(2013) Ann Leckie, Orbit, £7.99, pbk, 386pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50240-3
Humanity has spread to the stars and been there for so long that it has forgotten its home world. There are many human factions but one of the largest, an empire sustained by growth subsuming other worlds, is that of the Radach.
Keeping control and furthering the Radch empire growth is undertaken by a powerful military, and part of this are interstellar ships run by artificial intelligences (AIs). These intelligences are not just confined to the ship itself but also are part-distributed through human interfaces – ancillaries – that serve along with a properly human crew. These human interfaces can act as selfless soldiers as well as the most dedicated of ship maintainers: no chore is too dull for them as they cannot get bored.
However something happened to the ship Justice of Toren which is now no more. The only survivor is an ancillary who contains its own memories as an ancillary as well as a fragment of the former ship AI. How come Justice of Toren got destroyed? The Radch ruler, Anaander Mianaai, may know; that is if the ancillary One Esk Justice of Toren can find which of the multiple Anaander Mianaas (or group thereof or even all) was responsible? The thing is that Anaander Mianaai is a collective of Mianaai clones that has ruled as one for a thousand years.
One Esk Justice of Toren is on an icy, isolated planet far from Radchaai space when she accidentally stumbles upon the injured, near frozen body of Seivarden Vendaai, a Radch and former human crew member of Justice of Toren. Though just an unfeeling ancillary, One Esk rescues 'her' but still has her personal mission to complete…
This space opera is a powerful debut by US author Ann Leckie, and was one of 2014's Hugo Award nominations which it went on to win, winner of the 2014 Clarke Award, Nebula Award for 'Best Novel', Locus Award for 'Best Debut' and not least the winner of the 2014 BSFA Award for 'Best Novel'… In short, you should not need me to tell you that this book is a little special.
No small part of the enjoyment of Ancillary Justice's first half comes from discerning what is going on and the set up. This first half consists of alternating two strands; one being One Esk (Justice of Toren) discovering Seivarden Vendaai and trying to further her vengeful mission, and the other a flashback to when the ship Ancillary Justice's was whole and One Esk just one of a number of linked ancillaries, overseeing a conquered planet. Elucidating what is going on is complicated by One Esk being unable to discern the gender of those with whom she is interacting: she is after all only an ancillary and sometimes language can be gender neutral and so when uncertain she defaults' to she. (This of course ticks the gender exploration box currently in politically correct vogue within parts of the western, Anglophone SF community.)
The book's second half progresses One Esk's mission back to Radch space.
Though a solid, near-widescreen space opera, this is not hard SF in the vein of say Alastair Reynolds, Paul McAuley or the recently late Iain Banks: this is more C. J. Cherryh in space opera mode. So there is no reference to the science underpinning what is going on, though some SFnal rules do become manifest: there is FTL via hyperspace and also gates; ancillaries are not entangled but there is some wifi-type linkage; there are GM post-humans. However the lack of underpinning science (albeit SFnal science) does lead to some seeming contradictions. For example, and perhaps most blatantly, how come the ancillary cannot tell gender from voice analysis, body language or even our sexual dimorphism, yet One Esk can quickly anticipate from similarly subtle clues when an opponent might react and use this to considerable combat advantage? One hopes that this is not a (critical) flaw but necessary for the trilogy's overall plot arc and will be explained in the trilogy's subsequent books. The reason given, early on in Ancillary Justice's, is that the 'Radchaai don't care much about gender and the language they speak… doesn't mark gender in any way'. This is odd given the biological importance of gender to our species as well as, not least, our sexual dimorphism: an explanation is warranted in the subsequent books if this is not to be dismissed as a trendy, 'literary' ploy; let's hope there is one; Ann has said that in part the gender blindness was a comment on the 'fever pitch' discussions on gender issues in fandom.
Ancillary Justice is a very engaging read, has a reasonably novel take on the well-worn trope of interstellar empire, a sound plot with a puzzle (or question) to solve. This by itself is enough to warrant space opera fans to check this out. That this is a debut novel does make it more remarkable and Ann Leckie is someone SF readers might well want to keep an eye on. This is the good news. Aside from very minor writing style quibbles, so minor that few will pick up on them let alone raise an eyebrow, the bad news (if it is 'bad news') is that the author has set the bar higher-than-average, and the expectation has to be that this will be met (if not exceeded) by the next in the trilogy. Yet all too often only very accomplished writers can sustain such interest with a trilogy's mid-book where the novelty has had its edge knocked off by the first title and so readers need sustaining in the second by either further sense of wonder and/or plot-development that itself must not be a spoiler for whatever the trilogy's climatic final volume has to offer. We will, of course, find out, and hopefully have fun doing so.
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