Winner of the 2014 Hugo award for Best Novel, The Arthur C Clark award and the British Science Fiction Association Award, Ancillary Justice is a far-future space opera about love and revenge, but it is also far more interesting than (even) that sounds. Some spoilers in what follows (of more than one book!), so don’t read on if you want to come to it cold.
If you ever thought there was nothing new to add to the space opera, this book should make you think again. Its narrator is Justice of Toren, an artificial intelligence that runs a vast military ship but also animates the stolen bodies of people not considered human by the vast Radch empire. (Some reviews put this as reanimating corpses, missing the crucial detail that the people reprogrammed with the personality of the ship aren’t dead, and are merely having their own individuality suppressed in a violent and traumatic way.) These stolen bodies are neither soldiers nor citizens: they are ancillaries, machine parts, mobile aspects of the huge and complex ship.
There are some echoes of the Roman empire in the Radch, but only to help the reader to grasp what they’re doing: absorbing and conquering other cultures, creating new citizens, adapting religions, all in service of the secret centre, which itself is ruled by a mad emperor who occupies thousands of different bodies.
What this idea allows the author to do is create a first person narrator who possesses some of the characteristics of an omniscient narrator. Justice of Toren is the ship, but is also planet side, in the temple, on the town square, in the barracks, or back on the ship, on every deck, in the cabin. This allows the narrative POV to shift around in a fluid way.
As well as multiple points of view (that are actually one point of view) the narrative takes place in three distinct time frames: a thousand years before, twenty years before, and the “now” of the story. The AI is more or less immortal. Except.
One of the narrator, Breq, is actually the sole survivor of the AI, after the ship was destroyed, and has been passing for human for twenty years, looking for what she needs to take revenge.
All of this is great, and complex and wonderful, and gripping, but even all of this is not the whole of what makes this book so great. The Radch, you see, don’t have gender-differentiated pronouns, so they don’t programme their AIs to distinguish people by gender. So Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren calls everybody “she”.
Now, one of the great strengths of science fiction is its ability to throw you out of the familiar and force you to understand different points of view. In Karen Travis’ City of Pearl, for example, we encounter aliens who see all fauna as “people” and are appalled that human people would eat other sorts of people: canibale! In Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World, the novel is narrated by a teenage girl who relates the story of the coming of aliens to her home planet – and only towards the end do we realise that she is not, in fact, human, but the aliens who are coming are.
Ancillary Justice, throws you out of familiarity in a big way. There are strange names, strange words. You’re not sure whether Radch and the other people are human or not. The author dumps us in the middle of things without a great deal of background information. There’s a distinct lack of early exposition, so you’re forced to puzzle your way through. At first you don’t get it, but then suddenly you do. Everybody is “she”, even the anatomically male characters. And even when you learn that a character is anatomically male (from a non-Radch character who is amused that Radch struggle to tell the difference when people are clothed), the narrator continues to refer to them as “she”.
What this means is that you stop thinking of people in a gendered way. Or rather, you just read every character – soldier, citizen, farmer, doctor, emperor – as a she. The power of a simple pronoun actually stops you from putting male bodies on the characters as you read them. It’s like that Twitter joke about Dr Pepper: I bet it didn’t even occur to you that Dr Pepper might be a woman. In Ancillary Justice, everybody is a woman. Even the men. And apart from that one character, the one you’re told is male, you have no idea (and don’t care) whether people are male or female, or what. And if they’re sleeping together, you don’t know whether they’re a same-sex couple or not.
So. Far future space opera, interstellar empires, love and revenge, multiple narrative threads, multiple points of view, and a clever use of pronoun that absolutely boots you out of your gendered thinking rut. All this in a gripping story that leaves you gasping for the sequel. Brilliant.