Ancillary Justice

From time to time, I encounter a work of fiction that really makes me think. One such book is Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice. Having encountered it in Asimov’s “On Books” column this month, I decided to buy a copy for my eReader, and I’m glad I did.

Leckie’s protagonist, Breq, is all that remains of a military ship’s AI, Justice of Toren. As Justice, Breq simultaneously inhabited a massive number of ancillary bodies, but is now limited to one of the solders from the unit One Esk she used to control. Breq has embarked on a mission to kill Anaander Mianaai, an enemy who likewise lives in thousands of bodies herself. It is an epic battle spanning multiple worlds and distinctive cultures.

These days, when I read fiction, I find myself doing so with my metaphorical red pencil in hand. I could blame my experience critiquing people’s work with Critters, but the reality is probably more mundane: I am teaching myself to edit my own work, and it has heightened my awareness of everything I read. As a result, I found myself considering a number of things Leckie does especially well with this novel and whether I could equal any of them in my own work.

Most superficially, I appreciate the way Leckie describes the interstellar empire in which her story is set. The Radchaai are polytheistic syncretists[1], and Leckie realistically integrates integrates their religious practices into the fabric of her story. As a strict monotheist, I don’t know if I could possibly attempt to portray this perspective. I don’t even know if I would have imagined something as elegant as Leckie’s use of gloves to portray Radch cultural ideals.

A second characteristic of her work, and the one which challenged me most while reading, is the fact that the Radchaai make no distinctions between male and female in their language. As a result, Breq uses a single set of pronouns — generally translated into the feminine third-person pronouns in English — to describe other characters of both genders[2]. It parallels the way I myself use masculine pronouns as the generic neuter, and while it’s not the way I usually think, it works here. Compared to other pieces I’ve read that use  alternative gender-neutral pronouns, this technique flows much better for me.

Third, and perhaps most noteworthy in Ancillary Justice, is Leckie’s deft handling of the multiple simultaneous perspectives of her protagonist’s ancillary bodies. While writing in first person point-of-view, Leckie takes advantage of her character to achieve an almost omnicient perspective on her plot. In any other story, this would break my suspension of disbelief, but here, it actually serves to to emphasize what is essentially an alien AI perspective.

Taken as a whole, Ancillary Justice is a solidly-written and creative novel, strong enough that Justin Landin of thinks it should win the Hugo for Best Novel. I don’t get a vote, and to be honest I haven’t read enough new novels this year to make a fair judgement, but this much I can say:  Ancillary Justice is a worthwhile read.

[1] In the extras, Leckie indicates that her Radchaai culture borrows heavily from Roman polytheism, but her description of their gods and the heavy use of doubled ‘a’ in character names makes it feel somewhat Hindu to me. Regardless, it is a consistently-portrayed culture, and it works.
[2] In my description above, I used these same pronouns to describe Breq and Anaander, though neither one has a single definitive gender. This was the author’s choice, and I think it deserves that respect.