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The Culture crossed with the Roman Empire
on 20 July 2014
Ancilliary Justice starts with its central character, who goes by the alias of Breq, on a wintery planet in search of a weapon with which she hopes to revenge events from 20 years previously. The story of those events is told in alternate chapters where we learn about a universe which is home to the imperial Radch, whose artificially intelligent starships control networks of telepathic soldiers, created from the bodies of those unfortunate enough to have been conquered and killed by these interstellar Romans.
Breq, it turns out, is one such avatar, One Esk Nineteen, last survivor of the troop carrier Justice of Toren. That sentence is indicative of two of the key features of author Ann Leckie's book. Firstly, that the ships control multiple avatars, all of whom are aware of what each other is/are thinking and seeing. Leckie handles the description of multiple viewpoints and rapidly changing perspective really skilfully. Secondly, this is very much a story of confused identity, as One Esk struggles to understand who and what she is. Crucially for the plot she and her like are not the only multiple entities in the book...... While the confusion created is intentional, it does occasionally step a little too far as, early on, Leckie rapidly introduces races, nations, factions characters, and interchangeable avatars at a pace which left this reader at least, somewhat disorientated.
As well as effectively describing the experiences of the multiple entities, Leckie gives the isolated One Esk a convincing, dispassionate voice, viewing the worlds around her in an unemotional, detached manner. While reading the book, one term which didn't enter my head was 'zombie', but in retrospect, that would be one way of looking at it. If all zombie stories are really about something else, Ancilliary Justice is a zombie story about identity and about what it really means to be human. Here it is One Esk, who, despite her origins, turns out to be the most human character.
In using SF to consider issues of humanity, Leckie joins a long tradition in which, of course, Philip K Dick is the dominant figure. He is not her only speculative literary antecedent. Early on, with its dominant society and intelligent spaceships, it felt a bit like reading about the Culture's dark, imperialist cousin, but by the end, with a seemingly impregnable empire, weakened by internal corruption, and faced with mysterious and faintly sinister aliens, it is closer to Stephen Donaldson's Gap series.
One interesting feature, which echoes both Iain M Banks and Ursula K Le Guin, is the ambiguous and shifting sexuality of the characters. This is society where language is subtly nuanced to express gender but where actual sexual identity seems difficult to determine. The default pronoun is female, but individuals are referred to as both him and her depending on circumstances. This usage gives the impression of a universe dominated by women, which asks questions of the extent to which language echoes, and/or reinforces the balance of power in society. If Leckie is saying anything about the effect of the dominant gender on society, it seems to be that it is of little impact. This is a society every bit as violent and competitive as a male-dominated one.
Finally, I loved the end. I didn't enter into this book in the knowledge that it is intended to be the first in a series, but it is, and that results in a culmination which is like a door being slammed in one's face, and a feeling of "Wow, what next".
In terms of sub genre this is closest to military SF, but it is definitely towards the intelligent end of the spectrum, a long way from ultra-violent, video game inspired, shoot-em-ups, and run of the mill Napoleonic-navy-in-space stories which seem to predominate these days.
This is not a piece of planet-shatteringly original writing, its influences are too obvious for that, but it is a step above the average, and as such, well worth reading.