Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice / Anne Leckie

There’s a reason Ancillary Justice got nominated for every sf award under the sun. It’s because Leckie is the first real successor to Ursula K. Le Guin.

Plot summary Setting

The Raadch Empire is constantly expanding. Most Raadchai have never seen the Dyson sphere that is the empire’s center. The ruler of this empire, Anaander Miannai, personally rules uncountable systems via her vast numbers of clones linked together by cybernetic implants. The Raadch’s vast expansion has been enabled by the use of ancillaries – human bodies whose personalities have been erased and who are controlled by hyperintelligent ships.

So how is it?

It’s so great and amazing and I love it. I say Leckie is the successor to Le Guin and I mean it. Leckie is the first author to write science fiction stories that are multi-faceted explorations of fictional societies and through those societies our own. That’s the basic premise of sf as a whole, I realize, but Le Guin’s particular style of entertaining but literary books tightly organized around a few key themes has been unsurpassed until Leckie.

Ancillary Justice is a book that’s “about stuff” but like Le Guin it’s perfectly viable to completely ignore the aboutness and just experience a good story. I didn’t describe the plot because, like the Dispossessed, it takes place during two different time periods. In this case, to reveal the background behind one would spoil the ending of the other. But there’s a really entertaining sf story here featuring space battles and aliens and all those fun things.

Now I’m going to ignore all those fun things and just talk about pretentious stuff. There’s a lot going on in this book. Lots of people have discussed the way the book treats gender – the narrator is a ship to whom gender is largely meaningless and Raadchai culture makes no plumbing-based distinctions and the language lacks gender markers. As a result, virtually every character is described as “she”. There are some exceptions when the characters are speaking in other languages, but for the most part all characters are described with feminine pronouns. Ancillary Justice showed up on one of those “books that aren’t about what you think they are about” lists. That list claimed that it’s “actually” about colonialism.

It’s true, there are some interesting comments on colonialism to be found here. That doesn’t mean that the author of the list seems to have forgotten that it’s possible for a book to be about more than one thing. And saying that Ancillary Justice is about colonialism is a vast oversimplification. There’s commentary on social class, addiction, aesthetics, religion, linguistics, and more. Leckie’s work manages to critique almost every aspect of society while at the same time attacking the classic oversimplifications of large-scale sf: assumed uniformity of culture across vast distances, entire planets with only one religion, one language, and/or one ethnic group, the remarkably human nature of most sf “aliens”, etc. These are pretty much all things that C.J. Cherryh has approached as well. Leckie manages to do so in a comprehensive way without ever letting it get in the way of the story. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

One last thing about the story itself. There are two intertwining stories, one of the annexation of a planet and the other of a character’s attempt to track down someone they knew during that annexation. There’s a larger story that involves Universe Shaking Events but that’s not the focus – instead those events serve as the backdrop for the smaller, character-focused story. It’s especially effective and helps to avoid testing the willing suspension of disbelief by having a few characters making a disproportionate impact on an empire of billions.

Recommendation

Ancillary Justice is a solid recommendation to all sf fans. It’s an absolute must-read for fans of Ursula K. Le Guin and/or C.J. Cherryh but there’s really something for everybody here.

I haven’t read the third book in the series yet but the second is just as good as the first. It manages to continue the larger story of Ancillary Justice without attempting to make everything “bigger, better, and more exciting”.

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