For me, picking up Ancillary Justice felt a lot like starting Hyperion. It
wasn’t about their themes; in terms of subject matter, the two novels have very
little in common. But both are almost universally acclaimed, and both are known
for their ambitious, epic scale. So once again, I was bracing myself for
ambiguity that comes from world-building in fanciful settings.
It’s a good thing, too, because things get confusing fast. At the novel’s
start, some characters have been living for thousands of years, where humanity
has spread across many, many worlds. The robotic narrator is not sympathetic to
your ignorance of the setting. It doesn’t recognize the importance you place on
gender, using feminine pronouns for everyone because it can’t differentiate. It
also doesn’t care that you’re not used to experiencing the world from the
simultaneous perspective of multiple bodies. Getting your bearings in this
context is exhausting! It requires a lot of inference, and you you have to
accept uncertainty as you read. Just like Hyperion, the book’s reputation
made me feel less like I was tolerating a clumsy author and more like I was
exercising for a meaningful goal.
Although the massive time span is initially intimidating, it ultimately has
very few implications for the plot. The story probably could have worked with a
span of a few generations. So what gives? The irrelevance of hundreds of years
of history ends up playing into the book’s larger theme of colonialism.
The dominant empire of the Radchaai (you’re in for a lot of double-A’s) has
been assimilating cultures for so long that their tactics, their tech, and
their very culture has reached a steady-state. This is most apparent in the
experiences of Seivarden, a “citizen” who, after waking from a millennium-long
sleep, really only struggles to adjust to people’s new accents. At some point,
author Ann Leckie seems to argue, the accelerating societal changes we’ve come
to expect will plateau.
As you’d expect from any reflection on colonialism, class plays an important
part in the story of Ancillary Justice. This mostly comes through
conversation between members of the dominant culture. In Lieutenant Skaaiat,
readers are exposed to a worldview which they might take as rational, cynical,
hypocritical, or some combination of the three:
“[…] luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many
advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if
one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your
That’s just the beginning of one of the novel’s best conversations, but the
rest requires a bit too much context to include here. Issues of class cut into
the culture of the Radchaai itself, where family reputation is a determining
factor in individual opportunity. It’s also central to the society’s tradition
of “clientage,” although that aspect is barely discussed.
The story’s three most significant events each concern a different instance of
murder committed in a military setting. Musings on fate, superior orders, and
free will pervade the narrator’s thoughts. I can’t speak to the literary value
of this theme since my experience with military sci-fi is woefully lacking. But
like with the premise of any good speculative fiction, these ideas aren’t
simply included to drive the story. Thanks to some recent reading on the 2013
NSA leaks, Leckie’s writing had me thinking about if/how we hold intelligence
agents responsible for their participation in a surveillance state.
The musings on free will also contribute to a case study of the narrator. One
Esk is an ancillary: one body among many which are controlled by a single
artificial intelligence. As topical as the notion of superior orders may be, it
also has decidedly fantastical implications for a self-aware machine. One Esk
isn’t doing you any favors here, though. Forget about a direct explanation of
its value system; you’ll have to piece this together yourself. This was the
most entertaining and frustrating challenge of the book. One Esk is definitely
inhuman, but it defies many sci-fi tropes of artificial intelligences. For
instance, it enjoys socializing with people, it appreciates music, it desires
revenge, and it sometimes fails to hide its emotional responses. It even seems
to be capable of love–a theme which is handled with enough subtlety to have
warranted the Hugo Award all on its own. Like a Wes Anderson movie or a Kazuo
Ishiguro novel, there’s a layer of emotion that sneaks up on you.
Unfortunately, for all its subtlety, the subject of the protagonist’s worldview
seems incomplete at the book’s conclusion.
For another series of novels, that would be enough to get me to quit. For the
Imperial Radch trilogy, though, I’m excited to continue on. Leckie performed
a fine balancing act, keeping her ideas orderly and delivering a thematically
dense story. And for all my ranting about theme, the book never gets too heady.
It keeps a snappy pace (unlike, say, Dune, which I’d call “dense” without a
qualifier) punctuated by some really fantastic confrontations (like when the
ancillaries are isolated, or when a new ancillary is brought online, or when
Justice of Toren suffers an emotional breakdown). Although I’ll be satisfied
if Ancillary Sword offers more of the same, I’m particularly interested in
how it will differ, particularly when so much of the world-building which
characterized Ancillary Justice has been established. Whatever the case, it’s
sure to be intentional and meaningful.