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Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Friday, December 23, 2016 - 10:00

Given that this book won pretty much every SFF award available in the year it came out, it may seem odd that I'm only getting around to reviewing it now, but perhaps that helps me stand back from the buzz. For the possibly two people among my readers not familiar with the series, Ancillary Justice is the first in a three-part space opera revolving around the social and political consequences of multi-bodied consciousness, including the use of "ancillaries" -- persons who have their original consciousness/personality over-written in order to become interchangeable biological cogs in the larger machinery of the Radch empire. Breq, the viewpoint character, is the only surviving ancillary of the troop ship Justice of Toren and is on a mission directly related to that state that gives every evidence of being a pointless suicide mission. Isn't that how all good space opera begins?

The writing style hit my preferences solidly on target. The worldbuilding is laid out implicitly and released in casual observations and perceptions, allowing/requiring the reader to build an understanding of the setting and its consequences as the story progresses. The non-linear narrative intertwines well with the shifting nature of who and what Breq is in relation to the world. As Breq struggles with what words to use to describe her nature, her perceptions, and her relationships, we come to understand what lies behind those struggles and how they set up the conflict in the book.

At the time of the book's release, there was a great to-do over the presentation of Radch culture as not making distinctions of gender in language or social interaction, and the author's choice to use female pronouns to represent this in the narrative. As a linguist, I confess I found that set-up neither revolutionary nor problematic. Plenty of more familiar languages don't make distinctions of gender in pronouns, although such a grammatical system doesn't preclude a sexist society, it should be noted. And given that Ancillary Justice was written in English, the author necessarily had to make some sort of choice in representing this feature. Any choice would have had significant consequences for how the reader perceives and interprets the characters and story, based on implicit defaults. Given this, the choice of using female English pronouns is far more disruptive to reader expectations than any other choice (as well as being rather refreshing to this female reader).

But a far more radical aspect of the protagonist's voice is how issues of selfhood, personhood, and individuality are handled, as well as the potential for a multi-bodied personality to become divided against itself, which lies at the heart of the plot. If is far more interesting to untangle what it means when Breg refers to some segment of herself as I, we, or she, than the more simple question of whether she'd going to guess wrong in identifying another character as she or he.

In my interpretation of the story's premise, one of the deepest flaws of the Radch use of ancillaries as disposible, interchangeable tools (and it is a flaw essential to the story) is that selfhod and personality are emergent properties of the wetware: you can overlay an existing body with programming, but the nature of biological processes will immediately start modifying that programming with the experience, perceptions, and interactions that the body undergoes. The "ship personality" may be treated as an AI, but in order to perform its functions, it will necessarily acquire "humanity". We see people's prejudices and assumptions about the nature of ships and ancillaries to be challenged and deconstructed, and it is that chaotic, perhaps irrational, and individual humanity on which the outcome hinges.

Space opera, in itself, isn't one of my favorite genres, but when the action hinges around strongly-detailed and interesting characters, as in this book, it's a setting that allows for exploration of some fascinating concepts. I was immersed and carried along in the story...I can't say "effortlessly" because part of the charm is that the book requires you to do a fair amount of imaginative work, but let's say "with great investment in the characters and their fates." The other two books in the series are in the "to read" folder on my iPad and I expect they will continue in the "most likely to read soon" category.

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