The Complications of Empire and A Multiplicity of Selves – A Review of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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Most of the time – enough that it’s more like “all the time,” really – I have something to say about whatever I read. It’s part of the personal mission statement I’ve decided for this whole book-review thing I’ve got going: read a book, and share my opinion on it, whether or not that opinion is good or bad. It’s helped me think more critically about the things I read, which I was taught to do in my undergrad anyway, but it’s one thing to have an opinion, and another to put it out there for the rest of the world to see.

But sometimes, I am rendered speechless. This is the most extreme response I can give any book: either it’s so good I don’t know what to say about it, or it’s so bad I don’t know what to say about it. As a rule, with the really, genuinely bad books, I just don’t write anything at all, because I don’t want to waste time and energy on something that wasn’t even worth the time and energy spent reading it in the first place.

On the other hand, that time and energy is worth spending on a really good book, especially if I don’t know the first thing to say about it. In such cases I wish I could just say “Just read the book” and leave the review at that, but that’s not right. I need to be able to explain why I thought the book was so good, but the problem with such books is that I haven’t the single foggiest notion of where to start. How does one even begin to explain such a book, when the true wonder of it can only be understood by reading it?

But I’ve got to try, at least. I’ve got to try to make sense of the muddle of my emotions and put them down into some semblance of coherence, because if I do, then maybe someone will read my words, and get the book themselves, and discover the same things I did when I first read it. And that’s a really wonderful thing: that moment of revelation, when one sits up and realizes that this isn’t just a “good” book, it’s a great book.

This is why it’s taken me a good few days to write this review for Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I’d finished the book on the eleventh, but it’s taken me this long to come up with a good review for it because I needed to get my thoughts in enough order to actually write about it.

Ancillary Justice is about Breq, who to most people appears as an ordinary mercenary, hopping from job to job in a galaxy ruled by the Radch, for whom Breq used to work. But Breq is no ordinary soldier: once, long ago, she was the Justice of Toren, a battleship who could distribute her consciousness amongst hundreds of reanimated human corpses called ancillaries. But that is all in the past, because an act of treachery by someone to whom she owed her obedience has reduced her to one human body, one human consciousness, and one mission: the destruction of Anaander Miaanai, Lord of the Radch – and all of Miaanai’s bodies, for the Lord of the Radch has more than one, and in order to get rid of her, Breq must kill every single one of them.

One of the first most noticeable (and most notable) things about this novel is its use of gendered language – or rather, its attempt to eliminate it completely. This is not so unrealistic, as there are languages currently in use that don’t make much use of gendered pronouns, if at all (Filipino is one such example). However, English relies on gender pronouns when referring to individuals in the third person, so Leckie had to choose between “he” or “she” to use in the novel. Leckie uses “she,” which makes for some very interesting reading indeed, since it can be hard to tell if the person being referred to is a man or a woman. This parallels Breq’s constant concern over what gender pronoun to use when speaking to someone who is not Radchaai (defaulting to “she” unless otherwise corrected), and only using gendered pronouns when speaking in another language.

The last time I read anything like that, it was The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, though the gender she used there was “he” and the race involved was completely genderless except during certain times of the year. This is different from the take in Ancillary Justice, wherein Radchaai individuals are biologically male or female, but culturally-speaking, the Radchaai do not think of gender at all: their language is gender-neutral, and the way they present and conceive of themselves is also equally androgynous. While I know how Le Guin’s take on the concept of gender and gendered language was groundbreaking then (and in a way, still is today), I also like Leckie’s take on it. Instead of creating a whole alien race, as Le Guin did, she simply takes humanity and makes a few tweaks here and there to create a culture that could, conceivably, exist in a far-flung future, when humanity is traveling on starships and conquering the rest of the galaxy. After all, at that point, the issue of gender could (or should, rather) be irrelevant, and culture and language will reflect that.

Another aspect of language that Leckie employs (and which Le Guin did, too) is that some words simply don’t translate well from one language to another. There are some words in Radchaai that have multiple layered meanings – the word Radchaai itself means “citizen” denotatively, but connotatively it can mean a whole lot of other things, some of which are difficult to explain in a straightforward manner unless one is Radchaai oneself. People who only speak one language will have a hard time trying to comprehend the magnitude of this kind of thing, but people who are at least bilingual will recognize this problem easily, especially if there is a word in one language that perfectly encompasses a concept or idea, but which has no direct equivalent in the other language.

All of this means that some people might have a hard time getting into the novel. It takes a while to get used to the idea of “she” being a gender-neutral concept in Breq’s language, and for a while one is likely to imagine all the characters, major and minor, as women. But eventually (usually after the fourth or fifth chapter), it gets easier to imagine the characters as simply being androgynous, which would be how the Radchaai present themselves anyway. At that point everything is more or less smooth sailing, as the quality of Leckie’s prose then takes over and the reader is swept up into the story.

Another notable aspect of this novel is the way Leckie handles the multiple viewpoints of the ancillaries controlled by a ship’s AI, as shown in the flashbacks Breq has of her past life as the Justice of Toren. It’s complicated enough, characterizing an AI (and Leckie does this brilliantly, by the way), but splitting that AI into multiple bodies whose experiences are shared as a “hive mind” of sorts can be difficult to portray. Leckie, however, manages it beautifully, and though it might be confusing the first time the reader encounters it, it never gets completely out of hand, and everything makes sense if one takes time to read slowly and look for identifiers (usually in the form of the “names” of the ancillaries). Leckie is careful to keep a tight rein in the writing of the whole thing, so the reader is never truly lost. Again, as with the language, it takes a while to get used to it, but once the reader is accustomed to it, it’s all smooth sailing and it’s easy to once again get lost in Leckie’s storytelling.

All of this, of course, speaks to some brilliant world-building, and this is very true. Ancillary Justice is one of those novels wherein the reader is made to work a little for information, to work for the image of the world that the characters inhabit. Nothing is left out, but neither is the reader spoon fed anything. It takes a while to put everything together because of the aforementioned issues regarding gender and language, but once those two aspects stop being problematic and fade into the background, it becomes immensely build the world of the Radchaai and of the galaxy they rule – and to understand the characters that inhabit it, particularly one Breq, once Justice of Toren.

Breq is a fascinating character, and as an AI a bit more sympathetic, in my opinion, than the AIs of Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. That’s saying quite a lot, because the AIs in the Culture books are very fun to read about. I suppose it might be because I haven’t read all of the Culture books, and I have yet to encounter a book wherein an AI is the main character, but Breq seems more well-rounded, as a character, than the AIs in Banks’ series. She’s one of those characters who is easy to engage with, which is practically my primary requirement for any novel written in first-person perspective, and it’s no chore liking Breq at all.

As for the plot, that is incredible as well: a wild roller-coaster ride that hops between past and present as Breq tries to explain what is happening and what she intends to do. I’ve read some reviews stating that Breq’s plan to kill Anaander Mianaai is too simple, and therefore stupid – especially when one considers the fact that Mianaai has more than one body. But I think those readers are rather missing the point. Breq’s plan is indeed simple, but it’s not static: she builds on it over the course of the novel. The core of the plan remains – kill Anaander Mianaai – but it’s no longer simply about the special gun that Breq went all the way to Nilt to find. The gun is a start; the rest of it becomes something much, much bigger, and something that, at least to Breq, is closer to the sort of vengeance she wishes to have.

Thematically speaking, Ancillary Justice asks some rather intriguing – and rather difficult – questions. There are obvious questions about gender, the self and identity, given the fact that Breq used to be part of a much larger consciousness that could inhabit more than one body at once and is from a culture wherein one moves through life without even thinking of gender in terms of binaries. But here are some other, harder questions: questions about class, privilege, power, and colonialism that are questions we still ask ourselves today, and which we will have to confront in the future if humanity does indeed head out into space.

Overall, Ancillary Justice is an amazing novel, picking up where writers like Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood left off. It can be confusing at first, given the language and nature of the protagonist, but getting past those issues is relatively easy given some time. It’s not an easy read, but neither is it an overly complex one, either, and is well worth the initial bout of head-scratching that the first four or five chapters might cause. Beyond that point, what awaits the reader is an eminently readable story filled with fascinating characters and an equally fascinating plot, moving in a world that feels just as complex as the one we currently inhabit – albeit with massive ships powered by AIs capable of emotions like grief, who are also capable of going on years-long missions of vengeance against the one person to whom they are meant to owe their allegiance.

The only way to truly understand how wonderful this book is, is to read it, and that’s all there is to it.

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