Over the last year I’ve been reading books written by women and whilst I have made efforts to read both fiction and non-fiction, and to read books written by women writing in English as their first language and books in translation, I haven’t made a great deal of effort to read across genres. A recent internet argument brought it home to me that it is truly very difficult to read without inherent prejudice; there are so many books out there that whatever your selection method, there will be some preference which dictates the majority of your choices. Accepting that it is not possible to be truly universal in my reading, however much I would like to be, I do think that I ought to read as widely as possible in order to confront and challenge my prejudices, and also to offer myself the opportunity to find something new that I loved. It was in this spirit that I tracked down the Ancillary books by Ann Leckie.
The Ancillary books are science fiction, not my usual genre but one I have some experience with (being married to a sci-fi boffin being an obvious influence here). It is a genre which has, I think, a difficult relationship with women. There are some notable names in science fiction including Ursula K LeGuin (who I’m getting around to) and Doris Lessing who famously said that her science fiction was the work she was the most proud of. Yet as a genre it is dominated by men: both as producers and readers. I’m sure there are a host of social reasons lying behind this, none of which I will solve by means of this blog. What I can do, however, is read some science fiction written by women and I’m resolving to do more of this going forward. As a reader I enjoy science fiction, so when I happened across an article about this Nebula award winning book (the first book, Ancillary Justice) written by a woman, and found that they had it in my library (erroneously logged as ‘fantasy’) it felt like fate that I had to read it. And when I inadvertently reserved the second book (Ancillary Sword) first, it felt like fate that I had to read that too (there are three books but the third, Ancillary Mercy, is still in the course of being written).
Long story concluded. As I read both books, this review will cover both of them. So what are the Ancillary books about? This series is set in the Radch Empire, a race of humans called the Radchaai (literally: civilised) who are an imperialistic race who colonise (annexe) other planets using militaristic means. They are extremely successful at annexation due to technological superiority and a kind of ideological purity which is a little bit disturbing. Consequently most planets will surrender immediately once the Radchaai arrive. When a planet is annexed the Radchaai employ ships with artificial intelligence that use ‘ancillaries’ – human corpses whose intelligence is supplanted by that of the ship – which can act as its eyes and ears on the ground, be in multiple places at one time and carry out actions on the ship’s behalf. There are three key types of Radchaai ship: Swords which are used for offensive purposes; Justices which enforce post annexation law and order; and Mercies which are used for humanitarian purposes. The ships must follow the orders of their Radchaai crew, and their ancillaries are used to service the crew’s needs and requirements. However, the ultimate authority is Anaander Mianaai, ancient leader of the Radch. One other thing to know about the Radch is that they are genderless, consequently a Radchaai will refer to all others as female, and often has difficulty in distinguishing between genders when encountering a gendered race.
The story opens with the character of Breq, finding a body in the snow. The body turns out to be a Radch officer, Seivardan who had been believed to be killed two thousand years earlier when her ship the Sword of Nathtas was destroyed. Breq, a mere 21 years old, knows who Sevardan is because Breq is not who she appears to be. What she is is an ancillary, Justice of Toren One Esk the remaining intelligence of the ship Justice of Toren which was also destroyed in an incident following the annexation of the planet Ors. Perhaps that’s why Breq saves Seivardan, that they are both the sole remaining memory of their ship, though in the case of Breq she is the ship. This is something I found incredibly hard to get my head around.
Breq rescues Seivardan, discovering that Seivardan is addicted to a substance called kef which she has to help wean her off. Seivardan appears a reluctant rescuee, and there is a continued sense that Breq herself doesn’t quite know why she has rescued Seivardan. Neither is she honest with Seivardan about who and what she is. This delay and necessary subterfuge interferes with her plans which we soon learn are to destroy Anaander Mianaai, leader of the Radchaai, as she holds Mianaai responsible for the destruction of Justice of Toren. She is searching for a weapon that is invisible to Radch detection technology and was used by a race called the Garseddai to destroy one of the Radchaai ships. The result of the Garseddai’s assault was the destruction of their whole civilisation, an event which is pivotal to the events in this book.
The early part of the story skips between past and present, opening up the back story that led the Justice of Toren being trapped in a single body and hell bent on destroying the Lord of the Radch. What we learn is that something strange was going on in the annexation of the Ors and that somehow Anaander Mianaai is involved. This subterfuge results in the Justice of Toren being forced to kill her favourite Lieutenant, Lieutenant Awn. The result of this action was that the Justice of Toren turned her gun on the Lord of the Radch, killing her. This was something she shouldn’t have been able to do.
Confused yet? I’m sure you’re not alone. Leckie creates an incredibly complex universe, one which covers several races, several different types of social structure, different Gods, different languages, different technologies. An incredible amount of groundwork goes into the first book to establish the ground rules from which the story then flows. Consequently I found the book a little slow to get going, but I think this is necessary so that the rest of the story makes sense. It’s also worth bearing in mind that this is a trilogy, so the writer has a much larger canvas to work with than just the first book itself. That being said, I think Leckie does a great job of introducing the back story, establishing the universe in which the story operates, and creates something which is highly believable and consistent to itself. She also does a great job of introducing us to the characters; I grew quite fond of Lieutenant Awn, found Seivardan frustrating and Breq herself single minded (ha!) and deceptive.
There is, as is always the case, something unsettlingly familiar about the world that Leckie creates. Though it is alien, it is not completely unrecognisable. In the second book Breq is given her own ship, the Mercy of Kalr, which knows that Breq is an ancillary. They travel to a distant planet where the sister of Lieutenant Awn lives. Breq cannot tell the sister who she is, and to everyone not in the know she merely appears to be a, somewhat untypical, Radchaai Fleet Captain. The planet around which the Radch station (another AI) orbits is used for tea production; the Radchaai have a real love of tea, it forms a basis for many of their social interactions. I think this was the point when I started to think about the Radchaai as the British Empire in space. There were many overlaps: the love of tea, the brutal colonisations based on technological superiority, the belief that they were bringing ‘civilisation’ to the people being colonised, the complex administrative structures they built to maintain control, the exploitation of the lands and people that they’d conquered. This aside, the second book is more intimate than the first. We learn more about Breq, less about Seivardan who seems to disappear into the background (a surprising move for such a key character), the story moves into the territory of strategy and intrigue, class warfare and exploitation of an ‘underclass’, created, of course, by those who hold influence and power.
Ancillary Justice, and later Ancillary Sword, fulfil all those things that are great about science fiction. By this I mean that the unfamiliar setting is used to explore more familiar human moral issues and ask us to confront them with a degree of personal distance. Leckie covers a lot of issues in these two books including imperialism, the question of ‘I was just following orders’, gender, racism, class. She asks us to confront what it means to be ‘human’ – if we do not have gender, are we human? If we have consciousness but are technologically based, are we human? Breq seems a very human character, yet Leckie is very clear that she is not and towards the end of the first book you are forced to question how much of Breq’s actions are of her own making and how much is programming? Is Breq really as ‘human’ as she seems, or is she still a tool of the Lord of the Radch? It is a question that, as at the end of the second book, I am still not sure about.
I read both Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword at breakneck speed. It’s a long time since I finished two books in four days, but that’s how engaging these stories are. It is complicated; I cannot begin to untangle the complexities in this short blog entry. It is vivid and realistic and it is extraordinarily true to itself. Alongside that is an engaging story, complex moral conundrums and a depth which leaves you a lot to think about afterwards. That’s what truly great science fiction does, and this is truly great science fiction. I’m very much looking forward to reading the third.
Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword receive an intrigued 8 out of 10 Biis.