Wednesday, January 10, 2024

the last book I read

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

Breq is on Nilt. That sounds like a diet supplement involving two delicious milkshakes per day, or a product that can supposedly reverse the effects of male pattern baldness, but it is in fact a planet. And a pretty cold and inhospitable place it is too - inhospitable not just in terms of the dark and chilly climate, but also the natives, who are a bit, well, inhospitable, especially to mysterious strangers. 

Breq is there for a very specific reason, but has to do some basic stuff first like finding somewhere to stay and some stuff to eat, and it's in the course of doing this that she trips over a naked dead body face down in the snow in the street. So what, you might be saying, just shrug and move on, like I do whenever I encounter a naked dead body face down in the snow in the street, but Breq has noticed that, by an extraordinary (to say the least) coincidence, this person is known to her, and so she feels obliged to do something, especially when it turns out that the supposed dead body is in fact Only Mostly Dead

So here's where we back the old spaceship up, turn it around a bit, and get some exposition in. The way this works here is that alternate chapters describe Breq's adventures on Nilt, and then the interwoven chapters describe a series of events which took place about twenty years earlier, on a different planet, Shis'urna, when the current single human entity known as Breq was an AI in charge of a vast starship, Justice of Toren, and an army of ancillaries. These are humans, captured and stored in suspended animation after one of the dominant civilisation's frequent annexations of whole planets, which are made use of as sentient drones when required by hoicking them out of their vat of preservative goop and downloading the ship's AI consciousness into them, in the process unceremoniously yeeting whatever consciousness was previously occupying the physical substrate. 

There are some complex political machinations going on on Shis'urna but the outcome of all of it is a massacre of some of the natives at the behest of the visiting Lord of the Radch, head honcho of the dominant civilisation. Some of this massacring is done by some of Justice of Toren's ancillaries, these guys having the great advantage (as far as the higher powers are concerned) of obeying orders immediately and unquestioningly, even when those orders are a bit on the genocide-y side. The Lord of the Radch, whose name is Anaander Mianaai (it's not clear whether Anaander is a given name or a title, but it doesn't really matter) later appears on board Justice of Toren, and after a series of odd events and a few more deaths engineers the total explodey destruction of the ship, with only a single ancillary surviving by launching an escape pod in the nick of time.

And so we're sort of back up to date - just to join the dots for you, in case you're not keeping up, the single ancillary, formerly known as Justice of Toren One Esk, is Breq, now the sole vessel for the ship's entire AI consciousness but with some all-too-human quirks, such as a love for music - a bit of retained consciousness or brain wiring from the original occupant of the body? - who knows? Breq and the now-revived corpse, who turns out to be a Radch officer called Seivarden, who briefly served on Justice of Toren many centuries before, find their way off Nilt after a series of adventures and head for the Radch galactic HQ to confront Anaander Mianaai, and, in Breq's case, kill her with a special weapon whose acquisition was the reason for her being on Nilt in the first place.

There is a problem with just turning up and popping a cap in Anaander Mianaai's ass, though, quite apart from there being a whole crack team of security personnel whose sole job it is to prevent anyone from doing it, and it's this: many centuries before, Anaander Mianaai had her consciousness copied into a whole host of physical bodies, presumably at least partly to prevent exactly this sort of thing (i.e. being assassinated) from happening. The problem is, as Breq herself is discovering, consciousnesses loaded into physical bodies and then left to do their own thing diverge and develop their own ideas about things, and some of the unexplained events that have been happening (including Justice of Toren's destruction) are as a result of Anaander Mianaai essentially being at war with multiple other versions of herself.

Nonetheless Breq (disguised as a traveller from a faraway galaxy) and Seivarden rock up at Radch Central where Anaander Mianaai's main residence is and attempt to engineer a meeting. However, Anaander Mianaai didn't get where she is today without being pretty shrewd, and thanks to her own army of AIs is able to determine that the newcomer isn't who she says she is, and is therefore able to be prepared when Breq makes her move. There is a limit to how prepared she can be though, and so there is a climactic shootout and spaceship battle, at the end of which it appears that most of the properly deranged Anaander Mianaais have been rubbed out and an uneasy truce prevails.

Ancillary Justice was Ann Leckie's first novel, published in 2013 and garlanded with just about all the major science fiction awards in that year and 2014. The most significant ones were (as always, my list indicates the ones I've read; links are to reviews on this blog):

Before I say anything else I will say that I enjoyed it very much and was entertained throughout. Breq is an appealing central character with some easily-graspable motivation to put right a wrong that was done - whether any of the actions she ends up taking go any way to achieving this is a moot point, but that was no doubt intentional. The moral and philosophical questions raised by the whole concept of ancillaries are interesting, and presented without bashing the reader over the head with them or getting into a tedious blizzard of exposition. 

A few quibbles, though: the early chapters set on Shis'urna are a bit slow compared with the excitement going on in the other story strand and the reader is inclined to skim through them to get back to the exciting stuff. It's also not completely clear what was so special about the gun that Breq acquired on Nilt, or at least what was special enough to make it worth a risky expedition to an icy planet. And the ending is a bit unsatisfactory; something that makes more sense when you realise that Ancillary Justice is the first book in a trilogy (its successors being called Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy), and some plot strands had to be left dangling for the sequels to pick up on. The business of using she/her pronouns for everyone regardless of their biological sex (a concept we are invited to infer does still exist) is an interesting one but you do get a bit YES YES ALL RIGHT I GET IT with it after a while. But why is it important to know what sex anyone is? Well, we can manage without, but it's just extra information, like knowing how big they are or how many limbs they've got. Whether Leckie thought it was an interesting device for doing a bit of a rug-pull and disorienting the reader or was trying to make some other point I couldn't say.

The main criticism, if it can be called a criticism, though, is that the whole thing had a strong whiff of Iain M Banks about it, without, I would say, being quite as good. Things like ships with near-omniscient (and occasionally quirky) AIs and near-immortality through constant body-swapping are well-worn Banks tropes (though by no means exclusive to him), the business with the Radch's uneasy truce with the hugely-advanced and largely incomprehensible Presger alien civilisation is reminiscent of some of the stuff in Excession, the quest for a powerful and possibly mythical weapon is familiar from the most recent Banks on this list, Against A Dark Background, and the device of having two stories - one in the "present", one in the past - take place in alternate chapters is familiar from Use Of Weapons, although here both strands do at least move forwards in time, thankfully. Even Breq's name partly echoes that of the principal female protagonist in Surface Detail; I think Banks might have drawn the line at having an alien species called the Rrrrrr, though. I mean, I get it, it's our best approximation with our puny human throats to their REAL name, but still.

Anyway, it was good but I'm probably not going to be rushing out to acquire the sequels; if I happen to see them going cheap in a second-hand bookshop then, well, maybe.

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