I just finished Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, a recently published space opera, and I find it to be a great example of how science fiction and genre fiction in general can perform a dual role: providing a quality story with a satisfying narrative arc; and engaging with complex social issues in a thoughtful way that doesn’t sugar-coat any particular perspective.
The story’s setting is peppered with vast artificial starship intelligences roaming the galaxy. It reminded me of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, but unlike Banks’s wise-cracking A.I’s that maintain a loose hand on the affairs of a far-future human civilization, Leckie’s starships utilize ancillaries, or captive prisoners whose memories are erased and sliced with computer hardware, to share the ship’s identity, to ensure that their civilization’s will is maintained directly. Where Banks’ Culture feels like a hedonistic, liberal anarchist free-for-all, Leckie’s Imperial Radch is decidedly more paranoid.
We begin the story knowing that the starship Justice of Toren was destroyed and that only a single ancillary named Breq remains with a single purpose in mind: to put an end to the long-standing ruler of the empire, a person with multiple bodies and near limitless resources. Alternating chapters reveal the ancillary’s backstory, eventually culminating to reveal the circumstances of the starship intelligence’s destruction, and the reader is strung along as more and more of the mystery unfolds.
From a pure genre-thriller standpoint, the book does a good job in this respect, though the action moves a bit slowly, somewhat reminiscent of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Not too slowly, but enough to be around 1/3 through and wondering, “gosh, what is happening exactly?” After about halfway through, the action picks up pace and takes on the sense of a political thriller, with multiple parties attempting to undercut one another without knowing where the others stand.
The part of the book that kept me reading through the slower spells was the constant, subsumed questioning of what it means to identify with something larger than yourself. How can you know if what you are doing is right? Remarkably, nearly every character in the story is presented as painfully, powerfully human, with identifying beliefs extending about as far they can extend before getting muddied by confusion and contradiction. All the characters are very goal-oriented and given to pursuing their beliefs, but while some run into that eventual contradiction and become wracked by doubt, others falter into extremism, careerism or outright addictive tendencies.
The character drama that kept me going through the first half of the book was that of Breq’s officer Captain Awn, a sincere agent of the empire trying to uncover the truth behind a plot steeped in corruption. At what point is she morally obligated to take a stand against said corruption, even knowing that it would mean her death, even knowing that it might not make a bit of difference in the end?
There are shells within shells of questioning here to engage on multiple levels. How much is Breq an individual and how much is she a carbon copy of the Justice of Toren? With what does a subservient-programmed artificial intelligence identify, when the empire itself appears to be fracturing and unsure of its core values? These questions seem to be posed through character, plot and setting simultaneously, which make this book a definite candidate for a reread sometime in the future.
For instance, in the imperial core, everyone utilizes the feminine gender pronoun and androgyny is the norm, and individuals from the imperial core have a very hard time identifying gender on the outskirts. This is referenced so often that it seems vital to the overall experience of the book, though there are no definitive value-judgments made by the book about the nature of gender as a whole or who is “right” about gender. The sense I got from it, having explored gender performativity myself on a theoretical and personal level, is that the realm of queer/trans* theory is philosophically fertile ground for deepening a relationship with identity. This philosophical fertility may have been what Leckie was trying to attain for her book.
I may not be reading deeply enough to understand how the deeper political questions relate to the gender themes beyond a loose sense of “the personal is political,” but engaging with gender questioning throughout the novel was fun, at any rate.
In any case, I look forward to reading the sequel to Ancillary Justice. As a novelist, I want to produce works that subtly combine themes in the broader study of social justice with a rousing good genre tale, and Leckie’s book provided fruitful inspiration on that level. Go read it!