35. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Have you ever heard the joke that one person is a world? In Ancillary Justice, one person is a ship. It's an idea that we can all relate to, stunningly realized by Ann Leckie in crisp, simplistic diction.
This idea, of a ship that is a person, is what makes this story sing (literally). Ancillary Justice is a compelling example that great science fiction is essentially the literalization of metaphors (according to Seo-Young Chu in Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep?), or a cognitive estrangement from the mimesis of reality (a wordier but not more complicated idea from Darko Suvin's criticism).
Breq, the narrator, is the last remaining "piece," if you will, of a vast artificial intelligence network that controlled an enormous troop carrying star ship, which led ominous "annexations" for thousands of years. To complicate matters more, Breq is actually a human body, that hundreds or thousands of years ago was wiped of its memories to become an "ancillary" of the ship, one of many ancillaries imbued with the same artificial intelligence. In a sense, Breq was (is) the ship.
Talk about an identity crisis.
It's this concept that captivated me most about Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, but it was not the concept that was the reason I read it in the first place.
All the characters in Ancillary Justice are referred to as "she." The language of Breq's empire, the Radch, does not distinguish between genders. Biological sex exists, it simply is not reflected in the language. When I read reviews that mentioned this phenomenon in the up-and-coming novel that was nominated for, and went on to win, the Nebula Award and also the Arthur C. Clarke Award, I thought, that is a book I should read.
But like another reviewer (can't remember who, sorry) said, referring to all characters as "she" makes very little difference to the novel. It's distracting, at first, when one realizes that a character described as "an old person with gray hair and a close-cut gray beard" is probably not female, but it's ultimately irrelevant. As it should be. That's the point. Just as Kathryn Janeway's captaincy of a star ship is a non-issue, so is the use of feminine pronouns for all characters in Ancillary Justice. And so, it's not the Janewayean language that makes this story tick.
After you've gotten used to the pronouns, it's this line that really throw you:
"Nineteen years, three months, and one week before I found Seivarden in the snow, I was a troop carrier orbiting the planet Shis'urna."
I had to read that line several times. And refer back to it later on.
Ancillary Justice is meticulously crafted, with a hard kernel of non-fantastic truth. Identity is a phenomenon that, despite the eons we've spent struggling with it, we still don't understand, but that the nature thereof, both individual and collective, can tear us apart. And in Leckie's universe, we won't be able to take our eyes off the unraveling. I've already bought the sequel, Ancillary Sword, and I can't wait for what comes next.