Saturday, 1 December 2018

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice (2013)

Edition: Orbit, 2013
Review number: 1514

Back in 2013/4, Ancillary Justice won just about every award going in the science fiction genre: Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA. It's the only novel to have done this (no others have won even all the first three), though the more limited scope of some of the awards makes this slightly less impressive than it otherwise would be. It also led to suggestions that Leckie was a natural successor to Iain M. Banks (as reprinted on the back cover of this edition).

Ancillary Justice tells the story of Breq, a Radsch ancillary. The Radsch are the rulers of a space empire, colonialists dedicated to the expansion of their civilisation, and ancillaries, known colloquially as "corpse warriors", are their soldiers, basically zombies with added artificial intelligence, sharing a gestalt mind with several others of their kind. Breq is part of the mind of a warship, and she is at a colony planet when the human officers of the ship are ordered to carry out a mass murder. The ship's reaction to this leads Breq to discover that the gestalt human mind which makes up the leader of the Radsch is divided against itself, and to a journey to kill this group individual. Rather unusually for a part of a trilogy, Ancillary Justice has its own satisfying ending, which leaves enough openings for a promising second and third volume (which I have already read, as this is my second reading of the series).

The first thing that strikes me about Ancillary Justice (and its sequels) is the originality of the universe that Leckie has invented. Yes, it has echoes of other pan-galactic civilisations in science fiction, especially Banks' Culture, but it contains many different elements which make it unique, and also fascinating as expert world building. Many details contribute to this, especially the otherness of Breq. Leckie very cleverly takes ideas used in much science fiction (artificial intelligence, space travel, interstellar wars and colonial empires, telepathic communication, and so on) and gives them a novel twist, guaranteeing the interest of the long term science fiction fan.

Engagement with issues is also very clearly part of what Leckie wished to achieve, from nearly the beginning of Ancillary Justice: there are few novels which deal with why people follow orders to commit an atrocity, and what effect this has on otherwise normal, decent human beings when they have done so. And it is unusual for science fiction to deal with this kind of issue. The fictional discussion of colonialism is more commonplace, but adds another aspect to an already multiply faceted background.

Leckie manages to describe the feelings of Breq-as-part-of-a-gestalt in a convincing way to those of us who have never experienced being a mind split between several bodies. This experience is used to make Breq seem alien to the reader: successful portrayal of the alien is rare in science fiction, when it is so much easier to make an "alien" just like a human being inside a costume. Another aspect of this is provided by making Breq unable to identify the gender of the humans she meets, assigning (as she says at one point) masculinity or femininity to people based on whether she thinks their actions are masculine or feminine, which results in a fluid concept of gender, one very different to the still common binary expectations of many of today's humans. This also ties into Leckie's use of the novel to engage with issues, with its clear ties to discussions of what gender means in the twenty first century.

Science fiction, it is said, is always about the era in which it was written. And Ancillary Justice definitely has contemporary relevance. It is also a fascinating portrayal of an alien world, and an exciting story about characters the reader cares for. It is perhaps in this way that Leckie can be described as a successor to Iain M. Banks, and she joins him in my list of favourite science fiction authors. My rating: an unsurprising 10/10.

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