Can you imagine being in two places at once? It’s a common image to conjure, but actually imagine it. Weird, huh?
Now try imagining being two people in two places at once. Or two people, in the same place. That’s even harder, and even weirder. But it’s exactly what Ann Leckie asks of us in Ancillary Justice, a book about a person who was once and is still but isn’t any more a ship, Justice of Toren. Reduced, through grave misfortune, to a single ancillary—a no-longer-human body, one of thousands, used an avatar for the ship’s AI—it takes on the name of Breq and sets off on a quest for revenge. Its target: no other than the most powerful person in the entire Radch, an interstellar empire Justice of Toren was once sworn to protect and expand.
For the majority of the book, Leckie alternates between Breq’s present-day adventure and a re-telling of the events leading up to the Justice of Toren’s destruction. In the latter events, Leckie undertakes the task of presenting the multiple, simultaneous viewpoints available to Justice of Toren. She switches between these viewpoints without any overt markers to signal the changes. At first, this can be confusing, even overwhelming. But it’s about as close to simultaneity as one can get in a linear medium like a novel. Slowly, it becomes possible to form at least an inkling of what it must be like to have access to so many different perspectives of the same event, all at once.
Breq’s adventure is easier to follow, because on the surface it feels like a traditional narrative. Almost immediately, however, there are some unique qualities that make it more interesting. Breq uses the feminine third-person gender pronouns exclusively when referring to other people. Regardless of actual sex or gender, everyone is "her" and "she". This is an artifact of the Rad’chaai language that Breq speaks, for it has eliminated the idea of gendered pronouns, and Breq in fact has trouble telling the difference between sexes during her travels. Additionally, Leckie doesn’t often deign to describe her characters in a way that makes their sex or gender clear. So it’s interesting to see my underlying gender biases take over and try to fill in the gaps. It’s amazing how much we depend on simple pronouns to form a mental idea not only of how someone looks but how they move, speak, act.
Rather than physical description, Leckie relies a great deal on what people do and how they speak to portray their personalities. The Radch is an empire in the classical sense; its culture is stable enough to last thousands of years and still be vaguely recognizable to Seivarden, who has spent most of that time in suspension. People are very aware of their social standing, tied inextricably to their House, and things like fashion and the sociable nature of tea-drinking have become essential parts of the daily posturing for standing. As a result, one can tell a great deal from a person by their type of accent, how they dress, who they take tea with, and of course, the House they’re from.
This is all well and good, but I still feel like Leckie could have spent more time creating a more nuanced picture of Rad’chaai society. I would like to know how the majority of Rad’chaai civilians make a living. What is the economy like? What is their art and culture like, beyond the same soap operas on television that are apparently so recognizable they haven’t changed in millennia? I have a good idea of what the military side of the Radch is like, but I wish I could understand its people better. And I would like to better understand the ways in which Anaander Mianaii has managed to keep the Radch intact over millennia of rule. That seems like a dicey proposition.
If space was a concern, I could think of some passages that could have been removed. Did Breq really have to spend so much time at that cabin? Many of those scenes seemed like they only existed as a buffer from one of the scenes set in the past until the next. Although the plot itself is gripping, the pace at which it unfolds varies from glacial to merely temperate. It isn’t until we get to the climax of the novel, as we approach Breq’s inevitable confrontation with Anaander Mianaai, that events start moving smoothly and seamlessly.
Ancillary Justice satisfies, but it doesn’t leave me with linger impressions and thought-provoking questions. The unique nature of the protagonist is a draw, and Leckie occasionally seems to come close to exploring the interesting ramifications of Breq’s existence as the fractured remnant of a ship AI. But this book feels more like a rough cut than a polished gem. And I’ll take that any day over something that instead aims for the derivative, or the popular, or the safe. Not everything that Leckie tries here succeeds with me, but the fact that she has tried is itself quite impressive. Perhaps the best thing I can say is that it reminds me a lot of the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, enough that I’ll keep my eye on Leckie and on the next book in this series.