Space opera! Gender-bending space opera! With a former mercenary down on her luck in the lead role, bent on avenging a lost love. But wait, she’s an AI in a human body. Can she really love?
If anything about the setup of the first volume of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy could make me happier than my current state of screaming joy, I’m not sure what it could be. Well-executed deep space-opera with a mercenary and a love plot (see my forever-love, Richard K. Morgan) is almost my favorite thing to read of all time. And this one comes with the delightful twist that the AI-character, Breq, is from a culture where there isn’t really gender and everyone uses the female pronoun. On her interplanetary travels Breq can’t tell what anyone is supposed to be, since the signifiers change from planet to planet even among humanoids, so she mostly refers to people as “she,” leaving the reader not knowing the gender of anyone unless another character from a gendered culture refers to them. It’s a really interesting thing to lose track of while reading.
[The rest of this review will contain spoilers.]
Breq is the last fragment of a destroyed hive consciousness that encompassed a starship and its staff of zombie “ancillary” workers. She served an evil empire of space-going elitists as they violently annexed and assimilated entire planets and solar systems. In the first volume she must overcome her programming and act according to her conscience. She’s helped along that path by a Captain she loves who is fighting for greater equality in the society. (The first social justice-sci fi I’ve read.)
I was not able to put this book down for three days, and I’ve now read the whole trilogy. It had uneven moments (the second book is always tricky), but I think Leckie overall did a fabulous job at character development and at executing her social metaphor.
The Radchaai are a society of powerful humanoids who bring civilization to those they colonize. The tenants of their society are Justice, Propriety and Benefit, with the idea that that anything that is beneficial (to Radchaai) must also be proper and just. That’s a neat skewering of the self-serving mindset of the elite. Their all-powerful Emperor, Anaander Mianaai, is one person who lives in thousands of bodies as a unified top-of-the-social-pyramid ruler. This thousand-bodies-in-one quality is also a neat metaphor for the homogeny of elites. Except, we find out in volume one that Anaander Mianaai has been fighting with herself, with part of her wanting to allow social mobility, to stop having slaves and generally to be less evil. The other half is the one responsible for the worst genocides, and she wants the tyranny of the elite to continue. (Half of her is red-state and half is blue-state). Breq, as her former slave, thinks the two sides are basically the same, and wants freedom for the AIs and the ultimate destruction of the Radchaai.
This setup gives Leckie opportunity to explore some of our current social issues of policing and inclusion. Breq is forced to work with the power structure (the blue-state Anaander) in order to achieve her ultimate goals, and fights to do police work and protect the people she wants to free in a sensitive way, supporting striking workers, offering respect to village elders, listening instead of talking, etc. One of Breq’s biggest supporters is a member of the Radchaai aristocracy, Seivarden, who has some sensitivity issues in dealing with the lower classes. This character provides rich opportunities to explore how frustrating it can be to relate to well-meaning but clueless elites. Race in the book is inverted in the sense that the rulers have dark skin, but if you wanted to transpose Radchaai with white-American and Breq and her friends with black-American, the codes would work.
I don’t really share Leckie’s politics. Breq’s modern-PC-policing strikes me as its own creepy tool of social control—I’m all for not harming anyone, but not offending anyone seems like an unreasonable requirement. And Breq also argues that once the AIs and the stations (the most powerful members of their society, if not enslaved) are free, it will just naturally be great for everyone because those creatures really just want to take care of humans and do the right thing, which I found to be an unwittingly funny liberal nanny-state fantasy. An all-powerful government will just be fair and take care of everyone! Because people are good. (Suuure they are. Ha ha hah.) But I didn’t have to agree with the politics to recognize a fantastic sci-fi trilogy that achieved its author’s intentions brilliantly.