Book: Ancillary Justice

Cat Sparks reviews an intergalactic tale of artificial intelligence gone awry.

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie, Orbit (2013), RRP $19.95

The novel begins on Nilt, a cold, backwater world in a far distant future. Humanity has expanded across the stars by way of technology that allows people - and artificial intelligences - to replicate themselves and exist in multiple places at once.

Breq is one such replicant, outwardly human but not quite. A corpse soldier created by the Radchaai Empire, captured, wiped of identity and reanimated by the sprawling AIs that control the Radchaai warhsips. Breq was formerly known as One Esk Nineteen, an ancillary in the One Esk cadre, a massive army controlled by the colossal starship, Justice of Toren. The starship's artificial intelligence linked to thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch. When that ship was destroyed by an act of treachery, Breq was cut off from her collective, rendered a lone individual with the memories of the starship intact.

The narrative covers two time periods: the present and two decades earlier, where we learn the sequence of events that set Breq on her particular quest. In the earlier time, she and her officer, Lietenant Awn, became embroiled in a Radchaai conspiracy involving the alien Presger race while policing an annexed world.

Breq's singular, all-consuming purpose is to pursue a vendetta against Anaander Mianaai, the immortal Lord of the Radch who has ruled for 3,000 years, occupying thousands of bodies, all of them genetically identical. Breq seeks a weapon rumoured to be the only way of rendering Radchaai armour useless.

On Nilt, she stumbles across Seivarden, a severely drug-addicted Radchaai, still in shock after being revived from 1,000 years of frozen sleep following her ship's destruction. Seivarden is a connection to Breq's past. For reasons of her own, she decides to help.

The conceptually ambitious space opera from debut author Ann Leckie examines what it means to be human in a universe guided by artificial intelligence. It is a novel possessed of political and moral sophistication, featuring multiple, distinct human cultures that have evolved over time into something truly alien. Actual aliens get a dark treatment like the superior Presger, who believe that all other species, regardless of sentience or intelligence, are merely there to serve as prey, property, or playthings.

Ancillary Justice examines issues of gender, class, ethnic prejudice and colonialism, at times evoking shades of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.

Breq hails from a culture in which language is ungendered. She refers to everyone as "she" whether male or female, therefore forcing the reader to be conscious of their own gender biases.

First in a triology, Ancillary Justice was one of the Sci Fi buzz books at the end of last year. It is recommended for those who enjoy thrillers, yet like their Sci Fi to veer into unfamiliar territory.

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