. Justice of Toren definitely isn’t human, and doesn’t experience the world in the same way as a human. The flashback chapters show some of the effect of being simultaneously in many bodies in many places, and the different perspective it gives. But I think it’s equally clear that she (and Breq) is a person, despite her belief that she isn’t. She has a personality and her own likes & dislikes. And she has a person’s sense of self and of self-preservation. An example of this comes when Breq meets a doctor who knows what she is. Making ancillaries is now considered unethical, because you have to erase the memories & personality of the person who’s body you’ve turned into a part of the ship. The doctor is fairly enthusiastic about how she might be able to restore Breq’s body’s memories, and is asking wouldn’t Breq like to be free. But Breq is horrified – that would mean her death. The body might be free (and the person it used to be would be alive again), but she – Breq – would be dead.
There were other things I wanted to talk about, but I think I shall stop here – this review has got quite long. So did the book live up to the hype? Yes, it definitely did. As well as the things to think about that I’ve talked about above, it’s also a really good story at the space opera end of the genre 🙂