Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review - Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Short review: Breq was the ship Justice of Toren, she was also One Esk and she had a favorite officer. One day she was betrayed and all but a tiny piece of her was destroyed. Now she searches an ice planet looking for a tool that will allow her to achieve vengeance.

Justice of Toren
Destroyed and now only Breq
A gun and vengeance

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Ancillary Justice is, to put it bluntly, a brilliant science fiction novel that poses questions regarding identity, gender, and the nature of self. On the surface, it is a story of betrayal and revenge centered around the acquisition of a particular weapon, but lurking beneath the surface is a complex layering of social and political conflicts and structures that are interwoven together into a rich tapestry that gives the book substantial heft. The primary characters in the story are all out of place in some way, and each has how they see the world constrained by their limited perspective which drives them to view the same things in different ways (often to their own detriment), or to merely overlook particular possibilities. And lurking in the background are the alien Presger, with their own decidedly strange and poorly understood perspective, who never directly appear in the story, but become more and more of a looming threat as Breq unravels the mystery of the novel.

The story takes place in two different times. In one, Breq is on the planet Nilt seeking a fugitive doctor hoping to acquire the gun that holds the key to all of Breq's plans. Along the way she picks up the Radch citizen Seivarden, herself a thousand years out of her own time and dealing with it by becoming addicted to a drug called kef. In the other, nearly twenty years earlier, Breq doesn't exist as an individual, but rather is both part of, and is, the massive starship Justice of Toren, aware in many locations and through many bodies all at once. And this highlights one of the many interesting elements of the story: The question of identity. Is Breq a person? A malfunctioning piece of equipment? A fragment of a larger whole? An individual subsuming the whole into herself? Leckie manages to accomplish the difficult task of saying both "yes" to all of these, and "no" to all of them as well, because, as becomes clear as the story progresses, the answer depends upon the viewpoint of who is considering the matter.

Though the story doesn't take place entirely within its borders, everything that happens is dominated by the politics of the Radch Empire, the largest, and until recently, most aggressively expansionist human political entity. For centuries, the Radch have annexed other worlds, using their superior weapons and nigh-impenetrable armor to conquer and assimilate entire populations of people. As part of these annexations, Radch divide the subjugated populace; making a lucky few into citizens, killing some of those who resist, and transforming the remainder into mind-wiped bodies kept in cold storage for later use as "ancillaries": Living, breathing ship components. Breq was once an ancillary, a component of Justice of Toren before that ship and every other part of her was destroyed. This leaves Breq in an odd position as she is left with just one human body, but she's not human by Radch standards, but with her ship body destroyed, Breq isn't the Justice of Toren any more. She's not a fragment of her former self - she still has all, or at least most, of the memories and knowledge of her ship-self - but she isn't the whole either.

The question of exactly what Breq is, and what she is not, is at the very heart of the novel. Each ship used by the Radchaai is a single mind in many bodies, separated into several groupings, forming what can only be described as deck crews to serve the human officers assigned to the ship's various sections. So while the Justice of Toren is ostensibly a unitary whole, it is also the various groupings of ancillaries that make up the unit known as One Esk, and the unit known as One Var, and so on. In one particularly chilling scene, the components of Justice of Toren recall overseeing the culling of the inhabitants of a subject planet, guarding a collection of noncitizens, some of whom will be killed, others to be spared - but "spared" in this case means that they will be destined for the cold sleep vaults to be used as ancillaries. Essentially, Justice of Toren is overseeing the implacable selection process that will transform human beings into equipment that is not merely under her control, but is in fact her, destroying the personalities that exist within those bodies and making them just one more piece of her.

It is situations like these that reveal the fundamental injustice of the Radchaai system, although it is clear that from the perspective of the Radchaai, not only is their system just, deviating from it would be fundamentally unjust. But this is shown to be, at least to a certain extent, because the Radchaai viewpoint is severely restricted, not in small part due to their language. The word "radch" literally means "civilization" in the Radch language, making it almost impossible for the Radchaai to talk about non-Radch civilizations. Those who are outside the Radch polity are, by the terms of the Radch language, defined as uncivilized. Similarly, when trying to express the concept of "tyrant" to Seivarden, Breq has to switch to a different language, because the Radch language has no words that can express it properly. Given the structure of Radch society, one gets the impression that these language quirks may not be accidental. And this is just the most obvious way that the fundamental injustices in Radch society are cast as justice. For example, all Radchaai citizens take the "aptitudes" ostensibly merit based exams used to determine what career is best suited to each individual. But the characters in the story suspect based upon their experiences with the aptitudes that they are not merit based at all, and that the scions of wealthy and politically powerful families get preferential assignments. And, despite the glaring unfairness of this, this is taken as an indication that the system is just, because many Radchaai assume that members of those families are more capable of handling those positions. Granted, most of those saying this are members of families that benefit from such bias in the testing, but once incorporated into the Radch, it seems that newcomers also adopt this view. The Radch, we are shown time and again, hold a myopic viewpoint that is reinforced by their language and culture.

The pivotal act of treachery that destroys the bulk of Justice of Toren is precipitated by Anaander Mianaai's failure to realize that even though Toren was technically a whole entity, she was also composed of various constituent parts, and some of those parts might have formed their own personality quirks and their own affections, however slightly divergent they may be from those of the whole. This oversight is a little ironic, given the nature of the underlying conflict in the Radch and Anaander's role in it, but it does highlight just how difficult it is to overcome the restrictions on one's own viewpoint, especially when the very language you speak gets in the way. This difficulty is reflected time and again in the book, notably when Breq speaked with non-Radchaai and has difficulty assessing their gender. Radch society is gender neutral, referring to every citizen as "she" or "her", to such an extent that those who live inside the Radch are almost gender-blind. But this poses difficulties for Breq when she is on Nilt, as she finds it extremely hard to differentiate between male and female Nilters. Her background and experience simply blind her to the cues that would allow her to easily identify one gender from the other. Even the seemingly egalitarian gender-neutral nature of Radch society is the result of a limitation of perspective (and possibly an intentional one at that), and given how the story developed through Ancillary Justice, I expect this to come back to haunt the Radchaai in the future.

And it is the limitations of viewpoint that loom critical in Breq's plan for revenge. Although she spends a fair portion of the story attempting to acquire a specific firearm to be used for what seems to be an almost futile attempt at assassination, it is not the weapon that is critical to Breq's vengeance. Rather it is information that Breq possesses and how she can use this to upset the carefully restricted viewpoint of her quarry that takes center stage. And this is part of the brilliance of the book - even though the reader thinks they know what direction Breq is taking them, because our viewpoint is also restricted, we don't see things that should have been obvious from the start. And through the novel one sees subtle shifts in Breq's own view of the world as she adjusts from being a fragment of a lost larger whole that has become a dedicated instrument of revenge, to being more and more of an individual in her own right. At the end of the novel Breq is still Justice of Toren, and she is still One Esk, but she increasingly seems to be simply "Breq", an evolution that is both the result of her changed perspective, and requires her to change it as well.

With a story that is both satisfyingly self-contained and a perfect set up for the upcoming novel Ancillary Sword, this book is an almost pitch perfect first novel. The direct story of a ship fragment relentlessly seeking a weapon to allow her to gain revenge is an engaging tale of action and intrigue, while the underlying themes concerning society, politics, and the limitations of one's own experience are intensely interesting and thought-provoking.

Subsequent book in the series: Ancillary Sword

2013 Clarke Award Winner: Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
2015 Clarke Award Winner: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

2013 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi
2015 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

2013 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
2015 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

2013 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
2015 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

List of Clarke Award Winners
List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novel
List of Locus Award Winners for Best First Novel
List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novel

2014 Campbell Award Nominees
2014 Clarke Award Nominees
2014 Hugo Award Finalists
2014 Locus Award Nominees
2014 Nebula Award Nominees

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