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Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryMercy_COVER-220x330.jpgAncillary Mercy is the third novel in what I've been calling the Ancillary Trilogy, but which the jacket copy of the book itself call the Radch Empire Trilogy. I guess that's a more descriptive title, and it emphasizes the political aspect of the trilogy, which is certainly fitting for the final volume. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, Ancillary Justice, this is a story about revolution, and in Ancillary Mercy the revolution continues. Calling it the Ancillary Trilogy makes it a story about Breq, which is perhaps too narrow a frame, although, hey, the personal is political, right? And that proves the case in these novels too.

In my review of Ancillary Sword, I spent some time talking about how Leckie handles gender in the trilogy, and I spent some time talking about how she handles emotions. Let me try to connect those dots! These books are very focused on emotion, or to put it another way, the protagonist, Breq, who is a cyborg who was once part of a vast military artificial intelligence, is very focused on emotion. She is constantly monitoring the emotions of the people she interacts with -- partly through her own observations of their behavior and partly through a data feed she gets from an AI reading the physiological output of various characters -- and she uses that information to help her understand their agendas. In our culture, emotional openness and an interest in parsing emotion are considered female traits, and I confess that at times Breq's focus on emotion feels excessive and uncomfortable to me. (In this novel, the question of whether it really *is* excessive/intrusive is raised within the story itself.) But what's probably more interesting than my occasional discomfort is that because the Radch refer to all people as female, whatever their actual gender, the thing that the books made me stop and think about again and again is how I kept assuming that the characters are female, despite the fact that some of them aren't.

So there's a fair amount of crying in Ancillary Mercy, and it feels out of place to me in a military space opera, to begin with. On top of that, I'm assuming that all the characters who are crying are women. Yet Leckie has set this up so skillfully that it makes me question both of those judgments on my part. There's no reason to believe that crying is considered something that men don't do in Radch culture. (Here on the planet Earth, for example, traditional Yapese culture had no problem with men crying.) And Leckie's story shows that the emotions of the characters matter in all kinds of ways that are invisible in traditional space opera that mostly ignores emotions. However, my own biases still militate (ho ho ho) against the importance of the emotions, and still finds them too pathetic at times -- in the sense of trying to tip our sympathies in a certain direction. At the same time I'm constantly fascinated by Breq's use of the emotional state of her crew as just more data to help her understand what they're up to and where and when they need her guidance. And truth be told, the book made me shed tears more than once myself, so there's that.

Well, I'm not sure I've gotten my finger on what's so fascinating about Leckie's approach, but I'll leave it there for now. Another thing that impressed me about Ancillary Mercy is its sense of humor, playfulness, and weirdness, which is something that I hadn't really picked up on in the earlier books. The sense of humor may be one way Leckie is different from C.J. Cherryh, who is an obvious influence but has never seemed to me to have a sense of humor. Leckie's humor is very dry and is frequently expressed in banter between characters, but Ancillary Mercy also has a character, the alien Presger Translator Zeiat, who is a total hoot in the way she (again we don't know if she has a gender or what it might be) behaves. Zeiat is a constant font of apparently absurd non-sequiturs, and she herself sees Radch culture as absurd in ways that the Radch (and human readers like myself) can't quite make sense of. She is a wildcard who doesn't seem to be taking the tense conflict of the story very seriously at all, which allows us as readers to see how funny the proceedings are from a certain perspective. At the same time Zeiat represents an alien race in the Presger who are terrifying in their power to simply squash the Radch if they choose to. It's really a remarkable point of view Leckie has created in this character.

I've said the trilogy is about a revolution, and it's hard to talk about that aspect of the book without committing spoilers. What I will say is that one of the things Leckie is exploring in these books is social justice and whether/how it can be achieved. The Radch Empire is authoritarian and is a lot like, say, the Borg in the way that it tries to assimilate every species it conquers. In other words, it tries to create justice by making everyone the same and everyone secure under the universal, absolute rules of the system. Breq, on the other hand, is interested in difference, even when it leads to conflict. For her, conflict is built into any system, so you might as well acknowledge it rather than try to force it into a semblance of sameness. Better a thousand different rulers than one ruler who has been cloned a thousand times, which is literally what the ruler of the Radch Empire has done. This is the theme of a lot of anti-authoritarian science fiction, but Leckie seems to me to have embodied it better than most, both through literal features such as that multiple-cloned ruler and through her attention to a thousand layers of culture, class, gender, emotion, history, and backstory. Once again she builds to what feels like a feel-good ending, but rife with all the tensions and tendencies to fall apart that she has explored throughout. In Ancillary Mercy she makes it explicit that this flawed, conflicted process, always subject to failure, is our lot in life. The revolution is another turn of the wheel in an unending process that at best leads to a new and temporary balance of contradictions.

This kind of balancing act also seems familiar from Cherryh, so perhaps its worth noting that if Leckie's sense of humor is missing in Cherryh, so perhaps is Leckie's optimism. Considering the horrors of oppression and slaughter of the Radch Empire, the optimism may seem a little out of place, I don't know. I've wrestled with that question a bit since I finished the book. Still, the particular spin on the revolution that arises in this volume was unexpected and yet pretty much perfect, not least in the part the apparent wildcard of the Presger Translator plays in it. Whether Leckie has earned her hedged optimism or not, she created a very satisfying story with an enormous depth and richness to the world-building supporting it. There's obviously a lot more room to explore in this particular story universe, although I have no idea if Leckie is going to keep working this soil or move on to something different. I'll be interested in whatever she does next.

Addendum: Publisher's Weekly has published a list of ten of Leckie's favorite SF novels, and I have to say that I don't have any argument with this list, which is an unusual reaction to have to such a list. As I said on Facebook, any fan of Leigh Brackett is ahead of the game in my book. I also hadn't known that there's now an English translation of Lem's Solaris directly from the Polish (formerly there was only an English translation of a French translation of the Polish), and I'm happily reading that now. I haven't read the particular novels she lists by Vance, Cherryh, and Mieville, but I've read other books by all of three them, including other books by Cherryh and Mieville that she specifically mentions. [Thanks to cj for the link.]


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 29th, 2015 10:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the thorough review - I just finished this myself. I have mostly positive things to say about it except that I thought the Translator was a little too much comic relief and could have been made a bit less opaque. Really liked the ending, though.

You might enjoy this affectionate parody. :->
Oct. 29th, 2015 11:32 pm (UTC)
Wow, that parody is excellent!

For me the opacity of the Translator increased the sense of alienness, although I'll admit that the comic tone was at times decidedly odd. But I liked the oddity too.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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