Synopsis: Breq is a woman who used to be a spaceship that also controlled multiple human bodies. Now, only one body remains, everything else about her destroyed. She has only one purpose left to her: to kill the one responsible for what happened to her and to her former captain. The problem being, of course, that her practically immortal enemy is in control of countless bodies and a galactic empire. And there’s only one of Breq left.
Series: First in a trilogy.
POV: First person.
Preview: First chapter here.
This book contains a number of deeply interesting details. The main protagonist used to be a spaceship with an AI, with multiple human bodies under her control. Now the ship and all of those bodies but one have been destroyed, leaving her with her consciousness in one form. Which begs the question: Is all of her consciousness in that one form, or is the self that exists in this body different from the self that inhabited the spaceship, even though she remembers being both?
The book doesn’t necessarily answer this, but it does play with the idea of a different kind of consciousness than we as humans experience. All of the spaceship/AI’s multiple bodies can function independently, and in fact, have been mentally cut off from each other on one past occasion. The bodies can have different quirks about them. And yet, they’re all still Justice of Toren the spaceship, with the memories thereof. Sometimes, when Breq speaks about the past, she has to distinguish between the her that was Justice of Toren and the her that was One Esk, the singular body she now inhabits.
Another interesting thing the story plays with is language. If you’re reading a book in English, whatever language the characters might be speaking in, whatever thoughts they’re trying to express–they all have to be conveyed in English. Often in the sci-fi and fantasy that’s written in English, even if there are multiple languages being spoken in the work, they’re all essentially English.
Ancillary Justice has a way of codifying the language being spoken is not English, and is even different from the main protagonist’s primary language. It does this using gender. Breq isn’t good at picking up on the cues across different cultures for gender expression, and so one of the things she frequently worries about is misgendering people. Then she’ll speak a sentence that doesn’t have any gender expression in it–not in English, anyway–and judge the reaction of the person in front of her for whether or not she guessed the right gender. Which indicates to the reader that something in the sentence Breq just spoke indicates gender in whatever language she’s using, despite not indicating gender in the language we’re reading in (English, for me–though the translation challenges this posed for other languages also appear quite interesting).
And of course, Breq’s native language (which is also not English) doesn’t have gender at all. When speaking in this language, or when thinking to herself, Breq always uses female pronouns for everyone irrespective of gender (in lieu of a gender neutral pronoun).
This also adds an additional layer to the reading, because books are one form of narrative in which readers picture widely different things based on the same descriptions. Or where readers ignore descriptions entirely, should they want to. It isn’t a visual medium, which means that often, we aren’t frequently reminded of the characters’ appearances, save in our own minds. Except for gender, which is frequently reinforced, over and over again, in the story.
Ancillary Justice takes that away.
Readers aren’t explicitly told the gender of any character, because gender isn’t coded into the language. Descriptions and contextual cues are used to provide that information, but I confess, I’m not 100% sure I’ve pictured all of the characters as the correct gender (and even some of the translators appear to have been in contact with the author to clarify this, depending on how the other language in question works). As a reading experience, this was new for me.
This book brings up ways of looking at things that are interesting. I like having these questions brought up, and I like thinking about them. The entire experience of reading the book is therefore unusually thoughtful. And there’s still more interesting touches to the story I haven’t mentioned. There’s cultural dissonance, forgiveness, change. There are a number of characters whose arcs add to the story, who bring up altogether different questions. This book has a different feel to it than most books I’ve read, but it was well worth experiencing. And I completely understand why it’s won the Hugo and assorted other awards.
My own captain had refused, and died. Her replacement had qualms…but said nothing and did as she was told… “It’s easy to say that if you were there you would have refused, that you would rather die than participate in the slaughter, but it all looks very different when it’s real, when the moment comes to choose.”
“Which me are you talking to?” I asked. “Which life that was denied me do you intend I live? Should I send you monthly reports, so you can be sure my choices meet with your approval?”
“It’s the people without the money and the power, who desperately want to live, for those people small things aren’t small at all.”