Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Wow. For such a short book, there is a lot going on in this. I’ve been wanting to read Ancillary Justice for a while now, and, when I saw it a few weeks ago, I couldn’t really resist. I know I’m weak. But I’m not disappointed.
Ancillary Justice follows an AI system called the Justice of Toren. The Justice of Toren has been assigned to an annexation, and, while on planet, Justice of Toren and its human lieutenant, Lt. Awn, uncover a conspiracy that could only have occurred with the sanction of a high official–the Lord of Radch, ruler of the Empire. They do their best to divert the oncoming disaster, but are sent back to their ship. Shortly after they arrive, the ship explodes. Everyone is dead except a single ancillary unit of the Justice of Toren who goes into hiding under the name Breq. Breq then seeks the destruction of the AI that destroyed her units and the humans who lived aboard the ship.
The highlight of this book is not the writing style. Though Leckie’s writing is good, there’s nothing terribly outstanding about it. The real high points in the book are the ways that Leckie portrays heavy issues like identity and moral ambiguity.
The first thing that struck me was Leckie’s use of gender. The Radch, the conquering ethnic group, don’t use gender in their language. The Radch are a more androgynous culture. Leckie shows this by using she as the pronoun for all characters during narration. This was very confusing. The only time that we find out characters’ genders was when Breq spoke to people whose languages use gender. In the same paragraph, a character may be referred to as both he and she.
Leckie uses AI as an opportunity to talk about both identity and morality. Both discussions are interesting.
Ancillaries are humans who have been hooked up to an AI unit, often forcibly and for reasons that are often self-serving on behalf of the Rachaai. They become part of the AI and lose their independent identity. Leckie is constantly questioning what this means for the identity of the AI and for the identity of the ancillary. Can an AI be more than the sum of its parts, and, if isolated from the composite AI unit, what is the identity of an ancillary.
She also sticks her world in a very interesting predicament. The Radch use ancillaries as a way to avoid the corruption and cruelties that often accompany humans in war. However, the very existence of ancillaries–humans forced into acting as human tools of AI units–is atrocious. The efficiency likely doesn’t outweigh the cruelty of their creation, but does the avoidance of corruption and abuse justify the end?
Overall, there was a lot to think about. I suspect I’ll be thinking about Ancillary Justice for quite some time.