It would be faster to list the awards that ‘Ancillary Justice’ hasn’t won than the awards that it has. Leckie’s debut novel, it swept all the major science fiction awards – the Hugo, Locus, Nebula, BSFA, and Arthur C Clarke – instantly cementing its place amongst the greatest works of the genre. It’s always difficult to pick up a novel like this, because it comes with such high expectations. ‘Ancillary Justice’ does not disappoint. It’s not perfect, but the idea is so utterly audacious and so cleverly portrayed that I can see why it made such a splash on publication.
Once, Breq was the artificial intelligence of the ship Justice of Toren, controlling vast numbers of bodies – known as ancillaries. They spent over two thousand years serving the Radch, a warrior race led by Anaander Mianaai. Now, Breq is a single soldier – their ship and other ancillaries destroyed – out for revenge. The novel flips between the present – Breq seeking a weapon powerful enough to destroy Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch – and the past, showing what lead to the destruction of the Justice of Toren and put Breq on their path for revenge. At its heart, the plot is simple, but the strength of this book is in the rich, exceptionally different culture of the Radch and other races, and the linguistic dexterity required to write a novel about a character who is at once many characters, and many characters who are almost – but not quite – the same.
“Is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative?”
Breq – or Justice of Toren, or Essen One, depending on the perspective – is fascinating. They’re not human, but they’ve spend two thousand years learning how to mimic one in their ancillaries. They’ve also gone from being a being spread out over many bodies to a being confined to one, which has clear effects on their psyche. Breq was designed to serve – to carry out the will of their ship’s lieutenant, and of Anaander Mianaai – but also to think, to weigh up decisions and decide the best course of action, and to be absolutely deadly when required. What happens to an AI like that when their prime directives clash? The idea of autonomy and consciousness is deftly explored, with Leckie using the medium of sci-fi to ask complicated questions about free will.
The line between human and AI is also examined. Breq is not human – but they experience emotions. They can use logic to decide the best course of action but also make emotional, irrational decisions. They struggle with things which come naturally to humans – the use of gendered pronouns, for example – but they form attachments to others like humans, and in many ways seem more human than not. There are some fascinating discussions in this book about what artificial intelligence could become, and where the line might fall – if there is a line at all. These are the sort of questions that I find extremely interesting.
“Without feelings, insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions.”
I love how different Radch society can be to societies present on Earth. Gender is not a concept to the Radch, although it is to many of the groups they interact with. There is no such thing as privacy – every aspect of life is overseen by an AI. Class – specifically family lineage – is enormously important, as is religion, but the culture has changed so much you can believe this is thousands of years in the future. Some futuristic science fiction books feel too similar to present day society – no such claim can be made here.
Is this a perfect book? No – mainly because it’s confusing. It’s very difficult to write a book with many characters who are the same – with the same name, same speech patterns, same actions – but also different, and not have it end up confusing. Leckie gets very close, but the finale felt a bit messy and this made it lack impact. I also have issues with the character of Seivarden, Breq’s companion – they feel too good to be true, their motivations too opaque. It made them feel fake, rather than three-dimensional. Hopefully they’re developed further in subsequent novels in the trilogy. ‘Ancillary Justice’ deserves many accolades for sheer creativity, but – understandably for a debut – it isn’t quite polished enough.
Overall, I highly recommend this to any science fiction fan. It’s clever, unique, and pushes the boundaries of where science fiction can go. I’m looking forward to picking up further books in the series.
Published by Orbit
Paperback: October 1st 2013