By Ann Leckie
Ancillary Justice is the first novel by Ann Leckie. Ms. Leckie started writing Ancillary Justice after the birth of her children as a way to stave off boredom while being a homemaker. In fact she hammered out the first draft for National Writing Month (Which is November folks!). After attending a workshop under Octavia Estelle Butler she hammered on it for 6 years until she produced a novel that won the Hugo award, the Nebula award, the Arthur C Clarke and the BSFA award... So you know all in all not bad for 6 years of work. For comparison, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? Took Rowling 7 years, there are worse ways to spend nearly a decade.
I've been told by some folks that this book is the great liberal hype or hope depending on whose talking. Honestly I don't see it. While it's true the main culture in the book doesn't have gender... Let me expand. The Radch don't have a concept of gender, it's completely gone in their language. This doesn't make them a liberal society however! Just a very different one. The Radch are human, but humans thousands in the future in a very different environments then humans live in now. In general I disapprove of layering our political system on different times and places. The current liberal/conservative divides are artifacts of our time and situation and do not apply to Republican Rome or Imperial China for example and they don't apply to Radch. That said, they are a militant, aggressive, xenophobic and incredibly authoritarian power. I think very few people would approve of the society presented in this book. The fact that we have such a society and it is filled with sympathetic and likable characters that you find yourself rooting for is a testament to Ms. Leckie's writing abilities. Let me talk a little about them.
Justice of Toren One Esk, is a person, but she is not human. She is instead an ancillary, a dead body implanted with cybernetics and inhabited by an A.I. Calling her undead might be a stretch but we're not reaching far here. These AI's until recently were one of the main weapons in the Radch's war of eternal expansion. There are 3 kinds of ships. The Swords, the large powerful ships. The Mercies, the smaller warships. The Justices which are troop carriers, traditionally those troops are ancillaries, lead by a small group of human officers. Each of the ancillaries are organized into companies led by a small group of human lieutenants. One Esk (as I will refer to her for the rest of the review) was one such body. She used to be a part of the Radch war machine, conquering planets in the name of the Radch as part of a vast multi-body creature. Now she's alone outside of Radch on a mission of revenge. She knows who to blame for her many, many loses and she is going to make those responsible pay. One Esk is our viewpoint character with the entire book being told through her narration. She's an introspective and calm narrator without being emotionless or so up her butt that you want to scream at her. She is entirely relatable without becoming to human, basically staying just inhuman enough that you are aware of seeing humanity through an outsider's view. By human standards she's very cool and somewhat distant. I don't mean that she's emotionless just that her expression of emotion is very controlled and contained (with some exceptions) and the emotions she does feel are not necessarily the emotions a human being would feel. Despite being in a human body, One Esk feels alien. In many ways she could be compared creature out of nightmare. An eternal intelligence wrapped in a human body... That was murdered for her use. Because the state she served found that better then dealing with the problems of human soldiers. To be fair to One Esk, she's not nightmarish but rather easy to respect and even like. Which in a way feeds into the horror of the situation for me but that's not the focus of the book.
Captain Seivarden Vendaii is our second character, an officer from One Esk's past. She was an Lt on Justice of Toren in the past... The long distant past of a 1000 years, which is a long time for people even in the far future. After being promoted to her own ship. Captain Vendaii's ship was lost in battle. Captain Vendaii escaped the destruction but laid in stasis for nearly a millennium and awoke to found her perfect culture the best culture in the galaxy as far she was concerned, altered and changed. She didn't have a good reaction to it. One Esk finds her outside the Radch and for reasons she doesn't understand decides to save Vendaii's life. The interesting thing is that One Esk doesn't really like Captain Vendaii but for reasons she can't explain often moves to protect and better Vendaii's lot. I've pointed out relationships like this (Rabbit and Mbele from Glowgems for Profit come to mind) in the past. Usually it's done to humanize a character that audiences would have problems dealing with, instead in this case Vendaii helps us to see the difference between the past Radch and the present Radch. One Esk helps us understand why the differences matter. The interactions between them also help shine a deeper light into Radch culture itself which is massively interesting to me.
Let me address the Radch here because the culture is very much a character as well as a background for the story. It's a totalitarian, militant, classist, xenophobic and it was expansionist until recent events... Events that pretty much set One Esk on her path. It's also a very ritualized stable society with things changing so little that a person from a thousand years ago can show up and still have a good idea of what is going on and still talk to everyone. That's bloody amazing when you consider that someone brought from 1000 years ago to today wouldn't even be able to communicate effectively with us in a lot of ways. Certainly not in English! The Radch culture is divided into Houses that are constantly competing for wealth, power and status. Much of this is conducted through the gathering of clients for both personal and family status as well as attaining prestigious posts and doing glorious deeds. Most of these deeds were done in the annexations, where the Radch would show up in their mighty AI run ships and declare that your world was now part of Radch space, (you lucky dog you). By the way, if you try to fight we will kill you and everyone you love. The Radch would co-opt the local elites and bring them into the Rach culturally letting them become clients of already established houses (in time they would create their own Houses of course and so the game continues). The Radch religion is a polytheist one, with gods being the focal points of universal and moral forces that the Radch believe in. These gods are not very anthropomorphized and the Radch deal with them mostly through the throwing of omens and the giving of sacrifices. If you're thinking to yourself that there are some Romans influences in the mix, you would be right. But Ms. Leckie manages to create a society with Roman inspirations that doesn't feel like Rome transplanted into space. Just a culture that shares some commonalities with Rome. Some differences are that positions are given via the results of a series of tests call the Aptitudes (although it's suggested that for most of Radch history that family ties played a deep role in your score). The lack of gender (everyone is refereed to as She, One Esk has trouble even grasping the concept of gender) and the very complex set of manners. Such as an insistence on wearing gloves at all times in public (people running around without gloves are practically treated as if they showed up naked) as well as obsession for tea. Add in a rather post modern disregard for Judeo-Christian sexual ethics as well and the fact that you are always being observed by AI's no matter where you go... This leaves you with a very alien society with complex rules and mores. As you might guess I really, really like reading about this culture. Not because I would want to live there (oh God No!) but because it's so different and isn't just a re-skinned British Kingdom/French Republic/United States of American In Space! Given my Anthropologist training and enjoyment of learning about other people's cultures, Ms. Leckie might as well be feeding me the world's best Italian food laced with cocaine.
I also have to praise Ms Leckie for her delivery. No long dry paragraphs of characters musing over details they already know, no statements of “As you know John,” nothing that clunky. Observations of Radch culture are delivered to us in bite sized chunks by One Esk as observations on events occurring or comparisons between the modern era and Captain's Vendaii's time. All in all it was well done to string out these observations and revelations through out the book and make them part of the plot... Instead of just splattering giant paragraphs of exposition everywhere (You Know Who You Who Are! YOU KNOW!).
I should mention the government before I turn to other topics. The Radch are governed by one mind. One mind, with thousands upon thousands of bodies. This group mind goes by Anaander Mianaai. She is everywhere, all AI's report to her, since those AI's see almost everything (including your vital signs by the way), Anaander Mianaai sees almost everything. There are no checks or balances on Anaander Mianaai, her word is law and nothing but her word is law. She decides everything on every issue. She is ultimately responsible for every decision and policy in Radch space. While the great Houses may make their opinions and possibly, maybe sway her through good argument or logic. In the end it is Anaander Mianaai that commands and the Radch who obey. I would just like to say that Saron himself didn't have dominion this absolute over Mordor. This is utterly and completely terrifying on almost every level for me. I do have to give Ms. Leckie points for not shying away from the logical implications of this either. She does not try to soften the blow or whitewash what this means. But this book also does ask an important question about this style of government. A style of government that has been the dream of a wide variety of people, on the right and left wing. I won't spoil the question because frankly discovering it is part of the joy of the story.
There is some violence here but it's very rarefied. One Esk doesn't have the same emotions or perceptions as we do towards violence or most external stimuli. So while the violence is well described and written... It lacks a visceral feel and is often the least gripping parts of the book. I can't help but wonder if that's by design. Not to get snobbish here, but often it seems that people who haven't really experienced violence (and I don't mean a playground fight) have trouble really getting the feel of it on the page. Of course I'm sure that there are hundreds if not thousands of writers out there who managed now that I've put such a statement on to paper. Still if that's the case, I think Ms. Leckie found a good work around by filtering through One Esk, making the violence ring considering the alien mind it's being filtering though. We're also left with a lot of questions of how Radch life actually works (I mean... How does starting a family work if you don't have a concept of gender or separate sexes? What's going on here?).
As you might of guess, I'm going to state very strongly that Ancillary Justice has earned it's rewards and it's acclaim. As for my part I am giving Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie an A. It's right up there with Bridge of Birds or the Judging Eye for me and you haven't read it. I must urge you to seek this book out and give it spin. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Next week, Thieves Profit.