Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. After years of having her identity programmed into her, a fragment of an AI mind must re-build the story of who she is. And that story is one of vengeance.

sci-fi-month
Hosted by Rinn Reads and Over the effing Rainbow!

It’s almost the end of November and I haven’t read as much sci-fi as I thought I would. But, no biggie, at least I got to finish this epic of a book below. I’ve been curious about Ancillary Justice for so long—ever since it won the Hugo last year. And, I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it 😀

Title: Ancillary Justice

Author: Ann Leckie

Genre: Sci-fi

Pages: 386

Days to read it: 5-ish

Synopsis:

For years Breq has been searching for a long lost weapon, a gun that can pierce through the impenetrable and invisible force shield that all Radchaai—ships and citizens—possess. A force shield technology that few have ever been able to breach—a technology that has ensured the Radchaai’s annexation of countless races, territories, and planets across the expanse of space. Her search has led her to the cold and isolated planet at the back end of civilization. Here, she meets a familiar face that reminds her of a time when she was more than just a single entity trapped inside one human body—she was once the AI of a military starship with thousands of human ancillary soldiers operating as one vast mind. Back then, she was the Justice of Toren and she served the Lord of all the Radchaai, Anaander Mianaai. But all at once things changed and it was all taken away from her, leaving her adrift and alone and full of anger. It will take a lot of patience, and planning, and persistence, but Breq will get her revenge. She will blend in with the humans around her and she will get her hands on the Garseddai gun. And then, it will only be a matter of time before she will act. When that time comes, nothing will stop her. She was, afterall, created by the Radchaai to bring upon the swift and precise justice of a killing machine.

Impressions:

MILD SPOILERS EXIST BELOW! (I don’t think I have put anything here that would ruin the plot of the story for you…)

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is so different from anything I normally read. For one thing, it’s the first piece of work I’ve read featuring an AI as the first person protagonist—an AI that has thousands of separate units as part of its consciousness, no less. Because of the nature of the Justice of Toren’s mind and how it reaches into so many bodies, the narrative is complex. The story is told mostly from the POV of One Esk, the name of one segment of the Justice of Toren’s mind that works very closely with Lieutenant Awn, a Radchaai who was given charge of integrating the people of a certain planet into Radchaai society. One Esk will be walking next to Lieutenant Awn, but also mending uniforms, patrolling the streets, sleeping, talking to other citizens miles away—all at the same time! There are scenes where the starship focuses its mind on what one of its ancillaries is doing and watches from the POV of many of its nearby ancillaries. There are scenes where one ancillary receives information about something and immediately the ancillary all the way in space can deliver that information to someone else on the starship. To make the situation even more challenging to narrate, Justice of Toren, being an AI, doesn’t express emotion in the way humans can understand it. My mind is just blown by how well Ann Leckie delivers a sympathetic story regardless of these complications. But, it works! And it’s fascinating.

Bodies of dead people implanted with an AI hive-like mind...cybermen!
Bodies of dead people implanted with an AI hive-like mind…reminds me of cybermen!

The other thing that really gripped me was the process of gaining an ancillary—or a “corpse soldier” as many people who are uneasy around ancillaries call them. Essentially, the Radchaai don’t waste bodies. During the period of annexation, they take a certain proportion of their prisoners and put them into suspension. These prisoners will then be thawed when needed and hooked up into a starship’s AI. The new ancillary’s nervous system still has to be functional to be able to connect to the AI. I totally got the chills reading the body-thawing scenes. The moment the body “wakes” it’s frightened and confused and dying and the medic tech in charge of connecting the body to the AI is so uncaring about all of it—it’s just a routine procedure, after all. It’s already part of the ship. The entire procedure creeps me out!

Nope. No emotional instability here.

Another disturbing routine procedure they do is this reeducation program that they offer to Radchaai that are “unsteady”, in other words displaying emotional and mental instability. The reeducation program involves suppressing urges or memories that contribute to weakening the mental fortitude and involves re-directing neurons, severing old ones, installing implants etc. “Brainwashing” as people of other races like to call it. So, it’s apparent the Radchaai are well-versed in fiddling with the brain and merging it with tech. It’s not something to be afraid of its just another tool they may use to achieve that ultimate Radchaai perfection of “strength of character”—even if they need to do it artificially.

The whole idea of assimilating these bodies into the AI’s “hive mind” brings up interesting ideas about identity, too. Well-meaning humans sometimes offer to “bring back” One Esk’s “original mind” but that would mean they would destroy One Esk’s current sense of self which is a sort of murder in itself, isn’t it? Or, has the mind of the original body always been there—just tweaked in a neurological way to become compliant? Also, if the AI’s connection with the various fragments of its identity is compromised, what happens? Do those fragments gain autonomy? But they are essentially the same identity so they would still do what the hive mind would have wanted them to do, anyway, right? Lots of questions…

The J'naiil are a race that physically and mentally seek to evolve beyond gender.
I’m reminded a bit of the J’naiil, a race that physically and mentally seek to evolve beyond gender.

Speaking of discussions about identity, the Radchaai are an interesting race. I’m still not entirely sure what is going on with regards to the whole gender identity issue. I’m flipping through the pages right now, and I feel like I’m missing something. All the pronouns the Radchaai use for each other are feminine pronouns. But, other races will use both feminine and masculine pronouns for the various Radchaai they encounter, indicating that they must physically look like either a “he” or “she”, right? But then, when someone asked One Esk how a race like the Radchaai that is all the same gender can reproduce, One Esk clarifies to them that the Radchaai are not, in fact, one gender (and that they reproduce with the help of technology). So, are we looking at a situation where there are two sub-categories of “female”? I have to say that I’m a little lost with regards to this otherwise very interesting discussion…

Oh wow, I’ve just gone on for paragraphs about the Radchaai and haven’t even talked about the actual characters who are super interesting! They are all very conflicted, lonely characters that question their identities in their own way. It seems like the question of “who am I, really?” is a running theme of Ancillary Justice—a struggle to reconcile who they are with what the empire wants them to be. How much are they willing to compromise their own sense of what is right for what is “right” for the empire? Without the empire, what are they really? One Esk/Breq and her companion Seivarden both end up being cut off from the empire and in this way are given a chance to reinvent themselves whereas others like Lieutenant Awn are perhaps not so fortunate.

Overall, Ancillary Justice is densely packed with interesting, new ideas that made me flip through the pages at an exponential rate. There are interesting discussions about the nature of “identity” as well as lots of food for thought with regards to the benefits of having AIs vs. humans to run military operations. I feel like the pacing was a bit oddly slow in some parts of the book, but for the most part I didn’t notice because I was so engrossed by what I was reading and learning about the Radchaai and the character revelations.

Rating: 4 bowls of real, high-quality Radchaai Tea

There are so many great excerpts but I can’t put them here ’cause they’ll spoil you. So, here’s one that relatively spoiler-free! This is that creepy body-thawing scene I was talking about:

Lieutenant Awn entered the lift that would bring her to Medical just as the tech medic triggered the release on the suspension pod that held the body. The lid swung up, and for a hundredth of a second the body lay still and icy within its pool of fluid.
 
The tech medic rolled the body out of the pod onto a neighboring table, the fluid sliding and sheeting off it, and in the same moment it awoke, convulsive, choking and gagging. The preserving medium slides out of throat and lungs easily on its own, but the first few times the experience is a discomfiting one. Lieutenant Awn exited the lift, strode down the corridor toward Medical with One Esk Eighteen close behind her.
 
The tech medic went swiftly to work, and suddenly I was on the table (I as walking behind Lieutenant Awn, I was taking up the mending Two Esk had set down on its way to the holds, I was laying myself down on my small, close bunks, I was wiping a counter in the decade room) and I could see and hear but I had no control of the new body and its terror raised the heart rates of all One Esk’s segments. The new segment’s mouth opened and it screamed and in the background it heard laughter. I flailed, the binding came loose and I rolled off the table, fell a meter and a half to the floor with a painful thud. Don’t don’t don’t, I thought at the body, but it wasn’t listening. It was sick, it was terrified, it was dying. It pushed itself up and crawled, dizzy, where it didn’t care so long as it got away.
 
Then hands under my arms (elsewhere One Esk was motionless) urging me up, and Lieutenant Awn. “Help,” I croaked, not in Radchaai. Damn medic pulled out a body without a decent voice. “Help me.”
 
“It’s all right.” Lieutenant Awn shifted her grip, put her arms around the new segment, pulled me in closer. It was shivering, still cold from suspension, and from terror. “It’s all right. It’ll be all right.” The segment gasped and sobbed for what seemed forever and I thought maybe it was going to throw up until…the connection clicked home and I had control of it. I stopped the sobbing.
 
“There,” said Lieutenant Awn. Horrified. Sick to her stomach. “Much better.” I saw that she was newly angry, or perhaps this was another edge of distress I’d seen since the temple. “Don’t injure my unit,” Lieutenant Awn said curtly, and I realized that though she was still looking at me, she was talking to the tech medic.
 
“I didn’t, Lieutenant,” answered the tech medic, with a trace of scorn in her voice. They’d had this conversation at greater and more acrimonious length, during the annexation. The medic had said, It’s not like it’s human. It’s been in the hold a thousand years, it’s nothing but a part of the ship. Lieutenant Awn had complained to Commander Tiaund, who hadn’t understood Lieutenant Awn’s anger, and said so, but thereafter I hadn’t dealt with that particular medic. “If you’re so squeamish,” the medic continued, “maybe you’re in the wrong place.”
 
Lieutenant Awn turned, angry, and left the room without saying anything further. I turned and walked back to the table with some trepidation. The segment was already resisting, and I knew that this tech medic wouldn’t care if it hurt when she put in my armor, and the rest of my implants.

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6 comments

  1. I still have to read this! Like, I have the book; actually went to the book store to get it, with the intent of reading it soon… but that was like a year ago? 😛

    I know it is a very complex narrative, but the AI, and (lack-of?) gender and pronoun thing, seems like it would be something that I’d get lost thinking about as I read 🙂

  2. DJ – I was a bit lost at first, but the story kind of sucked me in regardless. At some point, I stopped worrying about that, haha. Still an entertaining read in a well-fleshed out world, imo!

  3. Mogsy – Yeah, in some ways the book is really disorienting (with the pronouns and the timeline and the AI protagonist) but in other ways, I was just so impressed that she carried the story as well as she did. It’s a very ambitious work!

  4. Well, I’m just going to confess, this didn’t do it for me at all – I stopped at No.1. Shocking, I know. And it does have lots of positive reviews but, no, I couldn’t get into it at all.
    Lynn 😀

  5. Lynn – Haha, that happens. I’m reading a book right now, Throne of Glass that’s absolutely annoying me so much right now. I’m considering not continuing…we shall see. For Ancillary Justice, I almost wanted to stop reading at the first few chapters, at first. But, there were enough intriguing elements to string me along and then I just became more and more surprised and comfortable with the world, I guess. The same thing happened when I tried to read Dune and is the reason I never got around to reading for a long time. 😀

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