book club, review

Book Club #4 – Ancillary Justice

This month we read Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, a space opera about Breq, the last survivor of Justice of Toren, a starship serving the Radch.

The book is the story of how Breq was betrayed and her starship destroyed in an act of treachery, and of her search for revenge. Ancillary Justice is the fourth book in our book club.

Spoilers ahead.

The story begins by introducing us to Breq. We don’t know anything about this person, only that it’s just Breq, alone. From how other characters address her (a bit disrespectfully, actually) at some point at the beginning of the book, we may understand she’s a woman (although I’m not entirely sure). She bumps into Seirvaden, who is unconscious on the snow. It seems they both know each other, but we still don’t know how or why. Breq decides to help Seirvaden, who we know is a man.

An interesting point of this book is the fact that the main civilization to which Breq belongs, the Radch, doesn’t make any distinction between genders. They don’t have words to address males or females differently, which makes it difficult for the reader to know the gender of the characters. Leckie works around this by using always the pronoun she whenever Radchaai speak. I’ve read online that some people found this extremely disturbing, to the point of closing the book and not reading it at all. That might be a discussion for another time. Personally, it didn’t tamper with the storyline at all, it just kept me guessing and, to this point, when writing this post, is making me have to re-read it to make sure I’m not constantly changing the pronouns from he to she for one character. The most interesting part was that I could really imagine relationships between any characters, regardless of their sexual orientation, since I wasn’t sure either way. Radchaai (citizens, not only of the Radch empire, but also as a synonym) also have trouble using the right pronouns when addressing non Radchaai people, often making mistakes.

The book was a bit confusing at first. We learn that Breq is really One Esk, of the starship Justice of Toren, and that something happened to the ship that resulted in her being the only survivor. Justice of Toren is governed by artificial intelligence, although Justice of Toren is the AI itself. The starship functions as well by ways of ancillaries, human bodies stored to be used as vessels for the ship’s consciousness. These ancillaries are interlinked by their AI, making them really just one being. This bit was a slightly difficult for me to wrap my head around.

I’ve watched Battlestar Galactica in the past, which means the idea of downloading someone into a body is not completely strange to me. However, in BSG, once each Cylon has been cloned, it becomes a being on its own, meaning, their memories from that point onward will be different from those of another Cylon. It is only when they are resurrected and downloaded into another body that their memories can be shared with the main database, for lack of a better word.

In Ancillary Justice, it’s different. The only way I can think of it is as if I was sitting in front of many screens showing CCTV cameras, carried by my soldiers. These soldiers would act individually from each other, but on my command. So one could be having a conversation with you, while another could be cooking, and another guarding a door, all three having a mental conversation with me, sitting at my desk and seeing everything each of them see and, therefore, being able to know every situation from every different angle. A bit like tapping your head with your right hand and circling your left hand over your stomach, if you like.

At certain moments during the story, this link is severed for specific reasons (like you’ve seen in any films when they jam communications devices so they can be all shady without anyone seeing them) and each ancillary needs to make decisions based on the limited information presented in front of them, without the aid of the mainframe, Justice of Toren, providing the whole picture.

Radchaai have been expanding and colonising for many years, doing what they call annexations. They arrive at different planets and systems, invade, kill whoever opposes them, and then gives citizenship to all inhabitants. Once you become a citizen, you’re protected and provided for.

The Radch is ruled by Anaander Mianaai, who so far we don’t know if she is human (she, here, used as Ann Leckie uses it in the book, since we don’t know Mianaai’s gender). What we know is that Mianaai has managed to link her consciousness into many different bodies, to be able to rule the whole empire with quite an iron fist, and no opposition. It’s not that Anaander Mianaai is a dictator, but pretty much her word is gospel, no matter what.

There are a few storylines in this book that captivated me. On one hand, we have One Esk, and her story when she was still part of Justice of Toren. We learn they’re at Shis’urna, in the middle of an annexation (the last one?), in the city of Ors. Things start getting (more) interesting when some Ors citizens from the lower districts bring hidden weapons they found to the attention of Lieutenant Awn, One Esk’s superior (and favourite commander). It turns out it was a set up from the upper class citizens to start an uprising that would end up in the deaths of everyone in the lower classes. This plot uncovers a major storyline, that of Anaander Mianaai, which results in Breq’s current story.

Anaander Mianaai’s consciousness has been split into two different factions (that we know of). After the massacre of Garsedd, in which because of a few, its whole population was killed, part of Anaander Mianaai was horrified at the brutality of the act, and decided it was time to stop. On previous trips to Justice of Toren, she managed to tamper with the ship’s consciousness and systems, hiding it from the AI, and keeping it secret from her other self. It seems Mianaai is fighting a secret battle against herself. We discover this on her second known visit to Justice, where the AI realises something has been previously done to tamper with different systems and access permissions.

It seems Anaander Mianaai’s purpose is to destroy the heat shield of Justice of Toren, which possesses an incredible destruction power. One the core is breached, the ship will explode, killing everyone inside, atom bomb style.

One Esk manages to escape through a gate (some sort of portal), putting enough distance between herself and the main ship and therefore, avoiding the explosion. Once alone, One Esk needs to adapt to a world where she can only see a part of it – just what’s in front of her eyes. She adopts the name of Breq to pass as a human.

On another hand, Seirvaden’s ship had been destroyed a thousand years ago. He managed to escape in a pod, being frozen for all that time. When he was found, everything was quite a shock for him, and he decided to run away (and became an addict as well). When Breq finds him, Seirvaden has hit rock bottom and can only think about his next fix. Through the book, Seirvaden cleans up and becomes attached to Breq, mainly due to the many times she has saved his life in different ways, from caring for him when he was at his lowest, to actually saving him from a fall to death. As a recovering addict, it’s not unlikely he might have develop an actual need for Breq, as a substitute to drugs. I don’t know, but it seems plausible. Or maybe he has fallen in love or something.

The whole book presents us with many good thinking points.

On one hand, we have this futuristic society, in which genders are not considered and everyone is equal, in concept. Their differences come from ranks, and from their professions and class. They pass these tests called aptitudes which classifies them for different jobs (a bit like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, I guess). There’s a strong suspicion the aptitudes have been tampered with, at first to give an advantage to the richer families (houses), and later to try to balance it out and give more advantage to the poorest citizens.

Radchaai have no issues killing those who dissent with their rules and culture. Whenever an annexation is undergoing, they will set an example by killing prominent people who might not agree with the system. Once you become a citizen, or Radchaai (both words meaning the same), you will enjoy the same rights as any other citizen, you will be protected by the government, and you will be expected to follow the rules. The Radch is also a very forgiving society, very tolerant. They incorporate new gods into their existing mythology, or find parallelisms, so everyone will feel part of the same society.

However, the Radch makes ancillaries, human bodies who are essentially dead (Breq insists they’re not dead), stored for years in order to become vessels for different ships’ consciousness and AIs. This, to non-citizens seems brutal (and even to some Radchaai), but is seen as a necessity in order to achieve peaceful annexations.

This brings a few ethical questions into the story – harvesting humans to host AIs for an alleged greater good. Two different scenarios are presented here. We are told about Ime, which was a station in which aliens from the Presger were hidden (I believe those at Ime knew). I can’t remember the details correctly right now, but the main point is that the troops at Ime were told to kill the aliens and move on, and they, being humans, refused, considering it a barbaric act. Of course, they were killed for their insubordination. Lieutenant Awn has a conversation in which she says faced with the same choice, she would have probably killed them. Her reasoning being that if she refused, she would be killed and someone else would carry out the orders anyway.

If you’re going to do something that crazy, save it for when it’ll make a difference, Lieutenant Skaait had said, and I had agreed. I still agree. by Ann Leckie

On another hand, we have the situation at Ors. Once it has been discovered that the upper class were planning to have the lower class kill by planting weapons in a certain area, they are all locked in the temple and Anaander Mianaai orders Lieutenant Awn to kill them all. Contrary to what she thought, she actually refuses (she’s human, after all). Mianaai then, orders One Esk who is essentially a computer (in the widest terms, used here as opposed to being human) to kill Awn. Even thought One Esk feels some sort of love for Lieutenant Awn, she doesn’t hesitate much. She has received orders and she executes them. However, as soon as Awn has been shot, she turns her weapon on Mianaai, killing one of her bodies. I believe it’s at that moment when One Esk started becoming less One Esk/Justice of Toren and more Breq (although in the book, it’s mentioned that maybe the fact that One Esk liked singing could be seen as the beginning of the split).

This brings the question about using computers and robots for jobs that only a human can understand. In I, Robot (the film, I haven’t read the book), Will Smith explains how when faced with the choice between saving a kid or an adult from drowning, a robot made calculations and based on chances of survival, decided to save the adult, when essentially a human would have tried to save a child first. Nowadays, we fight many wars far from the field and by sending drones with a set of coordinates. I imagine (or want to imagine, hope, maybe) that there’s someone at the other end of the camera, making decisions and that it’s not all automated, because the idea of sending a machine to fight blindly terrifies me, something that can’t take emotional decisions, that can’t not follow orders.

Of course, if history has taught us something, is that many humans have done atrocities under the shield of “I was following orders”, and many different armies have systems in place to avoid insubordination. At the end of the day, there is always a choice to make, something machines might not have.

You are free to choose, but you are not free from the consequences of that choice. Different authors.

In the book, ancillaries seem to be capable of making real decisions, and at some point, Anaander Mianaai says that ancillaries needed to be modified so they had some emotions, so they could even choose a favourite commander, or otherwise it wouldn’t work.

Breq is then, ancillary, but the whole book is based on her desire for vengeance, which is a pretty human emotion. She spends 20 years planning how to kill Anaander Mianaai, with a Garseddai gun, one that can penetrate even armour. By the end of the book, during a conversation with Seirvaden after Breq wakes up in a hospital, Skaait (I believe it was her) says that nobody in that place would actually consider Breq an ancillary. The question here is where is the line between machine and human? When does a machine become human?

When Breq was One Esk/Justice of Toren, she was a portion of a bigger consciousness, she was governed by the main system and she wasn’t an individual. However, once she was alone and there was no mothership to report to, it was just Breq, making her own decisions, judging every situation with whichever information she could find on her own (like any human, only maybe with a much vast knowledge, due to her previous database of information), and weighing every consequence to the best of her knowledge and aptitude. She saved Seirvaden from dying in the snow, she took him in and cared for him, even when she didn’t even know why and told herself she was just letting him tag along and didn’t care what happened to him. She was annoyed by Seirvaden, and worried about him.

When Breq thought Seirvaden had sold their flyer to get a fix, Breq was not only angry, but also hurt, so she decided to leave him. After, they found themselves on the bridge, where Seirvaden ends up hanging for his life and Breq jumps to save him, without much thinking. Of course, she thought Seirvaden still had his armour to protect them both, but essentially, she risked her life to save his, when she could have simply walked away and leave him behind. Time and time again, Breq acts compassionate, and cares for others. The fact that she still mourns Lieutenant Awn’s death (another strong human emotion) and hurts for her own part in her death also shows the depth of the emotions she feels. Whenever she uses correctives to heal, she feels pain and aches, so she’s not just a machine. Once she became an individual in a human body with a conscience and with emotions, didn’t she become human at least to some extent?

The book is only the first instalment of a trilogy, and I think I will be reading the rest. It’s filled with good plots and a great story arch. The mythology and the society Ann Leckie created is impressive, and I really want to learn more about the Radch and the Presger, and finally discover the secret to Anaander Mianaai’s multiple bodies, and how she managed to hide her actions from herself for such a long time.

Have you read Ancillary Justice? What did you think?

Of course, there’s more to discuss about this book, this is just the surface, but I think it’s a good start. If you read it and it made you think further, I would like to read your views on the book!

The next book in our book club is Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder, a book that tells the story of Sophie Amundsen, who one day receives a package and some postcards addressed to Hilde Møller Knag. She meets Alberto Knox, who teaches her philosophy and together, the not only try to solve the mystery of the package and who Hilde is, but also try to defeat the cunning and omnipotent Albert Knag.

I read this book when I was studying, back in Madrid, and I remember I really liked it. Someone suggested it for our company book club, and I thought it would be a great idea. Grab your copy now and let’s review it on the first week of March!