Ancillary Justice is a sci-fi novel that has been getting a lot of buzz (it won the 2014 Hugo for Best Novel, among others), and so while it’s not something I would generally pick up, I decided to give it a try. Ancillary Justice has a lot going on, it mediates on the themes of identity, humanity, gender and what I read as imperialism – all very heavy themes, all of which were explored in a complex and meaningful ways in the novel. In all honesty, I don’t think I do the book justice in a review, so take my words simply as a primer to a very good book.
Breq is a soldier on a mysterious mission. She was betrayed and is now less than she once was. Before she was the Justice of Toren, a starship, and now she is only a segment of that intelligence inhabiting a single human body. For the past nineteen years Breq has been working towards the goal of getting revenge on the one that betrayed her, Anaander Minaai, the leader of the Radch. A leader that, like the former Breq, exists in many bodies, making this revenge plot nearly impossible. Finally, Breq is close to her end game, and with that, her past is revealed to those close to her and this will either help or hinder her mission.
Throughout the novel the story jumps back and forth from the present to the past. In the present Breq is seeking her revenge and in the past, readers come to understand what has led to this seemingly inhuman intelligence to be motivated by anger, an emotion that you would not immediately associate with an artificial intelligence. For me, the exploration of what it means to be human was the most compelling part of this novel. It’s difficult to label Breq as human or inhuman. On first glance, Breq has all the physical characteristics of a human, at least, in her current incarnation, but it soon becomes apparent that she is “other”. The fact that Breq has broken from her larger, all encompassing artificial intelligence forces the reader to question the meaning of humanity. Breq certainly commits inhuman acts (ie. murder) but her thought process is unarguably human.
The novel is revealed solely through Breq’s own perspective and I think this fact only strengthens the notion that Breq is “human” even if she’s technically not. Breq is often confused and struggles to read those around her in her new existence. As the Justice of Toren, Breq had thousands of places and means to access information, now, trapped in a human body, she has to rely on her own senses. The sense of frailty, to me, labels Breq as human. I think raising this question of humanity is an important one in Ancillary Justice as it forces the reader to make those connections among race as well, especially as the world that Breq inhabits is based on the Radch being the supreme and only civilized humans. With Breq’s existence, readers have to question these labels, which allows you to get a deeper understanding of the themes of colonization that also exist in the novel.
Along with Breq’s questionable status as a human is her construction of identity. As Justice of Toren, Breq was more than a single entity, she was many instances, all working in concert with one another as a collective. However, this system of a singular identity existing in multiple instances is challenged as some of these instances exhibit individual characteristics. In fact, this individuality is exactly why Breq set forth on her path towards revenge. Alongside this artificial intelligence is the true humans of the Radch, who also seem to lack individuality, even their gender is ambiguous. Rather, the Radch seem to strive towards the goal of being a single mind, with each member of the Radch having the same values. A mighty goal since the Radch has annexed thousands of groups of peoples, ensuring that they all adopted the proper Radch value system. What Breq’s individuality has shown readers is that it is possible to evoke change by embracing individuality rather than accepting the status quo. How that will play out in the Radch will be interesting and have me coming back for book two.
The lack of individuality in the Radch is an ideal that is breaking down at the point of Ancillary Justice. The Radch has been annexing civilizations for centuries, colonizing people and ultimately forcing them to take the “civilizing” identity of the Radchaai. This novel demonstrates that this process is not sustaining; it will eventually break down causing conflict. You don’t a utopia when everyone is the same, something else is going to fill that vacuum and make a return to violence. It’s this state of change that is happening in Ancillary Justice. Breq has forced a select few to take notice of this coming conflict, but the very idea that the system is broken is something that the leader of the Radch wants suppressed.
Ultimately, Ancillary Justice is a very complex novel and I understand why it has received the recognition that it has. While the narrative style is, at times, confusing, it is a story that’s worth reading. A great one to recommend to more hard-core sci-fi fans out there.
For another read that explores the theme of humanity and identity try Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone. While this is a steampunk novel, I think fans of Ancillary Justice will appreciate the character of Mattie, an intelligent automaton. I think it will also appeal because like Ancillary Justice, this is another complex read, one that is difficult to digest on first reading.
For more character-driven drama, try Linnea Sinclair’s sci-fi romance, Games of Command. Obviously, this is going to be significantly different from Ancillary Justice; it is a lighter read and it is focused on romance. However, the hero of Games of Command is not wholly human and it’s that theme that made the connection for me.
Lastly, I’ll also recommend Cecil Castellucci’s Tin Star as my final recommendation. It’s a young adult novel, but it’s awesome in that it also explores the theme of humanity and does so by making humans the alien element. Great stuff. Read my full review on it here.