Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is the kind of début novel that one hears so much good stuff about, one regrets not requesting an early review copy when one had the chance. But the good (and first person) news is that once it was shortlisted for a Hugo, I had the perfect excuse (and attendant deadline) to buy myself a copy and read it. The fact that it also won a Nebula, an Arthur C Clarke Award and a British Science Fiction Award (among others) did little to dissuade me.
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
What I had heard about most before actually reading Ancillary Justice was "the gender thing". For those that haven't heard, one of the most talked about aspects of this book is the fact that because the main character is a ship AI and because her native language and culture don't use gendered pronouns or visual cues (like clothing, hair style, manner) that define gender, she has a lot of difficulty working out the genders of people in other languages (which do have gender pronouns). And, because the book is obviously written in English, this concept is "translated" by having everyone referred to using female terms except, occasionally, in dialogue spoken in other languages. (To be clearer, Radchaai is the language and culture that lacks gendering and it's spoken/practised in the Radch empire.)

Don't get me wrong, the gender thing is interesting and I like the way Leckie's done it — it makes me wonder why I never thought of doing something like that — but it was not, to me, the main point of the novel. Not by a long shot. Up until something like two thirds of the way in, the story is told in two time-lines. There's the present, where Breq, an isolated human component of an AI warship (called an ancillary), is on a self-imposed mission. And in alternating chapters we are shown the past (twenty years earlier), when the Breq ancillary was still part of the ship Justice of Torren. Both time-lines are told in first person, even though in one the person is indeed a single person, while in the other the person is a ship and hundreds of human-bodied ancillaries.

I think the way Leckie handled the point of view issues was really good. In the scenes with the Justice of Torren and its ancillaries, I really got the feeling that the ancillaries were just additional appendages of the ship. Like hands that could also see things.

The main thrust of the plot concerns Breq wanting to at least partially fix the spoilery events that led to her having to function as an isolated unit. These spoilery events involve a pretty monumental conspiracy theory (I don't mean that as a bad thing, it's good conspiracy theory) and are complicated by the fact that the book opens with Breq picking up a stray human. Although the start of the novel is slow action-wise, I found the gentle introduction to the culture helpful (because it is pretty different to what we're used to) and I found the worldbuilding information interesting enough to want to keep reading. Really, Leckie has built a fascinating culture. The pace increases as the story progresses, especially towards the end which became very exciting.

I was delighted when I got to the end and realised that Ancillary Justice was the first book in a "loose" trilogy. The story is fairly self-contained but there is obviously more to tell and I want to know what happens next. I've just checked and the second book is scheduled to come out in October, which strikes me as sufficiently far away that I might have caught up on my reading by then (or not...). Either way, I'm definitely looking forward to it.

I highly recommend Ancillary Justice to fans of science fiction and fantasy. Those put off by technobabble needn't fear; it's mostly absent. Or, more accurately, what confusing concepts are conveyed are more linguistic or philosophical than they are scientific, I found.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Orbit
Series: Imperial Radch, book 1 of 3
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Google Play

2 comments:

  1. I am hearing about this everywhere, it sounds fantastic, I like books that raise awareness of how we usually see gender - like The Left Hand of Darkness.

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    1. What I liked was that apart from explaining the language gendering difficulties at the start, it doesn't make a big deal of gender at all. It's ever-present in how the characters speak but I appreciated that there was never an "OMG I AM CALLING THAT DUDE 'SHE', HOW EMASCULATING" moment. The genders of everyone are pretty irrelevant and I think we only ever find out the "real" genders of a handful of characters (and that because they were conversing in a gendered language).

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