Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Books – Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Published in 2013, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has taken the sci-fi world by storm. It won basically every sci-fi prize there is, from the Hugo Award to the Arthur C. Clarke to the Nebula, and has had brilliant reviews pretty much all round. And I can see why. It’s a brave and somewhat brilliant novel. Set thousands of years in the future, in a universe controlled by the imperial power the Radch, the book is narrated by a soldier known as Breq. Yet Breq has not always been what she/it seems (more on gender and pronouns later). Twelve years earlier she was an artificial intelligence controlling the spaceship Justice of Toren, and the minds and bodies of all its ancillaries. Now she’s confined to a single body and interweaved with her present mission, we discover how she became what she is now.

It’s a fascinating premise, both in terms of its narrative perspective and the world Leckie creates. We’re immediately plunged into this world, and I’ll admit I spent the first fifty pages a little confused. There are a lot of names and races and classes to get your head around – and seeing a new world through the eyes of a narrator who is both exceedingly familiar with that world and exceedingly intelligent, doesn’t necessarily help. However, I soon got very into the story and setting. The Radch run most of the galaxy, and have been annexing planets for centuries, although this process has slowed now. The Radch Empire is presided over by The Lord of Radch, who has cloned her/himself into thousands of bodies, in order to fully control her/his vast empire. Part of the Radch system involves the use of ancillaries, soldiers whose once-human bodies have been cyberneticly enhanced, and who are now controlled by their ship’s AI. It’s a great set up for a novel, and Leckie carries it off well.

Someone in my book group described this novel as ‘Jane Austen in space’, which is partly perhaps why I loved it so much. And no, there is no romance and there are no Mr Darcys (indeed there are arguably no Misters at all) – but the society we’re pretended with is a highly stratified one. There’s a lot of social codes and norms to be abided by or broken. The Radch view themselves as above anyone un-Radch, who are to them not civilised, not human. Internally the Radch is incredibly reliant on class and prestige, with particular Houses being seen as above others. Seivarden Vandaai, one of the central characters, is a snob fit to rival Lady Catherine de Borough from Pride and Prejudice. And there’s also a wonderful amount of drinking tea, and the kind of tea you drink shows your place in society. I love it.

But what really makes this book for me is the narrative voice. It’s original, bizarre, tricky – and brilliantly effective. How Leckie manages to actually pull it off is just beyond me, and yet she does. As I’ve said, the novel is told from the perspective of an AI who was once in charge of the spaceship Justice of Toren and all is ancillaries. She’s now confined to a single ancillary form. Yet because of the dual narrative running throughout we get a sense of the narrator’s perspective and existence both now in one body and in the past as many. To narrate from the perspective of one character with multiple separate bodies, who are to an extent all one being and yet also not – it’s so entirely complicated, but Leckie does it superbly. The narrative perspective never feels forced or gimmicky or confusing. It feels natural and understandable – and, let’s be honest, it’s just really cool.

The other main point of interest for me is the way Leckie deals with gender. Because the narrator is an AI, not a human, she has trouble telling genders apart, and so the narrative refers to everybody without discrimination as ‘she’. Thus, because our narrator doesn’t know what gender anybody is, nor do we. The reader is forced to become gender-blind, and the effect is interesting and I think really effective. For example, we’re told in the first chapter that Seivarden is male, and yet he’s referred to as ‘she’ throughout. You therefore just can’t stop yourself imagining Seivarden as a woman – which is perhaps the point. It’s the same with the Lord of the Radch; as a ‘Lord’ she’s probably male, but I always imagined her as female. This technique works interestingly in comparison with Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which I read last month. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the narrator is an ambassador on a planet in which everybody is of one gender. Le Guin uses the pronoun ‘he’ for this alien race, which of course means that we as readers imagine them as male for the most part – as indeed, does the narrator. In Ancillary Justice however, Leckie’s pronoun usage has the opposite effect. We imagine everyone as female – or, perhaps, because we know that our narrator can’t tell people’s gender, we start imagining everyone as genderless. Half way through the book I stopped trying to figure out who was male and who was female, and it stopped mattering, which is great – and I think that’s exactly what Leckie was going for.

(A side note: although I suppose the AI narrator is genderless, I’ve referred to her as ‘she’ throughout this review. This is partly because the novel’s blurb does and I assume Leckie approved of that, and also because ‘she’ is the default through the rest of the book.)

Overall Ancillary Justice is a fascinating, clever and engaging novel. I read it in two days, though it’s a good four hundred pages. I really love the originality of this book. I don’t think I fully realised until writing this review just how many fascinating ideas Leckie is working with here. Beyond the complex narrative voice, the effective dismantling of gender, the many clones of the Lord of the Radch, and the tightly stratified society – the book also deals with issues of morality, personal autonomy, and imperial colonialism. There’s just so much in this novel, and it’s all brilliant. I’ve just bought the sequel, Ancillary Sword, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

Greatest strength: I have a lot to choose from, but I think what most impressed me was the complex narrative voice – not only the originality of the idea but the fact that Leckie pulls it off so well.

Greatest weakness: I did find the world and plot a little confusing, especially in the first fifty or so pages of the novel. It took me a while to have any clear sense of the world we were in.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘Good necessitates evil and the two sides of that disk are not always clearly marked.’

Next week: We’ll be having another guest review from the delightful Chris King, who’ll be reviewing George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. I’ll be back the week after.

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