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To say that Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was one of the most important novels of 2013 would be a bit obvious. The novel won both the Hugo and the Nebula for Best Novel and a host of other awards. It is all the more impressive considering that it is Leckie’s first. The ambitious style, believable characterization, and a gripping conspiratorial plot has excited old fans of science fiction, and even gathered the attention of critics of so-called 'mainstream' literature. True, not everyone has been so impressed. Nina Allan, writing for Arc, felt that the novel gave in too easily to the broadest tropes of the space opera genre. I disagree. I think, instead, that giving in to such tropes while stressing our conception of them is precisely where the novel derives its strength.
Ancillary Justice is set thousands of years in the future. I believe we are to assume that, similar to the case in Foundation, humans have been spreading for so long that the origin of the species is shrouded in mystery. The story jumps back and forth across time, between One Esk, an Ancillary for the ship Justice of Torens (ships have an AI which is shared throughout a number of Ancillaries, or 'corpse-soldiers,' in a sort of hive intelligence), and Breq, who is that same Ancillary, now separated from her ship and relegated therefore to be a single consciousness in a single body.
Esk bears witness to some fishy dealings on a world that is in the process of being annexed by the Imperial Radch (the known universe’s main political body for humans and primary source of “civilization”). Just as the ships of the Radch have one consciousness spread through many bodies, the Radch is ruled by a consciousness spread through many ruler’s bodies. Breq wishes to kill one of the ruler for reasons that are developed as the story continues, but first she must contend with an officer she has not seen in a thousand years, discovered strung out in the snow on a non-imperial world.
As an AI who is learning to be human Breq/One Esk forces us to do away with most of our given knowledge of the world around us. Our protagonist learns languages as a matter of course, but lacks sufficient life experience to back her understanding of the language the way a human might. Her own first language, that of the Radch, for example, has no pronouns that mark gender. Early in the novel we are introduced to characters who are male and yet are referred to as “she.” It is a mistake Breq/One Esk is self-conscious of, preferring to avoid all reference to gender as long as possible. This, however, provides the basis for one of the novel’s most intriguing ideas.
Many space operas take knowledge of science for granted. Science and its study are the basis on which the worlds operate. We often forget that opinons can be couched in scientific terms to make them seem like unquestionable markers of the real as opposed to the unreal. A clear example would be the development, in biblically literalist circles, of Creation Science, which is an attempt to treat a holy text as a science textbook. The principle behind what makes one human or non-human in Ancillary Justice is held to the same standard of truth as the temperature at which water boils.
Though we do not get a taste of the Radchaai language, we do learn that the words for “civilized” and “citizen” are the same and that they are related to linguistic conceptions of humanity. One does not have to believe language determines the limits of a speaker’s thought to believe that language is formed by opinion and ideal. It is not for nothing that civilization, coming from a Latin root meaning “city,” also revolves around Urban might. So, the connection is made that being outside the Radch weakens one’s claim to humanity. Of course, those who promote such an ideology believe they can tell the difference.
Breq frustrates that view immediately, being a non-human who poses as a human for the whole of the novel. No one suspects anything until the end. In the "science" of empire, there are myriad attempts to explain, in unquestionable terms, the nature and benefit of civilization over and against barbarism. There are similar attempts to catalogue “humanity.” These divisions and attempts weaken under scrutiny. The defender of Imperial values finds themselves in an increasingly uphill battle.
In Ancillary Justice, the assumed lines between civilization and barbarism, or human and non-human, much like the reader’s perception of gender, are blurred by the recognition that they are constructed for a purpose. We can construct all the explanations we like for what makes a man manly, or what constitutes a human’s humanity, or about the inevitability of empire, but even given the dress of science they remain constructed. They are not merely descriptions of reality.
That is what makes this novel so difficult to jump into at first, and what had me rereading sections of it. With my need to paint a clear picture of the novel in my head, I questioned often whether the character speaking was a woman, or if she merely was called a “she” by an AI who did not understand human gender. I didn’t know if so-called non-humans were biologically human or if the term “human” had merely become a term for any kind of sapient life. It is occasionally frustrating, but it is also the world in which Leckie’s protagonist dwells. We are exposed to that ambiguity through Breq/One Esk, eventually perhaps liberated by it.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
It would be easy to relegate this wonderful little book to the realm of "ideal-driven" science fiction, an unfortunate landscape where literature becomes reduced to mere thought experiment. It is true, of course, that this book deals in big ideas and challenges some big ideas too. While it strives to discuss the arbitrary nature of the categories our culture creates, and explores issues of faith, gender, and empire, it also presents deeply felt andwell written literature.
In the novel’s front half, during the One Esk chapters, there is a sense of growing fear and dread surrounding a newly annexed planet. One Esk is working under an officer, Lieutenant Awn, who is the head of the occupying forces in the city of Ors. As the Radch seeks to integrate the local culture into its imperial one, the people of the city spread rumors and lies. For brief moments, the reader, like the characters, is lulled into a sense of everything being on the right track. There is a feeling that, despite some tension, the annexation will go as planned, and the bloodshed that comes with Imperial expansion will remain in the past. This false security is impressive, considering that we know from Breq’s narrative in the future that the annexation suffers a catastrophe of some sort. What remains, at the moment of catastrophe, is one of the most poignant and complex portrayals of military occupation in recent years. It neither fully demonizes the empire nor fetishizes the conquered, but allows moments of beauty and terror to present themselves, and the reader to judge the value of empire.
Leckie’s deft writing is a necessity, as the ambiguity that defines the message of her debut novel is a primary feature of the plot. It is hard to wrap your mind around what exactly is going on until you are most of the way through. The book is full of minor twists and satisfying moments of detail cohesion. There are no tawdry moments of full-on gut-spilling exposition, and there is no punch-line ending. The whole novel is rather like a blurry image coming into view. All of this is where, even though it is part and parcel of the genre of the space opera, it manages to set itself apart. This is not just about piecing together a fairly familiar alien world. This is about coming to terms with the boundaries we place on knowledge. It is not about exploring a universe, but being educated into one. The book accomplishes this to deeply satisfying effect. Ancillary Justice is available from Orbit Books.