Ann Leckie’s 2013 novel Ancillary Justice is a good piece of science-fiction, a space opera novel that innovates within its subgenre by adapting elements of other science-fiction subgenres. In its more philosophical plot it evokes classic science-fiction in the vein of Pohl or Simak, as interested in presenting an alien, experimental future as telling an all-action story. Most interestingly to me, it is a story about the aftermath of a war of occupation and the ethics of occupation, from the perspective of a protagonist detached from emotional and moral norms in a society whose norms are themselves distant to the reader’s. That one can read the novel and at times wonder if the society being described is human in any understandable sense – or indeed “good” from a modern perspective – without it falling into caricaturish acts of exaggerated cruelty sets it apart from many of its peers.
In an interview, Leckie claimed that no “particular real-world example” inspired the novel’s setting, the peculiar empire of the Radch. Immediately this piques the interest of a science-fiction reader – too often a future society is either a homogenous “Federation” affair, where it is assumed national boundaries are broken down into an identity-lacking entity, or an extrapolation of one or other society from the past. That said, this latter can work, often in an allegorical or didactic sense – Christine Love’s interactive fiction Analogue extrapolates the Joseon period of Korean history into the future as a setting basis for its themes of gender and identity – or a comic one, as Judge Dredd comics show in their far-future satires of decadence and Western capitalistic excess. Yet Ancillary Justice is a novel whose premise relies on it being futuristic, and those aspects which do not rely on future technology are culture-agnostic. Leckie claims that the ancient Romans did influence her novel’s setting – raising the point that the Roman Empire was historically one of the most “successful” over a long period of time, and their approach to integrating the religious practices of absorbed cultures was an interesting detail – but insists that “the Radchaai aren’t supposed to be Romans in space.” She succeeds; as one reads the novel, the revelations about the world feel very alienating and what cultural touchstones exist are not always comforting ones. Indeed, as I read Ancillary Justice I found fictional parallels came more readily than real-world ones – again, nothing direct as inspiration but nevertheless, the attitude of the Radchaai, and the strange formality and suppressed fear that defined them, evoked the Gamilas Empire from the recent Space Battleship Yamato 2199. Yamato 2199 was one of the best pieces of space opera produced in recent years, an ambitious adaptation of a landmark 1970s science-fiction animé for the modern era, updating it in line with how science-fiction as a genre had developed. Central to this was the creation of a far more interesting plot about the antagonist empire – the Gamilas, and their leader Desler. The series played heavily upon ideas of cultural integration and identity in a space empire, especially in an early arc surrounding a minor villain, and as a result the question of how a single world could be a terror across multiple star systems felt logically approached. By approaching the evil of an alien race from a very human perspective – colonisation as a motive rather than annihilation – Desler was a more credible and compelling villain. The Radch are similarly depicted, and this is what makes Ancillary Justice stand apart from much space opera. They are not an antagonist faction, they are the empire the protagonist is – or has been – proud to serve.
The politics and cultural details are a joy to read – such that when the novel takes the time to explain them to the reader it is a fascinating aside. Furthermore, its use of a first-person narrator – firmly grounding it as a personal story within a large universe, and moving the focus away from vast fleet battles – is made into a particularly interesting plot device. At its core, Ancillary Justice is a novel about artificial intelligence and a pseudo-post-human future – it is not a novel which glowingly espouses transhumanism in a scientist sense, instead it assumes that when it does happen it is something that has its own mountain of logistical problems. The protagonist is an AI incarnation, part of a warship’s network of artificial crew, and so her perspective on the world is entirely alien. She interacts with other people, possessed of flawless knowledge about traditions and etiquette, yet the voice with which Leckie writes her is of somebody with an almost autistic worldview. She knows everything, but does not know how to interpret any of it. Thus rituals occur because they must – their significance is just another fact to be filed alongside their practice. She does not fully understand gender signifiers, and defaults to assuming everyone is female. Too often in science-fiction an AI is too culturally-aware and emotive, acting wholly like a human despite not being one. Ancillary Justice‘s protagonist acts like a machine unsuited to human form, and makes as a result a far more interesting window into an already alienating future. These AI clones are set, in the plot, against actual clones – in this transhumanist world, the influential can give themselves multiple bodies and politicians use this to govern the entire empire personally. A friend of mine, @thaliarchus, pointed out in a recent conversation about this book that this plot detail – fundamental to the core conflict between the protagonist and the Radch emperor – is a neat science-fiction take on medieval nepotism, where it was considered entirely reasonable to recruit family members in influential roles simply because they were already inherently trustworthy and contactable in a world without mass communication. In this science-fiction world, the idea of nepotism is taken to the next level – the emperor rules everything directly by cloning himself.
To me, truly great, memorable science-fiction must have some thematic or philosophical aspect; pure action diverts but is insubstantial. Ancillary Justice is an ambitious space opera that begins where most would end, with an empire almost unchallenged from external forces and absolute in its control – an empire that in its nepotism, systematic cultural dilution and simple alienness evokes more villainous archetypes than heroic ones – and then turns it on its head in a plot that while straightforward to describe is deceptive in how it uses the science-fiction technology of its setting to complicate matters. Yet the plot, to me, is almost secondary to the real interest of the novel – how it depicts an AI acting, and how it creates a society that at times makes the reader question if it is human in any comprehensible way.