Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

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I picked up this 2014 Nebula and Arthur C Clarke award winning sci-fi novel in my remaindered  bookshop in Totnes.  The other two volumes of the trilogy are available there too.  Will I bother with them?

Well the blurb is pretty compelling – Leckie is described as thrilling and an heir to Banks – but I never got on with his science fiction stuff anyway.  This is a pretty fast moving story about an artificial intelligence named Breq, gifted with a sentient body and a member of some sort of intergalactic empire.  We’re obviously treading familiar ground here.  At one time Breq was a starship and consisted of soldiers, guards and the ship itself, all run by one intelligence with multiple embodiments.  We get to see this side of Breq in a series of timeslip sequences in which the backstory is narrated.  At the same time, now down to only one body – the ancillary of the title – Breq finds him/herself isolated on a frozen planet, intent on returning to the heart of empire to carry out a final and necessary mission – to implement justice.

I enjoyed lots of elements in this story, and especially the early part in which we hear of how Breq’s ship became involved in a scene of carnage and slaughter that contradicted the strict code of morality at the heart of his / her program.  Elements of Isaac Asimov and the first law of robotics here.

Later Breq visits a distant planet in which the description and characterisation can only be described as banal and cliched – people with 6 or 8 limbs and it was a dearly held tenet of their society – this is only a brief plot interlude to get Breq back from the fringes of the galaxy, but it was a bit trite – I would have expected more – the writer did much better elsewhere.

The denouement involves some quite complicated sections in which Anaander Mianaai – the controlling intelligence of the whole empire – is discovered to be in conflict with itself: there are now two AMs, and Breq needs to escape from or destroy one whilst protecting the other.  I found the logic of all this internal conflict unclear, and the events that arose from it quite confusing – not knowing whether the soldiers encountered were from the good or the bad AM!

In that respect the ending of the novel was a little unsatisfactory.  Will I read the others? Well the jury’s out on that.  It depends on what else is on offer when I next go down to Totnes, I suppose it will be interesting to give the next volume a go – to see where Ann Leckie takes the story, but I think I’ll skim through it quite carefully first, just to check.

Check out other views below – a common thread is the focus on gender pronouns.  In this respect the novel is seen as impressive because it engages with gender politics and language ideas that are coming to the fore of science fiction conversation at the moment. If true, all I can say is that sci-fi is almost thirty years out of date in this respect.

Tor – Review re Nebula Award

Guardian – Comments on the Award of Arthur C Clarke Fiction Prize to this Novel

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