Completed 3/6/2014, Reviewed 3/6/2014
“Ancillary Justice” is a complex novel. There are a lot of good ideas and fun plots strewn around it. There’s the twist to the AI computer has a nervous breakdown plot, there’s the evil empire, there’s the noir-ish assassin, there are the subjugated people assimilated into the AI’s human network, and finally there’s the part that everyone’s already reviewed the heck out of: the language without gender. It has all the makings of a terrific novel, but to me, it just fell flat.
There is so much to this novel that it’s hard to give a synopsis. I’ve already listed most of the plot lines, but I’ll try to wrap it together in a few sentences. Breq is an AI, inhabiting a single body. She used to be a ship with hundreds of human bodies acting as tentacles, or ancillaries, all part of her collective (yes, a little like the Borg from STNG). She is on a mission to assassinate the Lord of the Radche. The Lord of the Radche has ancillaries too, but some have been infiltrated by an alien race. On her way, she encounters and helps a former captain who has OD’ed on a frozen planet. Together, they try to find the LOTR (heh) and destroy her before she destroys the empire.
The biggest problem I found with the book is that the timelines jump all over the place. I’m not just referring to the simple device of chapters alternating between past and present. It’s the constant use of backstory and exposition. It made the reading cumbersome. There were also numerous long expositions to trudge through. I think the issue was really that this book is the first of an intended trilogy. Rather than load up on moving the plots, the author was trying to fill out her universe.
The whole gender-bending aspect of Breq’s language is great. There is no differentiation of gender with words, so everyone is referred to with female nouns and pronouns: she, niece, mother, daughter, sister. At first it’s difficult to wrap your head around. But I eventually found it fairly easy. I didn’t find myself struggling over my preconceptions that a crying person is weak and is therefore female, while a brutish person is stoic and therefore male. They all just blended together in an amorphous androgynous mix. Maybe I had been warmed up to the idea by reading Ursula LeGuin’s LeftHand of Darkness several times. Or maybe I think about gender more fluidly than most, although when I did have to picture the characters in my head as I was reading, I did picture them looking like Zsa Zsa Gabor in “Queen of Outer Space”. (Okay, so I’m not that well-adjusted!) But even this took a back seat to the boredom created by the tedious storytelling.
I was confused by the whole ancillary concept. My understanding is that ancillaries are “corpse soldiers”, humans whose personalities and memories have been effectively wiped out and are under the control of an AI. This technology allows the AIs to have eyes, ears, and control all over a ship, station, or planet. The LOTR also has ancillaries, but we find out that an alien race has infiltrated some of the LOTR’s ancillaries. So the Lord must keep some of her activities from herself so that the bad ancillaries don’t know what the good ancillaries are doing. But this invalidates the idea that the central brain has complete control over the ancillaries and that some are thinking for themselves, which is a contradiction. Is this a plot hole, or intentionally designed to be revealed in a later volume? I found the lack of an answer to be frustrating.
On a similar note, the LOTR’s name is Mianaai. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a play on “me and I”. Is this implying that the Breq is the same entity as the LOTR? Is it an allusion to the many ancillaries of the LOTR? Perhaps it is a play on “me, an AI”, implying that the LOTR is herself an AI, rather than a human. Again, it seems to be something planted to get to read the rest of the trilogy.
Finally, after reflecting on all the plots and devices, I eventually found myself wondering if there was really anything new here. The main plots can easily be described as a mash up of the Borg, HAL 9000, the Star Wars empire, and the frozen world and androgyny of Left Hand of Darkness. Of course there are a lot mash-ups out there. It isn’t often that someone breaks new ground in SF/F anymore. Yet in the hands of a good writer, a trite mash-up could be an incredibly interesting and exciting story. Instead, Leckie simply left me cold. I give this book two stars, basically, an E for effort.