Saturday, December 31, 2016

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

It seems very straightforward when I say "I."  At the time, "I" meant Justice of Toren, the whole ship and all its ancillaries.  A unit might be very focused on what it was doing at that particular moment, but it was no more apart from "me" than my hand is while it's engaged in a task that doesn't require my full attention.

Nearly twenty years later "I" would be a single body, a single brain.  That division, I--Justice of Toren and I--One Esk, was not, I have come to think, a sudden split, not an instant before which "I" was one and after which "I" was "we."  It was something that had always been possible, always potential.  Guarded against.  But how did it go from potential to real, intcontrovertible, irrevocable?

The heroine of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, Breq, was not always Breq.  Once she was an entire ship.  That ship, Justice of Toren, comprised an artificial intelligence split between the ship itself and hundreds, if not thousands, of the reanimated corpses of peoples conquered by the Raadchai Empire, called ancillaries.  But when the Justice of Toren and most of its ancillaries are destroyed by the perfidy of Anaander Mianaai, the dictatorial leader of the Empire, Breq escapes, taking with her the last scrap of the selfhood of Justice of Toren.

Ancillary Justice's complex meditations on selfhood are its best feature.  As it turns out, Breq is not the only one whose unified selfhood is troubled: Anaander Mianaai, who uses a system of bodies like the ancillaries to rule her Empire, is secretly split into a pro-reform and anti-reform faction, waging a surreptitious war against herself.  (This makes Breq's goal of killing the treacherous Anaander rather difficult.)  It seems like a contradiction, but who doesn't know the experience of having a conflicted mind?  I go back to the words of St. Paul: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."

One of the more interesting features of Raadchai culture is that it doesn't distinguish between genders.  Breq refers to all characters with the feminine pronoun--including ones we know, by context, are considered male in their own societies.  When, in the course of her duties as the Justice of Toren, she interacts with foreigners in their own language, she constantly misgenders them.  Many characters are never reliably gendered at all.

It's this wrinkle that offended the reactionary wing of the science fiction world--a group of jackasses who call themselves "Sad Puppies" (or, more extremely, "Rabid Puppies") who protest that "social justice warriors" are taking over the SF writing scene, to the detriment of classic adventure stories.  Author Brad Torgerson called Leckie an "activist-writer" whose novel is "a social-political pot shot at ordinary folk."

Torgerson's idea of science fiction is so blinkered, so narrow and yes, white and male, the fact that he has anything to say about science fiction--which is by nature speculative and imaginative, rather than traditionalist--at all amuses me.  Because the truth is that the gender aspect of Ancillary Justice has little bite, and Leckie has far less to say about gender fluidity than she does about the fragmentation of the self.  Ancillary Justice struck me as a classic space opera story: the evil empire, the complicated space politics, the climactic battle at the end.  Strip away the pronouns and the AI and Ancillary Justice looks terribly like Star Wars.  In fact, I was largely disappointed by the novel, which I was hoping would be more thoughtful and less reliant on traditional SF imagery.

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