Ancillary Justice won almost every major Science Fiction award last year, and it is easy to see why. The novel is a space opera, set across various parts of a well-established galactic empire, and starring a main character who is all that remains of a star-ship’s artificial intelligence. The very idea of attempting to write a book from the point of view of a character who embodies an entire ship, as well as the hundreds of minds belonging to its ancillaries, is ambitious, and when set against a backdrop of thousands of years of conquest and intrigue, it may sound even more so. But Leckie manages to pull it off, and make it absorbing.
The Radch empire built ships called Justices to carry their troops while expanding their empire. The main protagonist was one of those ships, named “Justice of Torren“. After a sequence of terrible events, all except one of her remaining ancillaries was destroyed. That ancillary is now seeking vengeance against the empire that caused her destruction. The plot begins by jumping between the “Justice of Torren” before her destruction, and her single remaining ancillary afterwards. Concepts and conceits are introduced thoughtfully throughout the first half of the book, in order to temper an opening that can at times feel a little overwhelming. The result is a book that slowly draws the reader in to its universe, before delivering a fast-paced ending.
Being written from the point of view of an artificial intelligence shapes the style of Ancillary Justice. While it is admitted throughout that ships have been given emotion so that they can make decisions without being caught up in endless calculations, the main character still feels quite cold and calculating. The dimensions of places are given in exact measurements, and aesthetics are described briefly. More emphasis is put into the study of how other characters react, in order to interpret where their loyalties lie, than their physical appearances. It is an unusual style of writing, especially being in the first person, because it creates a main character that is difficult to relate to. But in the end, it is a triumph with regard to what Leckie was trying to achieve. The main character is part of a vast AI, and she feels like it.
One of the book’s most interesting conceits is that the Radchaai do not distinguish between gender. This is portrayed by having the main character refer to everyone she meets by using female pronouns, and expressing confusion when communicating in languages that do distinguish. “She laughed, short and bitter – whether because I’d chosen the wrong gender for the pronoun or something else.” A lot of work in contemporary Science Fiction does address gender, and the idea of a society which does not distinguish in language is fascinating by itself. However, the fact that Leckie chose to use exclusively female pronouns does at times shape how the reader might interpret certain characters despite gender differences being apparent. It is a difficult balance, and while in the end it does feel successful in giving character to the Radch as a race, its main drawback is that Leckie has been forced to convey this using the English language – a language which very much still distinguishes.
For all of that, in the end, the book is undoubtedly a space opera. It features a somewhat familiar evil empire, a protagonist who must face that empire stripped of her former power, and plenty of other recognisable tropes. But what makes Ancillary Justice impressive is the depth of its ambition, and the way that ambition has been realised. Leckie has produced her début with such a command over its complicated concepts that it makes for an exciting and compelling book. By all accounts a sequel has recently been released, and if it lives up to the same standard as Ancillary Justice, it will be well worth reading.