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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ann_Leckie_-_Ancillary_Justice.jpegWell, I'm feeling practically with it in the sci-fi world all of a sudden, because now I've read *two* recent Hugo winners. (The other was The City and the City, which won in 2010.) But even before Ancillary Justice won the Hugo last year I was interested in it, largely based on holyoutlaw's description of the book's approach to artificial intelligence. When akirlu chimed in with her own recommendation a few months ago, I was primed to give it a try. Then because of the Puppies brouhaha this year, I suddenly felt compelled to vote in the Hugos, and the second book in the series, Ancillary Sword, was on the ballot, so I felt I needed to read it, which meant I needed to read the first book first.

I really enjoyed Ancillary Justice, although I confess that by the end I was pretty confused about what was going on, which as far as I could tell was also how the narrator felt. Leckie builds a nicely complicated system of artificial intelligence, in which she seems to build off of Iain Banks' ideas about AIs embodying themselves in ships and in avatars that can be having independent adventures of their own while still part of the same Mind. In Leckie's version, AIs are embodied in ships, but they also run a multitude of what are called ancillaries, which are sentient beings that have had their own consciousness erased and replaced by the AI consciousness. They are living robots of a sort. One of these is the narrator of the novel, and we gradually learn why it is capable of independent action when it normally would be a kind of only semi-autonomous slave or appendage.

All this is taking place in a political system called the Radch Empire that until recently has been rapidly expanding through a process called annexation in which other culture's are invaded, militarily crushed, and forcibly assimilated into the Radch. The Radch are a rigidly hierarchical, totalitarian polity, and not only do their military ships employ slaves in the form of ancillaries, but obedience to the Radch political system is enforced on non-AI citizens through brainwashing and re-education. This aspect of Leckie's world-building reminded me of Cherryh's Cyteen, which is the second of this year's Hugo-nominated novels to remind of Cyteen, so either Cherryh has had a huge influence on modern SF or I've got her on the brain. In any event, there is revolution afoot in the Rach Empire, and given the deeply embedded nature of artificial intelligence in the political system, the political rupture is also a rupture in consciousness, which is part of what makes the novel so confusing in the end. It's hard to tell who is on which side, or what the side are when they seem to be just different aspects of the same mind.

Well, there's a lot going on in this novel, even if much of it is variations on themes we've heard before. One of the neat things Leckie does is to posit that emotions are a necessary ingredient in decision-making even for machine intelligence such as an AI. That was another way this novel reminded me of The Goblin Emperor, too, because both books are very focused on the emotional spasms and nuances of their protagonists. Whether it's an innovation or not (I don't read enough contemporary SF to say), I was also impressed (if also occasionally confused) by the way she depicted the multi-layered awareness of the AI protagonist when it had several ancillaries doing different things at the same time. In the brief interview with Leckie at the end of the book, she notes that it allowed her to stretch the normally limited boundaries of first person narrative, which I thought was a great literary insight. Katherine Addison employs the royal we in The Goblin Emperor, reflecting a pretense that the emperor embodies the state, but in Ancillary Justice first person plural would be an accurate reflection of the multiple perspectives of a complicated consciousness.

So now I'm ready to plunge into Ancillary Sword, which seems to have gotten a more mixed reaction than the first book. Still, it made the Hugo ballot despite the Puppies slates, so it apparently pleased a lot of people in its own right.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 20th, 2015 11:45 pm (UTC)
I liked Ancillary Sword better than Ancillary Justice, but that may be just because I had a better grasp of the universe after all the world-building in the first novel. It IS confusing, that's true.
Apr. 21st, 2015 12:41 am (UTC)
And I didn't even get into the whole gender terms thing or the multiple cultures we get various degrees of knowledge about.
Apr. 21st, 2015 12:45 am (UTC)
I liked the gender terms thing. That becomes more comfortable in the second book.
Apr. 21st, 2015 02:26 am (UTC)
I liked Sword better too; plus it includes a summary of Justice for those who didn't read the first book or who (like me) got confused occasionally.
Apr. 21st, 2015 06:09 am (UTC)
That does sound handy.
Apr. 21st, 2015 12:59 pm (UTC)
You know, I tried and tried with Ancillary Justice, I really did. Ultimately, it just didn't work for me. At the same time, I know that there are people who adore it, and from a strictly objective perspective, I can see why it's made such an impression in the community. But it just wasn't my cuppa tea.
Apr. 21st, 2015 02:58 pm (UTC)
Well, I guess *you* won't be voting for Ancillary Sword this year! I found the first 50 or so pages of Ancillary Justice a slog and had a hard time orienting myself to the book's compass, but after that it was for me a very nice cup of tea indeed.
Apr. 21st, 2015 05:15 pm (UTC)
I have only yesterday finished ANCILLARY SWORD (picked up at Eastercon) and it does demand some staying power but I think rewards persistence with a story about the implied violence of rigid class structures where there's incredible tension in scenes that basically describe polite rich people serving tea to each other that might spill over into world-shattering mayhem that is as gripping as the actual bits where people blow things up or fire guns*.

Indeed I'd go so far as to say the action scenes are anti-climactic compared to some of the social interactions where the violence is always on the edge of happening. Of course I'm British and we love stuff about class....

I also found it very easy, after eight months or so, to slip back into that universe and its mores and nomenclature.

Give it a go, but do stick at it if you find the pace less than the first novel.

*That's a big sentence for a guy exhausted from a no-notice office move.
Apr. 21st, 2015 05:22 pm (UTC)
That's an excellent description of how things worked in the first book too. Violence tended to be over almost before it started, often off-stage, while the jostling over class status and different ideas of what was right was described in loving detail.
Apr. 21st, 2015 05:30 pm (UTC)
Oh I think I got maybe halfway through JUSTICE before I grasped that the stuff about gender and class weren't there to facilitate a space opera plot but that the reverse was true. That also reminds me that when I want action I need to remember to log off LJ and book Age of Ultron tickets.

See you somewhere, sometime (we may have plans... mwaah ha ha)

Apr. 21st, 2015 05:32 pm (UTC)
You big tease!
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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