Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Matters of Culture and Identity

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)Ancillary Justice 
by Ann Leckie

“The problem is knowing when what you are about to do will make a difference. I’m not only speaking of the small actions that, cumulatively, over time, or in great numbers, alter the course of events in ways too chaotic or subtle to trace ... if everyone were to consider all the possible consequences of all one’s possible choices, no one would move a millimetre, or even dare to breathe for fear of the ultimate results.”   ― Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

The protagonist of Ann Leckie's novel, Ancillary Justice, is unique in my experience. Honored Breq, or One Esk, or Justice of Torren, has a human body, but artificial intelligence. The story presented in Ancillary Justice is a space opera set thousands of years in the future, where the primary galactic power of human-occupied planets is the expansionist Radch empire. The empire uses AIs to control human bodies ("ancillaries") that are used as soldiers, though regular humans also are soldiers. The Radchaai do not distinguish people by gender, and Leckie conveys this by using female personal pronouns for everybody, and by having the Radchaai main character guess wrongly when she has to use languages with gender-specific pronouns. This usage was somewhat confusing at first because some of the other characters would refer to a person with a male pronoun while Breq had been and continued using a female pronoun. It becomes clear that the Radch culture did not care about gender.

The narrative begins several years after the disappearance of a Radch starship, the Justice of Toren, when the sole surviving ancillary (and fragment of the Justice of Toren's consciousness), Breq, encounters an officer, Seivarden, whom she had known 1,000 years earlier. The two are on an ice planet, and Seivarden is in precarious condition. The plot unfolds between two strands: Breq's "present day" quest for justice for the Justice of Torren's destruction, and flashbacks from 19 years earlier when the Justice of Torren was in orbit around the planet of Shis'urna, which was being formally brought into the Radchaai empire. Each of these is told in alternating chapters. We eventually find out that the Justice of Torren's destruction was the result of a covert war between two opposed strands of consciousness of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, who uses multiple synchronized bodies to rule her far-flung empire. At the end of the novel, Breq associates herself with the more pacific aspect of Anaander Mianaai while waiting for an opportunity to exact her revenge.

Details of the Radch culture gradually unfold as the story progresses. This aspect is impressive as it becomes clear that there is a vast culture that exists beyond the aspects depicted in the story. I particularly enjoyed the personality of the main character, Breq, including her delight in singing. She displays an encyclopedic knowledge of songs of the Radch culture through her interactions with others while on her quest. But Breq often seems torn between her identities as the ship, Justice of Torren and Breq.  We also find out, interestingly, that “Ships have feelings.” 

In fact it is not clear that the Breq we meet at the beginning of the novel is the same person as Justice of Torren of nineteen years earlier in spite of the connections between the two that are established through Breq's existence as an ancillary. We read “is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really a fiction?”  It is questions like this that make this an exceptional science fiction novel. The author develops relationships like that between Breq and Seivarden, while demonstrating significant ideas through situations that are unusual even for speculative fiction.  Not surprisingly, this book won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Science Fiction novel.

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