Or 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?
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie was published in 2013. It won the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Some sci-fi/fantasy fans did not think this book should have won those awards, arguing it did so for political reasons and not due to the quality of the writing. It has languished in my TBR stack for years, but I finally got around to reading it.
It’s a solid, flawed first book of a fairly standard space opera with some original ideas clumsily executed.
There is a human, galactic civilization based upon conquest. Think Rome in space. This civilization has spaceships with AIs. These AIs have different ancillary components which in turn have segments. The protagonist of the novel is one such segment. The AIs have emotions. Their ancillaries also have emotions. I may be incorrect about all of this because the novel is about as clear as mud in describing it.
Ancillary Justice‘s main plot-tension is that of a mystery, but the mystery is generally entirely “self-inflicted.” In other words, most of the book is a mystery for you, the Reader, to figure out what the hell is going on with the world. Past events are slowly revealed in flashbacks or in data dumps by the protagonist. I’m…not generally a fan of those kinds of stories, although I can’t really knock the book too hard for using it. There are only so many ways to worldbuild, and the author used a tried-and-true method. It’s just not one I prefer.
Where all the political stuff comes in is the use of gender. That galactic civilization doesn’t have a solid concept of gender, so the protagonist will use the wrong gendered term for people in languages that DO have gender. It’s a minor detail in the novel, but some reviews I’ve read of the book overemphasize that aspect of the civilization. The people of that civilization also all wear gloves and to not do so is seen as lewd. The gender and the clothing mores portrayed in the novel serve as a reminder that these things are socially constructed, and it is reasonable to assume that a far-future multiple-star-systems-wide civilization will have different socially constructed standards than the Earth of the here-and-now. So that’s nice. I don’t think it’s a main theme of the novel, however. It’s more ancillary (see what I did there?) to or a component of the main theme: identity.
At the end of the day, though, we’re talking about a space opera: a little Good Thingy is going up against a Big Bad Thingy, with the fate of the galaxy at stake. Maybe aliens are going to get involved at some point. Who knows!? It’s meant to be fun; it’s not a dry sociological treatise or liberal manifesto. It’s got war and violence and sabotage and intrigue and stuff like that.
Personally, I’m not going to continue reading this series. I really liked the AI and ancillaries concepts, but the central conflict of the novel didn’t excite me. As I said above, I’m just not a fan of the style of figuring out a created world as the source of dramatic tension. I thought the worldbuilding had interesting concepts — and it is for those concepts that I am giving the book 4 stars vs. 3 — but ultimately they were not explored clearly, in a style that I liked, or with any substance or nuance. I think this universe is not my thing. Maybe you folks will enjoy it more.
My rating: 4 stars.