Well, this is one of the hot new things in the SF/F world; won the Nebula, is on the short list for the Hugo, excellent word of mouth. I was recently on a trip that involved a great deal of air and rail travel, and therefore with some time to do some reading, and it seemed like a good bet. On the whole, I liked it, but I’m also not entirely sold on the hype.
Ancillary Justice by prolific writer and first time novelist Ann Leckie delves into something of a grab bag of themes and settings from other SF/F works that you have probably read, if you’re a fan of the genre. The focus is on a character that I’ll call Breq, which is what she often calls herself, even though that’s not really her name and most other characters don’t believe her when she says that’s who she is. The book introduces itself in medias res, with Breq on a forlorn ice planet, looking for someone. Then she runs across Seivarden, someone who used to be her commanding officer in the space navy, who’s become a drug fiend and is currently about to perish of hypothermia out there in the snow.
Humanity has spread out to the stars somehow, far enough that Earth is considered extremely distant and not all that interesting, although not mythical. There are various space empires out there; the navy that Breq was in belonged to a faction called the Radch. This bunch is a Romanesque empire which is ultimately run by one Anaander Mianaai, who has some sort of backed-up cloud consciousness and hundreds or thousands of cloned bodies to house it.
The Radch are contradictory. Like the Romans of old, or most empires in general, they’re hard to classify as good guys or bad guys. Life inside the Radch is pretty good, lots of trade, generally peaceful, mostly tolerant, although there is a polytheistic state religion. Promotions are ostensibly on merit and anyone should theoretically be able to pass tests to join any profession if they’re good enough. They’re also gender neutral, to the extent that their language has no gendered pronouns whatsoever. (Breq refers to every other character as “she” and “her” for this reason, as gender is simply not important to her, for cultural and other reasons which become apparent later on.)
But of course everyone’s got some downsides. For all their tolerance, they’ve got some serious hangups about clothing – witness the horror that someone might leave the house without gloves, or gloves of the wrong type. And they also go around bloodily conquering people, and mind-wiping planetary populations to serve as “corpse-soldiers”, which are run by shipbound AIs as a sort of hive-mind. Their civilization also comes with economic costs, as everyone is organized into feudal-ish houses, with official clientage contracts that go all the way up to Anaander Mianaai. Complaining about this might end up getting you re-educated and sent off somewhere else. If you’re lucky. They've also got the death penalty, and Anaander Mianaai can simply order people executed on a lark.
To some extent though, that’s all in the past. The Radch stopped expanding about a thousand years ago; there was some fallout after the annexation of the planet Garseddai didn’t go well (e.g., resulted in the death of all life in the system), and shortly thereafter the Radch signed a treaty with the alien Presger, who have fantastically advanced technology but entirely foreign morality. The treaty forbids destruction of other sentient life (human on human violence is A-OK!) under most circumstances, and in return the Presger recognize the right of humans to live without being kidnapped from their starships and vivisected without anesthesia, which was apparently a thing that the Presger were doing up until that point. There are some exceptions in the treaty, but they’re apparently so incomprehensible to a human mind that it’s easier to just never take a chance on killing an alien being. The lack of conquests has led to a lack of loot and clientage, and there’s also some grumbling that the wrong sorts are getting promoted to high positions these days; some people are saying that the Radch have gone soft and that maybe a return to traditional ways is in order. What Anaander Mianaai thinks of all this is unclear at best.
Anyway, Breq is on a mission. As I said, we start on the middle of the mission, and then get some flashbacks while she explains to the reader (and some other people) how she got there, and what exactly she’s planning on doing. Then the last quarter of the book deals with her doing it, and the repercussions of that. The mystery is pretty good, but also seems a little bit more self-involved than necessary. It’s not quite as shocking as the narrative portrays it, although maybe I’m just a good guesser after reading so many genre novels by this point.
There’s really a lot to like about this book, and it’s altogether more impressive for a first novel. Breq may not care about gender, but it’s something of at least passing interest for most modern readers, and the text itself does a great job of establishing what characters are in fact male, without ever coming right out and saying so. For instance it’s pretty clear that Seivarden 1) is male, 2) doesn’t recognize Breq, and 3) has a major crush on Breq by the end. Any of these three things would be easy to just tell and not show, but all of these points arise organically through the writing. This is most assuredly not easy to do. And I also really appreciate how referring to every character as “she” makes the reader think and then rethink about the characters as we learn more about them. It makes the reader consider gender assumptions, and that’s not always comfortable.
And, in general, the writing is strong with no major missteps. Breq has something of a flat affect, but again, this turns out to be quite justified, as she is arguably not sane, and probably not even what passes for human even among the more liberal interpretations of that in the future.
In fact the book is so generally strong that I feel churlish for picking nits, but I cannot give this book a pure 100% recommendation. But for starters, it’s the first book in a trilogy. This is a personal issue of mine, in that I don’t like everything being a series or trilogy. I’m okay to read long books, if you’ve got that much to say, lay it on me. It also can be a way to avoid dealing with major conflicts or resolving the major tension in the story in the first volume; you just have to deal with some sort of crisis and then can have a cliffhanger.
I also am not completely sold on how everything just sort of works out for Breq. Seivarden is literally just lying out there in the snow on this ice planet for basically no reason. Well, he’s drugged out, and sells her ride for drug money, but other than that it’s a damn big coincidence. It also helps that he’s got this aristocratic background and turns out to be just the thing she needs to get back into Radch space. The rest of the plot was actually so well done overall that this contrivance was especially jarring, like the one moldy strawberry in an otherwise perfect quart.
And also it’s clear that Leckie is fascinated about politics, gender identity, theory of mind and choral singing, which is great. I don’t mind the softest of SF/F myself, as long as the story flows nicely. But there’s a major plot point involving a weapon, which I really wish had been fleshed out a little bit more. I guess it takes bullets, but we’re never told what it looks like, so I found myself picturing it as an 1863 model LeMat revolver. This is one area where a little bit of technobabble would have been nice, since military officers, government officials and combat AIs persist in simply describing it as a “gun” without further elaboration.
I can’t say that I was exactly knocked over by the discussion of AI, either. There are some interesting points made, but nothing that hasn’t been covered in other works, and usually with more detail. One character does point out that the AIs are instantiated in planet-destroying warships and how exactly is anyone going to make them do stuff they don’t want to? Given that, I was entirely amused at Breq’s position at the end of the novel. So that’s good.
So should you believe the hype? I wouldn’t necessarily go into this thinking that it’s going to be the very best SF/F novel you’ve read this decade, but it’s certainly pretty good. I’ll reserve final judgment until the next two are done, but it’s definitely worth a look for any genre fan, and even has some cross-genre appeal.