Ann Leckie 2013. Ancillary Justice. Kindle Edition. Also New York: Orbit. 393 pp.
Top-notch science fiction. In this world, humans are pretty much pan-galactic and have many forms. How this situation came about is unclear but it is useful for a novelist. As with Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, which rely on a similar back-story, here the starships are also artifical intelligences (although they lack the wit of Banks’ creations). But Ann Leckie does more to explore the possibilities of various intelligences: human, alien, artificial, and hybrids between them. These are typically distributed across multiple networked bodies (which one must admit would be very handy). The components (ancillaries) that the ship intelligences distribute themselves across are now-dead human bodies that have been co-opted to the cause of the dominant race, the Radch and are thawed out, rebooted with a new operating system and put into service when required. But intelligences networked across many widely-distributed bodies can splinter into separate entities. A conspiracy plot develops mid-novel and civil war threatens between components of the controlling networked human ruler (maybe not so handy after all). The central character of the novel, Breq, is a revenge-driven ship-mind (now confined to a single body). Breq has the only weapon that can threaten the Radch, left over from another powerful race exterminated by the Radch, who were then genocidal but are now, possibly, rehabilitating themselves. Interestingly, Breq is not too sure of his/herself, sometimes doutbing his/her independence, free will. (Just like the human mind then.) Perhaps the ruler tampered with his/her memory?
This novel seems to have elements that indicate a female author, or maybe it is just that the style recalls something of Margaret Attwood and Ursula K. LeGuin: intricate inter-personal politics are a bit convoluted for this simple male reader; gender of the characters is ambiguous and barely relevant; interesting exploration of dependence in relationships; sex is a background activity and seems usually between partners of the same gender (except that humans have long since moved on from trivial limitations like “homosexual”); jewellery and clothes demand careful choice and are plenty significant in Radch society, while technical topics hardly rate a mention (cf. Neal Stephenson and Ian McDonald, just two recent examples of very male-flavoured SF).
Two more books await for the right moment: Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy.