Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, can be considered science fiction but is more appropriately represented as a space opera. The Radch Empire rules all and has done so for over a thousand years using incredibly well-developed ship AIs that can simultaneously control captured living beings, renamed ancillaries. The book, in its most basic sense, is a space opera about gendered pronouns. It’s tough to start reading until you get used to the style of the author and narrator. For about 70 percent of the novel, it was fairly mediocre. It did, however, keep me reading. The ending was pretty abrupt, as well. Overall, I’d say that the novel has a lackluster story with unique elements, making it a READ WITH CAUTION.
Here, There Be Spoilers!
Ancillary Justice is a long read. In a basic sense, it’s the story of an AI living in a human body trying to carry out a mission that may or may not fracture the thousand year old civilization currently ruling the universe. The story mostly runs in alternating chapters of present and past, with every other chapter detailing the history of the AI and how it got to its current point in time. The other chapters tell what is currently happening with the AI. This system is easy enough to figure out as a reader, but a large amount of the information you’re given about the past seems infinitely superfluous.
It’s definitely a space opera in the sense that technology is present, but not really explained. In fact, technology hasn’t changed much in the ruling empire’s culture for over a thousand years, which seems fairly odd.
The biggest feature of the book for me was the use of gendered pronouns. It felt like a gimmick that the author wanted to explore, and then wrote the book to fit. While I find it interesting to examine cultures with fluid genders and the intricacies of different languages that do have gendered words, it felt like a large portion of the book only had that novelty to offer.
The characters from the Radch Empire don’t distinguish gender in their language or culture, so the narrator refers to everyone as she, unless in a different culture where a distinction needs to be made. To have my own notions of gender tested in that sense, with my brain trying to determine gender without the appropriate pronouns, was enjoyable. I feel like a culture so immersed in gender fluidity (over a thousand years of it) wouldn’t bother with gendered pronouns, though.
The main character, Esk Nineteen, is quite obviously struggling with no longer being in charge of a collective ship’s AI. She (she refers to herself in this way) tries to understand her motives and wonders at her blindness to the world without being able to see it from 20 different points of view. Esk struggles with the languages and cultures of the worlds she encounters, as she was created in the gender neutral zone of the Radch Empire.
This came off as a little phony. A super-intelligent AI, capable of flying a ship and simultaneously controlling 20 ancillaries for a thousand years shouldn’t have trouble with picking up on gender differences in cultures she encounters and are studied by the empire; she should implicitly have this knowledge in her memory. Even so far as being separated into a single unit, Esk has had 20 years to make the adjustment. Though it could be argued that to her, 20 years is like the blink of an eye, I still feel that the logical, precise demeanor with which Esk functions demands a bit more than the floundering sense of direction and purpose with which the character is written.
Most of the other characters are archetypes for human nature. The Radch culture seems to be based on imperial Britain, though apparently the author feels as though she created it all from scratch. I felt that the similarity was quite strong, specifically based on the need for proper dress, proper food, proper tea, and proper religious observances. The citizens of the empire were considered a different class than anyone not a citizen, making those not part of the empire sub-human.
The ending thirty percent was much more interesting than the first seventy, because it felt like things actually happened. Regardless of what felt off about the book that I can’t pin down here, it was good enough to make me want to finish it. That stands for something, I guess. In all, this book is a READ WITH CAUTION.