I'm a recovering space opera junkie. At one point in my life, maybe 8 or so years ago, I couldn't get enough of the stuff--Banks, Reynolds, Hamilton, Cherryh, whatever. Then it started to get repetitive. Really repetitive. Like any sub-genre in SF/F does if you read too much of it too quickly. Yet I've still retained a measure of romantic attachment to the style, thinking: "if I could just find the right book, I could really get back into this shit!"
Recent attempts to do so have not worked out. First there was Leviathan Wakes, a well-regarded novel co-written by one of my favorite fantasy authors, but which struck me as decidedly problematic. Then there was one of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books--which I found so dull and bland I couldn't finish it. So when my copy of Ancillary Justice came in the mail, unsolicited, I was initially hesitant. Then people whose opinions I respect and often agree with--Justin Landon and Liz Bourke, for example--started raving about it, and I figured I should give it a shot.
Some background: Ancillary Justice is the kind of space opera that's more fantasy than science fiction. It takes place in a cosmic society where science and technology are so far advanced, and whose workings are so unexplained, that they essentially function like magic. Ships are sentient and can travel faster than light. Humans have colonized dozens, if not hundreds, of planets. Soldiers have implanted armor. Prisoners of war taken by the powerful Radch (which means "civilization") are sometimes converted into organic husks (telepathically?) controlled by the sentient ship AIs. These "ancillaries" are both eyes and ears for the AIs and super-soldiers, of a sort. They serve Anaander Mianaai, the Emperor/Ruler/Tyrant of the Radch, who is himself a single consciousness divided into thousands of bodies.
Yet despite all this shiny stuff, the Radch is a familiar social and political form--the aristocratic colonial empire. Radchaaii believe in their superiority, and that when they conquer and assimilate an independent planet, they do so in service of a higher ideal--a mission to bring civilization to the barbarians. Sound familiar? Greeks, Romans, high colonial Europeans, etc. In this case it's mostly Romans, but that's besides the point. Unlike Iain M. Banks' Culture, the Radch is decidedly retrograde in its social organization, in its political structure and in its defining ideology. This is literary terrain already well-tred by the Baen stable of authors, with Bujold's aforementioned Vorkosigan saga as the paradigmatic example.
But Ancillary Justice can, in another sense, be read as an explicit critique or subversion of that literature, its politics and its tropes. Its hero, the ancillary soldier One Esk (once but no more a part of the ship AI Justice of Toren), is on a mission to destroy the malevolent force at the center of the Radch--the Emperor Anaander Mianaai.
Though this plot point helps move things along, it is by no means the most interesting part of Ancillary Justice. Actually, I found the foregrounded narrative serviceable at best, and a bit hokey at points. (The conclusion in particular struck me as a missed opportunity, more on that later.) Rather, the most interesting and gratifying aspect of Ancillary Justice is the book's decidedly philosophical bent--the difficult questions it raises about consciousness and identity. I loved the complexity and sensitivity of One Esk's perspective as she struggles with the fragmentation of her consciousness and eventual emergence as an autonomous individual.
And then there's Leckie's clever subversion of gender assumptions--among the Radch, there are no male/female distinctions. There is only one pronoun available--"she"--and One Esk struggles to formulate thoughts in the gendered languages of the foreign realms he travels in. This serves to challenge the reader's assumptions, and to pose questions about the degree to which gender and gender role assumptions inform our most basic interactions with literature.
What's more, underneath this device lies the question of what changes when you take gender out of the equation. Leckie's theory appears to be: "not much." The Radch is still beset by class divisions, by ethnocentrism and xenophobia and by a relentless drive to expand and assimilate what it views as lesser societies. This reflects what I took to be an essentially pessimistic position that removing one axis of inequality does little or nothing to alter the balance on those that remain. Is that true? I'm not so sure.* Regardless, I like being challenged in this way. In fact, it's something I've explicitly called for more of in epic fantasy, and is without a doubt my favorite aspect of Ancillary Justice.
Ancillary Justice, simply put, is a novel of big ideas, and one that works unusually well at this level. It manages to pose questions while avoiding both the neat, ideological answers and overwrought pontificating that plague so much self-consciously "intellectual" genre. Unfortunately, the book's nuts and bolts at times fail to live up to the promise of these big ideas. Leckie also has a frustrating tendency to world-build via infodumping and, worse, through information relayed in dialogue that no character would actually speak because it would be too obvious to them and to the person they are speaking with. I understand that there's a lot of background information to relay, but the effect of leaving character perspective is jarring.
Given the theme of fragmented consciousness (both that of One Esk and Anaander Mianaai), it's perhaps unsurprising that Ancillary Justice is presented by way of a fragmented narrative. I like fragmented narratives, but they put additional pressure on the writer to resolve their fragmentation in a satisfying manner, Banks' Use of Weapons being a great example of how to apply this maxim to space opera. As the narratives come together, though, Leckie abandons the contemplative, atmospheric and deeply philosophical tone of the first 3/4 of the book for the kind of zippy action-adventure I expect from the average fantasy novel. It isn't that the ending is bad, per se, just that it fails to deliver on the book's promise.
Though Ancillary Justice is by no means perfect, it's also worth remembering that it is a debut novel; its teething problems, for the record, are also evident in Banks' Consider Phlebas and Reynolds' Revelation Space. Like those debuts, Ancillary Justice is a rewarding, if imperfect, read, and furthermore suggests that Leckie is a considerable talent whose best work is ahead of her.
*For the record, I welcome discussion in the comments on both this reading and the validity of the position I'm ascribing to Leckie. And yes, in light of recent discussions on author interaction, I would also welcome Ann Leckie's entrance into that conversation, should she decide to.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 for the challenging, unanswered questions; +1 for the complex narrative.
Penalties: -1 for the infodumping; -1 for the disappointing resolution.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience."
[And read on for why a 7/10 is actually a pretty good score.]