Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice is a magnificent dollop of science fiction. It is ɛ-close to the Platonic ideal of a space opera --- I have zero complaints, but I reserve the final ɛ of my opinion for the piece of entertainment (perhaps Infinite Jest V?) so engaging that it induces willing dehydration and starvation.

You should read it.

The novel achieves magnificent things on many axes, simultaneously (and impressively).

On the surface, it is an easy read, quick and engaging, emotional and intellectual in good proportion. The structure of the universe also lets the reader tweak the experience; the story is so rich with details that it is possible to be entirely absorbed in wondering about the emotional states of sentient spaceships (HT to Iain M. Banks, whose sentient spaceships are similarly clever, funny, inhuman but interested in and interesting to humanity, and surely influenced this book). The more technical daydreamers can wonder about the AI technology, the biological interfaces with ancillaries, the Stargate-style gates in space, the scientific abilities of the just-offstage aliens waiting in the wings.

The meat of the story has a fascinating POV character. Other narrators who I find similarly engaging are all unreliable; this one is reliable, and even fallible, but the narrative line between being one character and an amalgam of several bodies, with knowledge of other characters' biological states but not direct access to their thoughts, is fascinatingly navigated. Ann Leckie performs masterfully, and like all masters, the performance seems effortless. The imbricated timelines of different branches of the story are handled superbly, with coordinated unfurling of recounted history and current action building in synchrony up to the book's climax. All with a light, intelligent touch.

As a literary work, too, the novel has merit. It raises questions of identity, personal intention and actions, and fate. Religion is an available theme, if you're interested. So is the question of empire-building, and utilitarianism: is some barbarism permitted, in the interests of uniting everyone under a single overarching government of fairness and justice? (Reminiscent of the philosophical point made by the beautiful action movie Hero, or the histories of China and Rome.)

One of the nice takeaways (for me) from the novel was a similar tone and subtle message: do good work. This is a lot like Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish and Earthsea novels: no matter the character's personal scope of power or influence, it is possible to better the universe by exerting that small influence in a responsible manner. For the greater good. Just do what you can, with the power you have, whether you are an omnipotent, all-skills-endowed superprotagonist (my pet peeve), or an unempowered, unevenly-systematically oppressed, unimportant body on the slush-pile of history. A secret and heartwarming message that, with enough decent people performing good (not necessarily coordinated) works for justice and kindness (and dignity and propriety), these small pieces can aggregate to form an overall society with a generous spirit and positive outcome.

Anyway, read this book. It is a gratifying experience on every level.

This post's theme word is helot, "a serf or slave." There are citizens, non-citizens, aliens, and ancillaries; no one is a helot, although ancillaries' movements and thoughts are subordinated to a centralized AI brain.

No comments: