Do all aspiring authors have a love/hate relationship with award winners? It’s completely unfair and negative unless you are absolutely certain you submitted something superior, which I didn’t, but it still happens.
In this case the accolades are deserved. Ancillary Justice swept most of the major aci-fi awards, and it’s great. The sequel is excellent too, and I’m waiting for the next one.
There are some wonderful ideas in it, and they’re of course ideas that I wish I had. In particular because I can pinpoint the exact part of the exact Iain M Banks novel where I should have had the main idea, and where I have the sneaking suspicion that Ann L did have it. But her author’s notes and the writing make her sound like such a lovely person that I can’t be too jealous.
The big concept is that the protagonist used to be a sentient starship. A warship, centuries old, with a huge computer brain and its consciousness spread out through hundreds of ancillary soldier-bodies. The book starts with dual time frames until you find out how and why she is now confined to just one single humainoid, a tiny fraction of her former self.
This leads on to another out-of-the-ordinary idea: that in her flashbacks to when she was a ship, her awareness is vastly greater than ours; both everything that happens in the ship, and to every one of her bodies. She even has sensors in the bodies of her crew and is able to tell how they are feeling. It is a sign of her excellent writing that for the most part, this is clear and not confusing. I say for the most part, because there are the odd slips; these do not spoil the book, and they make me feel better because you can win awards without being perfect!
Namely, there is the odd slip where you really do get thoughts the protagonist would not be aware of, and “I” can mean many different things to such a being. It can mean “I” as in an individual body, “I” as in a particular squad of bodies, some of which have their own traits, or “I” as in the totality of her being.
Another thing, which feels a little like a cheap author’s trick at the time, is an incident when the character does something inexplicable and doesn’t tell the reader why. Bear with it, there’s a good reason explained later.
The book also featuers a gigantic coincidence near the start, but I suspect there’s a reason for that yet to be revealed…
The really big thing that strikes you, though, is that the protagonist is gender-blind. Being an ex-starship whose native language has a single non-gendered pronoun, from a culture where the sexes dress the same and face no discrimination, she simply doesn’t notice whether people are male or female unless she makes a real effort, and even then she often gets it wrong. When her narrative is “translated into English” she simply refers to everyone as “she.” After two books, I still have no idea if the body she inhabits is male or female, nor many of the other characters. So you start trying to work it out, later ask yourself “Why do I need to know?” and realise it’s so you could stereotype the characters or wonder who could sleep with who provided they’re straight… in short, it makes you confront your own prejudice.
The universe, especially the Imperial Radch culture that the heroine (Breq or Justice of Torren, to give her alias and proper former name) is well realised. Religion and ritual are a strong part of their lives, and done in a way you can believe.
A big thing is that the Radch is, to our eyes, deeply unpleasant. They are an aggressive, conquering culture, ruled by an absolute autocrat over an aristocratic patronage system; there is no right to privacy, justice or freedom of conscience. They invade planets and remake them in their own image, with a tendency to favour the existing class system and ethnic prejudice. There is no hesitation to kill or purge if seen as necessary, and they once massacred an entire civilisation in retaliation for the loss of a ship. All the ancillary bodies that starships use were once prisoners from a victim world, their minds erased and overwritten.
Breq/JoT has been part of this; not that she had any choice, but she went along without apparent discontent. Again, kudos to the author that you still sympathise with her (it helps knowing from the start she becomes a rebel), the Radch are believable and many of them are symmpathetic. They of course believe they are doing what is right, and most (despite what outsiders may think) have a deep distaste for avoidable killing or destruction; some find opportunities to improve things from within the system.
Breq herself is a contradiction. Ships are programmed primarily to care for and bond with their officers and crew; it is because of this devotion that they follow their military orders. In the second book in particular, this nurturing and caring side is in strong evidence. On the other hand, she is capable of shooting down a crowd without remorse, and the body she is left inhabiting was taken forcibly from its original owner. Whether her attitudes to the Radch’s illiberal ways have changed, and whether she is acting from moral conviction or simply from her circumstances, is left open to question.
She habitually sings or hums, often without realising it and when she shouldn’t. This marks her out as a personality rather than just a machine, and it can be endearing or annoying. I think some of her songs lose something in translation…
What I am jealous of the author for is that she gets away with long set-ups; she can write chapters where nothing much happens but people talking and having tea with each other, without being told there must be huge dramatic stakes and people bursting in with guns. By the second book, of course, she has leeway for being an established award-winner. Plus she has the skill to carry it off.
The saying “there is nothing new under the sun” is very old itself; just found out it’s Old Testament. Sentient starships have been done before, as have gods becoming mortal. Ursula le Guin did genderless language in “Left Hand of Darkness.” Nearly every newbie writer does omniscient narration. The Radch has elements of both the Roman and old British Empires. But the skill lies in finding novel angles, new combinations, and doing them well. Here, it really is done well.