Read March 2021
Recommended for sci-fi
★ ★ ★ 1/2
I bought Ancillary Justice awhile ago, knowing I needed to read it. Everyone, it seemed was raving, from the Hugo/Locus/Nebula Awards to the Incomparable Podcast to the friends who are responsible for 4.11 average rating. And while I get parts of the love–it’s far more readable than I expected–it feels very much like a first book, with the accompanying challenges in world-building and plotting.
There’s a dual narrative, a prior timeline and a current timeline. Leckie uses a classic sci-fi approach and drops the reader into it with the past timeline which takes place on the last assimilated world of the Imperial Radch, and shepherds the reader a little more with the second timeline on a snowy, more isolated planet. The reader gradually understands that the narrator is a ship artificial intelligence who has multiple bodies in the past timeline and only one single humanoid body, ‘Breq,’ in the current. One of the tensions of the story then is not only understanding the past society of the Radch, but how the narrator changed circumstance so drastically.
“Except for those hours when communications had been cut off, I had never really lost the sense of being part of Justice of Toren. My kilometers of white-walled corridor, my captain, the decade commanders, each decade’s lieutenants, each one’s smallest gesture, each breath, was visible to me. I had never lost the knowledge of my ancillaries, twenty-bodied One Amaat, One Toren, One Etrepa, One Bo, and Two Esk, hands and feet for serving those officers, voices to speak to them.”
I felt a lot of echoes of other works. Definitely The Left Hand of Darkness in setting and theme (snow, intimacy, gender studies), but also Star Trek‘s The Borg and Seven theme (one of many), and more recently, Wells’ Murderbot. But Justice lacks the subtlety and world-building of LHD, the danger of the Borg and the humor of Murderbot. What Justice really has is one obvious big hook of gender non-conformity, and a clever plot point told in an engaging way.
“Which, since I didn’t exist as any sort of individual, was not distressing to me.”
One of the best points about the story is that despite the dual timelines and empire, Leckie is an engaging writer. By using a pastiche of the familiar, the reader is able to fill in a lot of the details. The story read much more quickly than I expected. As the story progressed, the characters gained emotional complexity, leading me to change my mind about continuing the series. Would I continue for information about the Radch Empire? No. Breq/One Esk? Yes.
I quite thankful to my group of fellow readers for many reasons, but one thing that became clear as we discussed is that many of the underpinnings of the story don’t hold well under stress. The most obvious point is the language device of an A.I having trouble telling human gender and defaulting to female when forced to linguistically choose. Ultimately, it seemed unlikely for my for an A.I. that’s been interacting with humans for over two thousand years. Regardless of whether you accept it, it became obvious just how arbitrary it was when Leckie has Breq continue to use the wrong pronoun after others would point out the correct one. That, my friends, is just an asshole maneuver. And if the Radch were truly a society where gender didn’t matter, wouldn’t they have a gender-free pronoun?
“She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered.”
A significant plot problem surrounded the ending. At the risk of spoilers I won’t say more on my WordPress review, but Stephen astutely pointed out the logic error. There were also smaller story-telling problems. Specifically, there was one section where Leckie had been organically building up her plot points and world in the past, and then one of the Lieutenants comes in and literally summarizes everything that just happened. On the one hand, I guess it was nice to have the comprehension check, on the other hand, what the hell, comprehension check?
Ultimately, good reads pass the ‘interesting’ test, along with the ‘not-offensive’ rider, and Ancillary Justice certainly does that. Leckie did an interesting enough job with relationships that I want to continue with Ancillary Sword. However, should it stand among the must-read greats? I’m doubtful.
Major shout outs to my reading team who motivated, kept me oriented (haha), and provided thoughtful discussion. Thank you, jade, Jessica, Nataliya, Stephen (with guest appearances by David)! You all are the best and make reading so much more fun.