One of the ongoing struggles with what might be called epic science fiction, of which “space opera” has been a mainstay for many decades, is finding the balance between the plausibly human and high-tech melodrama. Science fiction was born out of a passion for innovation and event which often overwhelmed or even shut out attempts at telling human stories. It was a genre of heroes, villains, and grand conflict.
In the wake of the New Wave movement of the 1960s, certain forms diminished in prominence for just this reason. Writers wanted to connect with their characters, tells stories that mattered on more than an adrenalized level, do work that might attain to the standards of literature, which meant more modest scales, closer scrutiny of the human heart, and a muffling of melodrama. The lesson, unwelcome as it sometimes seemed in certain quarters, was learned and work produced after the 1970s reflected a shift in focus from the grander to the ordinary, at least in the treatment of character. But to manage that the scope of the work suffered constraint. The vast scope that made so much science fiction so much fun diminished, occasionally to claustrophobic dimensions.
With the resurgence of space opera in the late 1980s, beginning with Iain M. Banks’ and his Culture stories, we have seen the gradual humanization of the form to terrific effect. (To a large degree, C. J. Cherryh had been doing this all along, but she had occupied her own niche, as it were, for over a decade before space opera itself enjoyed a renaissance.)
Suddenly we had the wide stage of interstellar space, many different alien species, the concomitant politics, and the kind of characterization one might expect from any competent novelist in any genre. Occasionally, we saw superior examinations of the human, utilizing the surgical theater of the future and great distance to open the characters up to unique experiences which reflected back new insights.
Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice , is the latest example of what is possible in this revitalized format. In a way, she has even given us a bit of a metafiction in that the story is about reducing the vastness of form into a cramped human scale—and then letting us see the former scale from this new perspective.
Breq is all that remains of a huge starship, Justice of Toren, one of the proud ships of the immense fleet of the Radch, an expanding human empire. The Justices are troop carriers, among other things, main components of invasion forces—which the Radch call “annexations”—doggedly increasing the human sphere in the galaxy. An act of betrayal from the most unlikely source of all has caused the destruction of the ship except for this one component, an ancillary which now works toward revenge, a shadow of her former self.
To describe the betrayal would give too much away and one of the chief pleasures of this novel is the onion-layer unfolding of the levels of plot and counterplot. Aliens are involved, codes of conduct, and a class structure that is quasi-aristocratic and mercantile at the same time. In some ways it reminds one of France’s ancien regime.
Leckie has done a number of clever things throughout. The class structure is taut but not impermeable, although its rules make advancement agonizingly difficult and fraught with traps. She has turned gender on its head—the preferred pronoun is feminine: everyone is “she,” even the males. It makes little difference until Breq finds herself having to deal with societies that are more rigidly structured along gender-role definitions. The ancillaries themselves could be virtually sexless and maybe they are—they are one-time humans taken as prisoner, their personalities overwritten and replaced by the sentient AI complexes of the ships.
The ships are aware. And through their ancillaries they are ubiquitous. The ships also have complex emotions. Although Leckie never says, it is likely the ships have feelings because of their ancillaries. The interface goes both ways.
Loyalty is both to the Radch and to individuals within it. Ships have their favorites.
And in this instance, a favorite has been made a pawn in a much larger game being played by the absolute ruler of the Radch herself.
This game leads to the destruction of Justice of Torren—at least as a starship. Breq, its last surviving ancillary, maintains loyalty to the cause it adopted in the wake of the betrayal and intends doing something about it. Breq complains occasionally of its truncated memory, its limited resources, its smallness especially in the face of what it has to do, but it becomes clear that Breq retains enough of its former self to do the one thing it thought it could never do again—be human.
Leckie plays ends—several of them—against middles—more than one, it seems—to great effect, and manages to convey it all through the limited perspective of a single character. This is a remarkable achievement, especially set as the story is against such vast backgrounds. The driving problem of the action turns on a bit of political philosophy which we deal with today: what happens when the government turns on itself over a difference of opinion about policy? While this may sound trite, the repercussions are anything but, elevating the book one more level.
Ancillary Justice is itself a consequence of a turning inward or against over a question of direction, and it answers the challenge well. There is nothing expected about this book. It goes in seemingly familiar directions, to apparently familiar places, but then leads the reader to nowhere he or she has been before in quite this way. A wholly subversive work in the best sense of the word.
A sequel is promised.