Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013) 386 pages (other stuff plumps this out to 409 pages)

AJ Leckie

You know, I was all set to do a post on Baxter’s Proxima, but then I read this book and someone asked me to pass it along, so I’ll write this up now. (I have the paperback, but how do you pass on an ebook? A lot of them are still in the “cloud” somewhere. What have you really bought beside the right to access some squiggles and bits from a reader somewhere? We’ll talk about that when I get to Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. For now, just wonder how your collection of “rare” first-edition ebooks gets bequeathed to anyone.)

I read Anicillary Justice because the blurb I saw (who knows where? Or when?) played up the AI aspects of the story. That alone sold me, because I don’t usually like the way that AI is presented in modern fiction. A lot of them, like Douglas Preston’s The Kraken Project (and I read all of Preston and Child’s books), just posit that the computer is thinking and acting and behaving just like a human, and that’s that. I give Leckie a lot of credit for actually working on the AI implications. I don’t want to sound like a crank: I’ve done doctoral work on AI, although I’ve struggled to keep up with the latest trends…more on those books later.

I realized recently that I enjoy a lot of science fiction written by women. I have no idea what that means, or might mean. But I’m not sure it has to mean anything more than a lot of books I like are written by females. And that is that.

So is there anything here about the actual book we’re talking about? Yeah, here goes: you want a whole universe to get lost in, you got one.  As Peter Mendelsund points out in What We See When We Read (my first post), we all start a book as dislocated and somewhat lost explorers, and science fiction and fantasy books emphasize this. Some books let you feel at home early and some books later, and Leckie’s book was definitely a slow build for me.

One reason it took so long, I think, is that there are interlocking and alternating narratives in the odd and even chapters, although eventually they merge. One strand is in the here-and-now of book-time and follows the narrator’s adventures on an ice world and a rescue and nicely done chase scene, ending with a shootout. It’s a nice action start and continues in the odd chapters. The other strand, some 20 years before, begins the story of how the narrator got to be on the ice world in the first place. These even chapters are filled with empire-related politics and the diplomatic consequences of “annexation” (which sounds better than “subjugation” I guess).

Once the stands merge, they propel the reader to a very suspenseful conclusion. This is a story where you see terms you do not know constantly and trust that you’ll pick them up as you go. For example, the absolutely essential concept of the book’s gods, temples, offerings, “omens,” and so on are first outlined on page 33, where the four “emanations” from good old Amaat are enumerated. The essential history and connections of the other characters are not announced, but slipped in here and there, and one big issue (how the heck is the narrator so rich?) is not answered until page 374.

The narrator, posing as a human named Breq, is really the consciousness of a vast space battleship named Justice of Toren. She is the last “ancillary,” which is a human form vacated to make room for the shared group consciousness running the ship – officers in the book actually go “Ship, do X” when they want something to happen  – left over when the Justice is destroyed by the evil emperor. One reviewer called this a “space opera” and there is a constant lure to see the empire of the Radch (which in my head sounds like “Radish”) through the lenses of Star Wars. If so, fight that force (sorry). This story deserves to stand on its own.

Leckie does a really good job of narrating the experience of being a multiple person who can be here and there at the same time, reporting what’s happening on the street as other AIs are on guard duty or carrying on a conversation. It sounds wild, but it works.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself so engaged in this tale. I have a stack of books abandoned before the ending – which I like to think is because I am such a picky reader, but maybe it’s just laziness. I was also happy to see that such a stately, Asimov-ian (two people talking) narrative could not only be popular, but win major prizes in this day and age (and in first person, and in simple past tense). No vaporized bad guys, no flowing space battles for a change! Instead, we have lots of tea drinking, something I can appreciate more than barroom brawls (which happen, like other forms of mayhem in the story, off-camera).

Once I had penetrated the mysteries of the text (everybody is “she”? That’s cool. The humans are people or AIs? OK…), I realized that the story was a fairly straightforward alternating of chapters between the narrative present, as I said, involving the saving of a drug-addled former officer, and events twenty years before. These events all culminate in a satisfying climax that closes one door and opens another: this is, after all, a trilogy.

Overall, the book is much like a roller coaster ride. There is a slow build to an initial peak, then some up and down hills before the finish. I have to admit there were places in the mid-200s where I resorted to reading the dialog and scanning the descriptions, which are good but seemed to bog down the story for me in places. That was where I sort of gave up puzzling out all the nuances of the world. There are humans (the ancillaries apparently count as human bodies, but with fake minds) and aliens (some weird Presger beings play a large role, and the Rrrrrr (really) are mentioned, but there is not a lot of description to go on as far as their appearance. Details are lavished mainly on internal mind states, which is fine because that’s what counts in the end.

I have to say, I’d hate to have to narrate the audio book version of this book. I don’t know how the names translate to spoken English. Even the “Radchaai” gave me a hard time. Is it “rad-chi-ah-aye”? Or “rad-cha-ay”? And what about Seivarden? Skaaiat? Anaander Mianaai? See what I meaain?

I liked the ending, but one thing bothered me. Breq is portrayed as “not really human” and occasionally is dismissive of her own being as “not worth saving” or some such. Now, perhaps as an AI, you can just load them up again: but this is not true of Breq, the story says. She’s the last survivor of the group-consciousness – 20 of them – of the destroyed Justice of Toren. Yet in spite of this, Breq is human enough not only to carry the story, but appear to be the most humane of the humans, especially when it comes to the rescued drugged-out former officer. How did the AI that is Breq come so far? If the answer is in there, I missed it.