Writers! Do you dress up political truisms in the motley of science fiction? Then you need a dose of Nina Allan
Thousands of years from now, humanity has spread throughout the known universe, devolving into opposing empires and factions as it goes. The Justice of Toren, a mega-ship in the service of the intergalactic empire known as the Radch, is destroyed in an act of terrorism. The disaster’s last survivor is Brecq, a corpse-soldier who is now the one remaining repository of the ship’s vast hive-mind and who is sworn to hunt down the terrorists and destroy them. Twenty years into her quest, Brecq finds and rescues the Radchai officer Seivarden, who has also survived an atrocity and who has been floating in suspended animation for a thousand years. The two seem unlikely allies, but as the final reckoning approaches, each must confront their prejudices and reassess their existing notions of what it means to be human.
The thing I admire most about this novel is the author’s obvious commitment to it. There is nothing lazy, cynical or even particularly commercial-minded about Ancillary Justice. What comes through right from the start and continues throughout the book’s four hundred pages is the sense that this is a novel that has been thought about, reworked, agonised over and reworked again.
This is a book of ideas, a novel that buzzes with the authorial drive to expand on those ideas, to communicate them to the reader. If authorial commitment were a mainstay of what makes a work successful as literature, then this invigorating and ambitious debut should be winning hands down. I think that if I’d had this book in my hands when I was eighteen, I’d have loved it unequivocally. But therein lies the problem.
I haven’t been a consistent reader of what science fiction critics most commonly refer to as core genre for some many years now, but the buzz around Ann Leckie’s debut made it impossible to resist - hating the first hundred pages, gripped by the middle hundred and fifty, and finishing with a sense of indecision. I can’t help asking myself if Ancillary Justice is really all that different from the science fiction we were reading thirty years ago.
Leckie sets out to show not only how empires rise and fall, but the corruption and atrocities that accompany their progress, the ingrained class systems that invariably support their structures, their patronising and entropic assumptions around questions of culture and what and who determines ‘civilization’. Worthy aims for any writer, and Leckie’s project certainly has political validity. But personally I found the metaphors disappointingly heavy-handed: not crude exactly but certainly obvious. The reader cannot mistake Leckie’s message, but I would wonder how many would feel personally affected by it, beyond the simple intellectual pleasure of recognising and supporting what is being said.
There are no characters in Ancillary Justice, by which I mean that the characters-in-embryo, any of whom might have proved interesting if the author had devoted sufficient attention to giving them lives, have no vitality beyond their purpose in the plot. Lives are hinted at - One Esk’s un-ancillary-like passion for music, Lieutenant Awn’s hard-won progression from cook’s daughter to senior officer, the doctor Strigan’s isolated and unaffiliated existence on a distant colony-world - but they are never allowed to develop an internal reality.
It could be argued of course that in choosing an artificial intelligence as her narrator, Leckie has deliberately foresworn such intricacies, preferring instead the alienating yet invigorating sensation of ostranenie, or affective strangeness, that such a narrative choice would provide. To which I would reply that Ancillary Justice falls into the trap that so much core genre science fiction falls into: of failing to register the importance of properly realised emotional lives. What we have instead are the usual broad-brush generalisations and simplified responses. The characters do not live, they merely act:
My Ten segment came around the Fore-Temple water at a dead run. “Trouble in the upper city!” it called, and came to a halt in front of Lieutenant Awn, where I cleared the path for myself. “People are gathering at Jen Shinnan’s house, they’re angry, they’re talking about murder, and getting justice.” (p114)
I can’t read that “trouble in the upper city!” without thinking of Star Trek: aliens in elaborate robes sweeping into the citadel, nameless Redshirts running down the central companionway of a juddering Enterprise like so many headless chickens. Instead of being shown how it feels to live as a citizen - or a slave - of this overbearing and oppressive culture through the eyes and ears and minds of actual people, we are told in lengthy expositional dialogues between military types what is going on and why that might be.
One only has to ask oneself how a writer might more effectively capture the atmosphere of the 2011 Tottenham riots - through the voice of one disadvantaged teenager caught up in the looting of Primark, or through a lecturer in sociology at LSE droning on about capitalism’s last stand - to catch a glimpse of what the problems are here.
Much has already been written about Ancillary Justice’s treatment of gender, expressed primarily through Brecq’s habitual default to the personal pronoun ‘she’, as opposed to our own long-accustomed and unthinkingly patriarchal ‘he’. Brecq informs us that for the Radchai questions of gender as such do not exist, and so we as readers are left to work out a character’s gender from the reactions and speech of other, often non-Radchai characters. It sounds gimmicky in being explained but in practice it feels natural and hugely refreshing - and one of the more successful aspects of the novel.
I’m less convinced by Leckie’s treatment of AI, mainly, I suspect, because I couldn’t keep from comparing her Justice of Toren with M. John Harrison’s White Cat in his 2002 novel Light. In Ancillary Justice we have ships staffed by ancillaries, standard-issue “corpse soldiers” created in a manner that might roughly approximate with how humans are turned into Cybermen in Doctor Who. In his creation of the K-ships in Light, Harrison employs a similar kind of Frankenstein science, but instead of a perfunctory variant on the overused Nazis-in-space trope, he presents us with a subtle and heartbreaking meditation on the nature of consciousness and physical being. In K-Captain Seria Mau Genlicher, we see a real person with real problems and choices to make, life-altering decisions that she cannot now go back on. Much like the rest of us, she has to make the best of things as they now stand:
You are conscious all the way through this process, except for the brief moment when they introduce you to the K-code itself. Many recruits, even now, don’t make it past that point. If you do, they seal you in the tank. By then they have broken most of your bones, and taken some of your organs out: you are blind and deaf, and all you are aware of is a kind of nauseous surf rolling through you forever. They have cut into your neocortex so that it will accept the software bridge known ironically as ‘the Einstein Cross’ from the shape you see the first time you use it. You are no longer alone. You will soon be able to consciously process billions of billions of bits per second, but you will never walk again. You will never laugh or touch someone or be touched, fuck or be fucked. You will never do anything for yourself again. You will never even shit for yourself again. You have signed up. It comes to you for an instant that you were able to choose this, but that you will never, ever ever be able to unchoose it. (Light, p259)
Harrison’s mode of SF is diametrically opposed to Leckie’s, of course, and Light is less a science fiction novel than it is an ironical commentary on a genre that is often as inflexible in its assumptions as its harshest literary critics claim. Harrison’s understanding and deployment of SF tropes is virtuosic, hallucinatory, but the sense of wonder one experiences in reading Light is never not tinged by one’s awareness of the author’s ironic detachment from - and literary rejection of - the pompous and stylistically cack-handed “big-ideas” SF so beloved in the genre heartlands. I personally stand with Paul Kincaid in considering M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy to be the most significant work of science fiction to have appeared so far this century, yet I know there are those who consider Harrison’s novels to be a cheat in science fictional terms, an abnegation of SF’s mission statement.
Leckie, on the other hand, embraces the mission statement fully. Ancillary Justice gives us teeming galaxies, evil empires, a version of warp drive, and all without a hint of irony as the commonly accepted imagery of the particular version of SF that ranges itself against the mainstream as “a literature of ideas”.
When examined up close, however, the ideas contained in Ancillary Justice seem disappointingly simple: empires are evil, class systems are oppressive, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ancillary Justice is an SF novel of the old school: tireless in its recapitulation of genre norms and more or less impenetrable to outsiders.
The novel I happened to read immediately after Ancillary Justice was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. Both novels are debuts, both are the first instalment in a trilogy. Both deal with far future empires, both have war as a central leitmotif, both have important things to say about society, faith and gender. At a surface level at least it would appear that these two books have much in common, but in fact, I would argue, they are different beasts entirely.
Also on the blog: Adam Roberts ponders the curious religious tract that is Ender’s Game and Philosophy