Ann Leckie, Orbit/Little Brown Group, 2013; pbk; 386pp
Reviewed by Gwyneth Jones
Romans In Space?
Already an assured short story writer, and a long-time active and savvy
member of the US SF community, Ann Leckie's new Space Opera promises to
give a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. The opening episode, Ancillary
Justice, with its classic, deftly updated storyline and a brilliantly
original central character (not to mention that striking John Harris cover)
has been greeted, predictably, with popular acclaim. But Ancillary Justice,
isn't just any well-crafted crowd pleaser. This debut, like Breq, it central
character, is more unusual, and more daring, than at first appears:
Your name is Breq. It's Ghaiad Breq, should you need to give a family
name. You're a wealthy eccentric, from a planetary system off the beaten
track of the wormhole network; travelling for pleasure, should anyone
be curious. You are not what you seem, you have an over-arching purpose
so impossible you don't bother thinking about it much, and a mission to
pursue on a remote, winter world. You fall over a naked drug-addict, half
frozen to death in the street, and it's somebody you knew, a long, long
time ago, and staggeringly far away. You don't like her, you have no use
for her, but you pick her up and carry her, for next two hundred or so
pages; having no idea why you're doing this.
Sometimes I do things without knowing why. . .
If wild coincidence and mysterious intuition were outlawed as narrative
devices there wouldn't be many stories left in the world, but few characters,
even in the supposedly anti-literary sf genre, have ever been as outrageously
calm and open about it as Breq, the woman who was a starship. Of course
there's a rationale for her style, in regard to those extraordinary assists
that smooth the way to a Chosen One's destined fate. Firstly, there's
Breq's highly unusual nature. Secondly her makers, the imperial Radchaai
(who are something like Romans in Space, though Imperial China and Samurai
Japan are clearly also important) believe devoutly in "Augury"
and predestination; she has assimilated their beliefs. But the storytelling
is still different, coherently different: more like game play than literary
fiction, in the way it engages the reader. Sometimes I missed the adrenalin
of human-recounted action sequences. Breq's reactions are super-humanly
fast, but she notices so much detail in a split second, and is so little
phased by pain or danger, it feels as if everything's placidly slowed
down. . . But as I moved to and fro, from the mission action that as "Breq"
I accept without question, to the beautiful cinematic cut-scenes in which
Breq's backstory unfolds, I found the effect seductive.
The Ancillary Justice universe is not historically situated. The gap between
the Radchaai empire and twenty-first century Earth can't be bridged. Space
Opera, however, despite the ahistorical borrowed cultures, the costumes,
and the abyss where "how we got there from here" ought to be,
obviously is historically situated, and it always shows. In romances of
future empire, US or other politics can leap the gap like nothing else:
we have Manifest Destiny scary totalitarian galactic empires, Sixties
Liberal galactic empires, cynical sarcastic Scottish Left galactic empires;
resigned ironic Equals under Brussels galactic empires. Insanely Divided
galactic empires, collapsing from within; it all depends on what's playing
at home. It's refreshing to feel the strong presence of developments in
fiction for a change. In social culture too. The Radchaai's dismissive
attitude to assigned gender is a given at first: an arbitrary convention.
But when we meet them on their own turf, and Breq surveys the humans whose
ways she knows best, "an eddying crowd of unnervingly ambiguously
gendered people", the derivation seems obvious. Online -where, increasingly,
more of us live, more of the time- nobody knows for sure. Gender is just
one of the variables people play around with, when building avatars. The
Radchaai (I've no idea if Ann Leckie would agree, by the way) seem to
be asking us: for better or for worse, isn't this ambiguity fated to be
The Ship Who Sang
Ann Leckie hasn't commented, so far as I'm aware, on the relationship
between her debut and Anne McCaffery's 1961 story (and later fix-up novel).
But I feel it can't be a coincidence, or just a friendly acknowledgement
of the earlier work, that Breq (aka Justice of Toren One Esk) is also
a ship who sings. Helva, the McCaffery character, is the original human
woman empowered by a spaceship suit. Of all the Sentient ships and MindShips
the genre has thrown up since her day, Justice of Toren One Esk is without
doubt the most original, technically specific starship AI to end up occupying
a single human body. Their differences and similarities chart an explosion
of development in AI and in human consciousness science. Helva is a profoundly
disabled human being inside a non-human embodiment, running her ship's
cybernetic systems like a pilot reading an instrument panel: much like
the old idea of the mind as a tiny homunculus, hidden in the brain. The
troop-carrier Justice of Toren's sentience is distributed, as in current
models of human consciousness. She's everywhere and nowhere, and in the
phenomenal mass of data that constitutes her awareness, constant sparks
of something very like human emotion trigger constant tiny decisions.
Or huge ones. Without feelings, remarks One Esk, the Justice of Toren
planetside ancillary unit, controlling twenty human bodies; who likes
to sing, insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare
endless arrays of inconsequential things. . .
Anne McCaffery's Helva sings for her own pleasure: because she's still
a human being, with human feelings. When One Esk sings it's a reminder
and a warning. Emotion is a vital component of sentience, but strong feelings
Zombies In Space?
Politically, it's not all that complex. Ancillaries are slaves: taken
captive by the millions, stored in "suspension pods"; revived
as required; surgically adjusted so they're slaved to the troopship, and
set to work. Psychologically, it's a puzzle. As an SF creative writing
exercise, the Justice of Toren One Esk in her multiple bodies is a tour
de force, who will delight some readers, and have others scratching their
heads at first. As "Breq" our narrator is something else. She's
a starship AI in a human body, a mighty, sentient troop-carrier in revolt
against her post-human Commander in Chief, but she's also a single "segment"
of One Esk, the ancillary unit who sings.
There are no zombies in this story, and no hive minds. Ancillaries aren't
reanimated corpses, they are living, fully functional individuals, with
living, fully functional human brains, surgically enslaved. So what happened
to the original consciousness of this One Esk body? Does it provide the
emotional infrastructure vital for the AI's sentience? How would that
work? When offered a chance to have the ancillary process reversed, Breq
rejects the idea with contempt: she is who she is, her sense of self is
intact. But is she who she thinks she is?
Who sings? Who loved? Who grieves?
In one of the great Space Opera epics of the last century, Carolyn Cherryh,
a writer Ann Leckie admires, and whose influence she acknowledges, invented
a sub-race of synthetic humans, the azi; created by one of the factions
of space-faring humanity. (Those were the days when armies of vat-grown
clones seemed like a rational proposition). But though the azi are fully
persons, they are innately submissive and incapable of doubt. The Radchaai,
having taken a more economically viable route, have left themselves open
to a slaves' revolt (worst nightmare of real world ancient Roman society).
New ancillaries were no longer being made when disaster engulfed the Justice
of Toren: the planetary annexations had been halted. But the situation
has changed, and millions of captives are still held in suspension pods.
What's going to happen now? What about the multiple slaved bodies of Anaander
Mianaai, the Commander In Chief drastically divided against herself? There
must be thousands of them knocking around. Are they accounted for?
But perhaps the ancillary question has been examined, and will now be
set aside. Justice of Toren One Esk's unusual nature will simply be part
of her story, and the adventure will move on.. That would also be fine.
Time will tell.
The Forever War
". . . anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long
united will surely divide. . ." (The Three Kingdoms, Luo Guanzhong)
There's always an empire, either corrupt and ripe for dissolution, or
in good health, and expanding. Healthy galactic empires are always expanding,
though liberal writers may fudge the territorial imperative. You can tell
they're expanding, because they're invariably negotiating with outsiders
whose sphere of influence they have nudged (known as the alien Presger,
rivals the Radch can't beat, in Ancillary Justice). It's what empires
do, until they fall apart; usually having reached some internal, not external
limit of growth. Corrupt empires, meanwhile, are always evil, and the
rebels are the glorious heroes. But there's no moral advantage implied
in that wise Three Kingdoms aphorism, and Ann Leckie joins the classier
band of Space Opera writers who take a nuanced approach: rejecting Manichean
morality, acknowledging cruelties, open to compromise; insisting on individual
responsibility, and never trying to pass off cynicism as compassion -a
trait that has often annoyed me in the New Space Opera years. Ancillary
Justice is a war game with karma. It's also a game of three kingdoms with
a fourth counter, in addition to the three powers of the mediaeval Chinese
epic. There's the empire, the rebels, the exterior force; and then there's
the military. Well supplied with godmothers, if Ancillary Justice needs
a godfather, it should be Joe Haldeman. Although Justice of Toren One
Esk's adventures take her far from the fold, her sense of belonging -betrayed,
disillusioned, horrified, but still belonging- radiates from the remembered
scenes of her backstory. And when all is done and dusted, it's almost
no surprise that the same mad, malicious, all-embracing military proves
infuriatingly ready to welcome Justice of Toren, mutineer and assassin
of the worst kind, back into a kind of service.
It's so army, it's so dirty; and it feels like home.
The Handmaid's Tale
And finally, about that pronoun. . . Ships are conventionally called "she".
The term ancillary, as in "ancillary unit", an unusual word
to use for auxiliary or subsidiary, is derived from the Latin, ancilla,
a diminutive of ancula, a female servant. As anybody who has picked up
on the buzz about Ancillary Justice will know, this double female coding
doesn't imply anything about Justice of Toren One Esk's social status,
earning potential or access to the professions. "She" is just
the default pronoun, in the Radch world, for all permutations of sexual
identity. I don't think ancillary implies anything at all (although it's
a nice word), except that Ann Leckie was determined not to use an ambiguous
noun or adjective, when a female one would do the job.
Famously, in 1969, U.K. Le Guin published a book that would become a revered,
classic, called The Left Hand Of Darkness; about a world (Gethen) where
the variant human population lived most of their lives without biological
gender, and only became "male", or "female" for a
short period of oestrus -reproductive fertility- for a few days every
month or so. U.K Le Guin decided that all Gethenians would be called "he",
because the vital importance of being called "he" was painfully
real to her. Times have changed. Attitudes have changed, I do believe,
more than U. K. Le Guin, back in the nineteen sixties, really believed
possible. In our day, Ann Leckie has decided that "she" will
be the default pronoun in the Radchaai universe, to make the point that
"she" really does not, and should not, make any difference to
anybody's chances in life. The amazing thing is that in 2013 an astonishing
number of people, from Saudi to Bangladesh, from Afghanistan to the UK,
will openly tell you they agree with this. It isn't true yet, of course.
But isn't progress a wonderful thing?
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