Novel * Ann Leckie * Galactic Imperial Oppression * 2013
Humans are terrible and never actually change all that much. This is the lesson that I’ve learned by reading a lot of post-Earth and/or distant future science fiction. While that lesson may or may not be a fair assessment of humanity going forward, it’s hard to argue that we’ve changed much looking backward. If you read a lot of literature, people thousands of years ago were basically dealing with the exact same nonsense we’re dealing with now, just with less technology. Far-future fiction like Ancillary Justice reflects on that history of not changing spiritually while continuing to advance technologically and then tell fascinating and horrifying stories based on this truism. This of course belies the existence of nice, wholesome, and optimistic sci-fi like Star Trek and, uh, well I’m sure there are others. I suppose the compelling thing about darker stories is, other than familiarity, the chance at redemption and growth.
Ancillary Justice is really, really cool, and resonates because it manages to weave familiar sci-fi tropes together in new and unusual ways, while still examining the underlying humanity of its world and characters. This is especially compelling considering the protagonist isn’t even human. Rather, it’s a massive starship artificial intelligence which resides in the reanimated body of a human. Look, it gets a little complicated, and that’s what makes it fun. Leckie introduces a lot of concepts and structures right away, which is good because the best part about imaginative fiction (which is a terrible genre term, because all fiction is by definition imaginative, but I guess that’s the term we use now) it getting thrust into an alien world and trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. Sometimes authors go too far. This is not one of those times, because despite being an A.I., Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren is a solid anchor to ground us in this world.
Since the story is being told from the perspective of a fragmented artificial intelligence, the narrative tends to feel a little detached. This is actually a skillful act of writing on Leckie’s part. Somehow, she manages to emotionally invest the reader in a protagonist who can only process emotion intellectually. And it feels natural and right, even if it takes a little while to figure out why much of the prose feels a little formal and almost-but-not-quite stiff. This is a first-person narrative in which the person isn’t a person, so the tone and pacing make sense. There’s a good deal of flashing back in time, as we learn about Breq’s history as an actual ship A.I. and what led her to being shut off from the rest of her being and abandoned in a single body.
I realize I should probably sketch a brief picture of this society. I don’t want to get too detailed above the break because figuring some of this out is part of the fun, but most of this you learn pretty quickly. Breq, the artificial intelligence, belongs to the human galactic empire known as the Radch. The Radch kind of suck. They’re strangely retrograde in their structure in that they rely heavily on religion and caste, also they are big into subjugation. One of the things they do when they’re out there conquering colonies is harvest bodies. They don’t kill them, but they push the personality out of the brain until all that’s left is a husk. Then they are frozen. Eventually, they’re reanimated and the ship’s A.I. is inserted so that one A.I. can control a bunch of these meat puppets (as well as the ship) to do the Radch’s imperial bidding. In Breq’s case, her entire existence ended up in a single one of these husks: One Esk. This may be some high-concept kind of stuff, but seriously don’t let this deter you if you’re down with dope sci-fi stories. Ancillary Justice is very cool. Now it’s time to ruin everything.
There are a lot of issues up in the air during the course of reading Ancillary Justice, and Leckie isn’t terribly interested in answering any of them for you. In just thinking about it briefly, there’s questions of gender identity, social class, religion, colonialism, what it means to be human, and the power of song. Obviously, these kind of heavy themes can drag a narrative down pretty quickly if you let it. There’s a certain amount of grace and skill needed to navigate these things while still entertaining, which fortunately Leckie has. Most of the heavy lifting is done by Breq, who spends a good deal of time trying to figure out how to live as an autonomous being well outside her comfort zone with vastly fewer resources than she’s ever had. Oh, and did I mention she’s like 2,000 years old? The entire time scale of Ancillary Justice is straight up crazy, and it’s hard to remember that the events told in this novel span huge amounts of time and space.
The story begins when Breq rescues a rather surly human named Seivarden. This character gave me some problems because every time I see that name in print I immediately see the name “Severian” which is a whole other deal. Anyway, Seivarden was frozen for a very, very long time. Like centuries. Nevertheless, Breq remembers her because ship A.I.’s are all thousands of years old and don’t forget anything. Once upon a time, Seivarden was on officer aboard Breq when Breq was the Justice of Toren. Breq remembers not really liking her very much. Once she was unfrozen, it turns out that Seivarden didn’t really fit into society anymore, so she turned into a hardcore drug addict and nearly died before Breq saved her. Their relationship is essentially the backbone of the novel, and keeps the rest of the narrative grounded as it sweeps across the galaxy.
If not for this weird, often unsettling relationship, the even stranger plot is in danger of unravelling pretty much the entire time. Breq, you see, is on a personal mission of revenge, looking to murder the galactic emperor of the Radch. Thing is, Anaander Mianaai (yeah, the names are a little much) isn’t just a single person. Because of the fucked up technology that allows for artificial hive-minds and injecting personalities and whatnot into husks and cloning and who knows what else, the emperor is actually dozens of individuals which are all connected. Or rather, they were. Turns out, there’s a crisis unfolding which rather inadvertently consumed Breq/Justice of Toren. The overarching personality of Anaander Mianaai has split, and are at war with one another. All of this is over questions of empire, and how best to deal with a true alien threat.
The Radch have oppressing human societies down to a science. The all-knowing slave A.I.’s probably help with this, as does the almost omnipotent technology. The Lord of the Radch is certainly ruthless, and there are various demonstrations of cold, calculated slaughter orchestrated by both sides of her split personality. Meanwhile, Breq is out to murder her despite knowing full well the futility of the endeavor, because like almost every other story about artificial intelligence, Breq has learned the meaning of being human is being irrational. That’s not a slam, by the way. The construct and execution of the novel is fresh and original, even if the themes here are all well-trod territory for science fiction.
I haven’t even got to the disorienting gender stuff yet! The Radch don’t differentiate between genders, everyone is simply referred to as “she,” which is confusing at first until we realize that in this world and setting, it doesn’t matter at all. Seivarden is probably a dude, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is social status, which Seivarden used to have but has lost with the passage of time while she was out of the game, frozen. Now her House has lost influence and where she used to be a big wheel down at the cracker factory, now she’s nothing but a curiosity from a bygone era. Now, the Radch don’t have gender, but other human societies do, and when the Radch cultures meet the non-Radch barbarians, shit gets weird. Weird-er.
The hell of it all is, I’m not convinced Leckie has any particular point to make about any of this. Which is totally fine! The entirely of this book is Breq uncovering all this weird crazy nonsense and attempting to contextualize both her own intelligence and the state of the world with the situation at hand. In the end, she’s pulled along by Seivarden to the command of her own A.I.-powered starship while the Empire of the Radch starts to crumble around them. Breq allows this to happen because of her slow humanization, but also because logically there’s not much else for her to do. Her motivation isn’t necessarily revenge, but a desire to do better by those humans who would do better for her. If the Empire should crumble and collapse as a result of her doing the right thing, so be it.