Ancillary Justice is the first part of a science fiction trilogy by Ann Leckie. I recently finished the first two books and am now eagerly awaiting the third installment. I like it enough that I decided to plug it to the internet at large.
Ancillary Justice and the other book in the Imperial Radch trilogy follow Breq, a former AI ancillary who has struck out on her own for reasons that become clear in the story. As an ancillary, Breq was part of an AI housed in a military ship Justice of Toren of the Empire of Radch. Ancillaries are humans who have received implants that wipe their minds and let them be taken over by an AI. They become appendages that the AI uses to wage war to expand the Empire through ‘annexation’.
The book interleaves two plotlines, the first is the ‘present’, where Breq is on an ice planet and encounters one of the old commanders of her ship, Seivarden. The second plotline is fifteen years earlier, when Breq was still a part of Justice of Toren, right after the annexation of the planet Shis’urna. The two plotlines interleave to slowly unfold and explain how Breq came to be separated from Justice of Toren and what she is doing on the ice planet.
One of the things that sets this book apart is the use of male and female pronouns. As is explained in the first chapter, the Empire of Radch does not differentiate genders in their language. Leckie conveys this by addressing everybody using the female pronoun. This took some adjusting, but I think it was an absolutely brilliant move by Leckie. What I found remarkable is that as I got used to this style of writing, I started to form very different mental images of characters. Some I would picture as male or female, sometimes because it was remarked upon that they were in fact male or female, others because their image fit male or female stereotypes. Some characters I could not tell you if they were male or female. It could get a bit confusing at times when characters I had tagged as male were addressed as ‘daughter’, but overall I found it remarkable how this worked.
If you’d asked me before I read the books how using only the female pronoun would affect me, I would have said I would have classified all characters in the books as female. In fact, that did not happen. Instead, it turned out to hardly matter, except that all the automatic associations with male, female, heterosexual and homosexual traits were not there upon reading ‘he’ or ‘she’ when referring to a character.
Although it will likely never happen, I would be interested what would happen to our society if we actually removed the male (or female) pronoun from our language altogether and only started using one.
Breq is a very interesting character, as she is part of a collective AI mind for half of the story. Leckie took pains to try and describe how that would affect perception. Breq is the viewpoint character, and she has dozens of viewpoints for half of the story. The effect is weird, but effective. Breq becomes all the more interesting because she does regret the loss of her companions, but she still has very clear goals. She is not a doll whose strings have been cut. She doesn’t whine about her separation – that happened in the intervening years between the two plotlines. What we’re shown is a very strong interesting character.
Seivarden is the reverse, because she starts out drunk in the gutter but is slowly brought back by Breq. She is a foil for Breq, showing the AI as the compasionate strong one, and the human as a bit of a heartless weakling. This makes her an interesting side-kick and I ended up really liking the character.
All in all, Ancillary Justice is a real page-turner. It’s interesting, with a refreshing premise and an easy-to-read style. If you haven’t read it, and you like space opera, go and buy it.