Role Inversions: Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice, has been garnering award nominations all year, and recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  The book has been up for a Philip K. Dick Award, a Tiptree, it’s on the Nebula and Hugo ballots.  With this much critical reception, it would be easy to default to hype in praising the novel as one of the best space operas in recent years, during a period when the form has experience a bit of a renaissance, with examples that have elevated it out of its own clichés and into a new level of æsthetic opulence promised by the masterpieces of the past and now achieved by contemporary craftsmen.

Well, occasionally the hype is not misleading.  Ancillary Justice is a fine piece of worldbuilding, as good as anything done by Asimov or Anderson, Banks or McLeod, Cherryh or Sargent.  Set many millennia in the future, past a time when our present might have any relevance to the politics or sociology on offer, Leckie gives us an expanding human empire based on a kind of administrative ubiquity resulting from a sophisticated distributed consciousness that might be described as post-singularity.  The concept of identity itself is radically altered and yet laid out almost as an off-hand by-the-way underlying the Radch.  She successfully pulls this at times mind boggling idea off with deceptive grace by never letting any of her characters be in the least surprised by the reality in which they move.

Not content with that, other layers cover over the basic otherness depicted by introducing Houses—family associations of the kind we have seen from Rome through the Italian Renaissance and exemplified in science fiction in the competing houses of Dune—as the corporeal manifestation of distributed access (and privilege).  Debt and honor dictate rank, unofficially (but in some ways more inviolably than the simpler meritocracy also on offer), and the entire thing is bound up in a quasi-religious culture that seems based as much on Spinoza’s theses of god-in-nature as any barely discernible concept of super or extra-natural deism.

In fact, as we read we are kept aware of our tourist status in this universe.  We’re fascinated, we want to know more, but deep down we know we may never fully grasp what is going on.  Our presence would be tolerated, accommodated, the outsider who needs a bit of assistance making his/her way through the labyrinths of long-established cultural modes.

As rich as all this is—and it is heady stuff, narcotic almost—Leckie then tells us the story of a fragment of a ship mind that is all that remains of what had been a huge aggregate intelligence, destroyed in a crisis of political in-fighting, the scope and details of which form the basis of the plot as the surviving fragment, embodied in  human form and constantly aware of how much it has lost, undertakes an almost impossible task to avenge its own demise.

On one level, Ancillary Justice is a kind of ghost story.  The specter doing the haunting is quite literally the left behind essence of the murder victim.  But there are ghosts aplenty if one chooses to read it that way, and the only people who are not in some way discorporate entities are the actual citizens who live under this strange polity.

To add to the dissonant rigor of the novel, Leckie has opted to give us a topsy-turvy gender arrangement.  Not that males and females are not definably so, but the dominant pronoun used throughout is the feminine.  The default identification is female and balance is upset when the protagonist is forced by local custom to make a distinction and make it in the locally preferred way, lest offense be given.

I will not go into the plot here.  For me, the plot was one of the least interesting aspects, though I hasten to add that the plot is as serpentine and complex as any other element of this novel.  I will say that it hinges on an observation about political expedience with which we find ourselves faced today, namely the question of what to do when unity of purpose slips away and internal confidence ceases to be a given.  As with almost everything else, Leckie puts this notion forward with deceptive simplicity, and in a way that hones the bitter edge of the Damocletian paradox at the heart of the story.

Finally, we see all this through the eyes of a hero that begins the novel as self-consciously Not Human and by the end is the most human of all those with whom she interacts in the course of the story.

This is the first volume of a trilogy (at least) and I am very much looking forward to seeing how the various mysteries of this fractal universe unfold.