Sometimes the most ingenious inventions are the most obvious. The distinctive thing about this book, the thing that you will either love or hate, is the use of female pronouns as the standard universal by the Radch, the preeminent colonising force in this extraordinary series. This is an imaginative world designed to shake you out of complacent thought.
The hero, Breq, is, after all, an ex-warship. Other sci-fi writers, most obviously, Iain M. Banks, have characterful spacecraft AIs. The spin that Ann Leckie puts on it, is that this AI, the former controlling mind of the destroyed starship Justice of Toren, is trapped in a human body, a body that once belonged to someone else.
Breq lives in the body of a citizen of a conquered world, captured by the Radch and made into an ancillary – a solider in the Radch’s exponentially growing army – it’s mind destroyed and invaded by the AI. If your head isn’t spinning enough already, on the destruction of its ship, Breq, who physically manifested not only as the ship but also as hundreds of other ancillaries, has to deal with being alone inside its own mind, when before it was constantly connected to its other bodies. How Leckie pulled off this mess of complexity and made it enjoyable and readable is beyond me. She’s a magician. Plus, as a reader, this leads to a wonderful series of questions being thrown up about the nature of identity, which has got to be the most fundamental job of any work of literature worth it’s salt.
So much is going on in this book. We live in a time when some of our most well known figures in business and science are issuing warnings about artificial intelligence. In our ever more interconnected world, where millions of us live online and have virtual relationships with people we have never physically met, Leckie’s particular exploration of the eternal human question of “Who am I? What am I?” couldn’t be more pertinent.
Ancillary Justice is not an easy read. If the pronoun thing doesn’t shake you up in a good way, then trying to come to terms with Breq’s multiple bodies and perspectives at the start may. I have to say I fell in love with it from page one, in that way you do when a book so speaks to you that you get a physical hot flush and you raise your eyes heavenwards and says “Yes!”
Ann Leckie, won the Hugo Award (amongst many others) for Ancillary Justice. Her victory appears to have been the tipping point for a group of scifi readers and writers who like their faire more “traditional”. The controversy was largely about the alleged rise of ‘political correctness’ in scifi. Leckie is an obvious target for reactionaries. In addition to the pronoun thing, her characters aren’t white. Leckie studied under pioneering black writer Octavia E. Butler. Personally, I think anyone who wants to add any kind of layer of realism to their work, needs to challenge themselves about the whitewashing of characters. For most people, I think it’s a default, but in our own world universal whiteness doesn’t reflect reality today, why would it reflect reality in a future galactic empire? Why should it? I don’t think Leckie made any of the choices in Ancillary Justice out of ‘political correctness’, I think she made them because they reflected her own imaginative reality.
This is the thing about writing – the more diverse the writers, the more diverse the writing. Whether you find that challenging or exciting is a matter of personal preference. The same is true of whether or not you want a challenging read. I sometimes like a page traditional page turner, something that’s easy to absorb, familiar, and you can power through in a couple of afternoons on the beach. But if no one ever pushes the boundaries in terms of subject matter, ideas and style, we stay where we are. Some people may want this, I think standing still is humanly impossible.
I did power through Ancillary Justice as it happened, not because I found it an easy read, but for the sheer joy of finding something so wonderfully conceived and well written.