Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It was a long time since I read a science fiction book this good. It’s a four and a half, borderline five star book easily. And what kicks it that high is good story telling, compelling ideas, a richly crafted universe and an intriguing main character.
By now you will have read the book jacket and realize that the main character in the book is an AI. The book maintains one of the best discussions on and around AI I’ve read for a while. There are several things to consider here: self awareness, free will and responsibility, and even love.
There is a phenomenon in science fiction AI discussions that I usually think of as “the Borg syndrome”, from the Borgs of Star Trek fame. If you have a hive mind, it is implicit, and mostly unchallenged, taken for granted that individuals in the larger organism must be exactly uniform, that you must give up every bit of self in order to participate. Which I’ve always been a bit suspicious about: why on earth would that be a good idea? The classic example of which is that if you “cut the connection” between a member of a hive mind and the rest of the mind, that individual, bereft of its access to the community of the larger intelligence, will stop functioning or go mad. Which, I must say, doesn’t look like a good design choice.
Breq in this story is the single surviving member of a huge distributed intelligence with thousands of bodies. And lo and behold: when communication is shut down, each separate individual in the larger organism can still function. Good. They are still largely uniform, but that’s by design: they’re created to be extensions of a single central AI and not fully fledged members of a hive. As such they are only representatives of a central authority. But the author goes a bit further and indicates that even so, there can be differences, perhaps not on an individual level, but perhaps on group level: the AI personality is not completely uniform and one of the central characteristics of the group within the AI, in which Breq belonged when she was whole, was it’s interest in music and tendency to sing for itself while working.
Of course, if you’re a multi-bodied AI you can sing choral music all by yourself. Nice touch there!
All of the above is just to point out one aspect I liked with this story. Another was the authors decision to have the Radch empire be largely gender neutral. In Sweden you can use the word “hen” instead of an explicit “he” or “she” when you want to avoid assigning gender, but there’s no such word in English and the author opted for “she” for all characters. To me it worked well, and I was intrigued to find out how much I as a reader actually cared about the missing gender: it really seemed to bother me that I couldn’t figure out immediately if a particular character was male or female.
So a rather complex story then? Yes, especially when the author must juggle not only gender neutrality, but also multiple timelines, multiple view-points for a single character (remember: multi-bodied AI), and a richly detailed foreign society. But Leckie pulls this off very well. There are only small places when you find it halting a bit, on the whole it is extremely well told.
At little more than half-ways the multiple time-lines are done and the story picks up pace toward the end. And unfortunately it does end and we’re left waiting eagerly for the next book in what is promised to be a trilogy. Excellent!
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