Ancillary Justice: I Am Beside Myself and Myself

Ancillary JusticeAncillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Published: October 1, 2013
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Paperback/eBook
Length: 410 pages

Ancillary Justice is science fiction crammed full to the brim with wild ideas. The main character, Breq, is an “ancillary soldier” cut off from her ship for almost twenty years, but she isn’t exactly human, at least not by the standards of her society, the Radch. The Radch, it seems, were aggressive about expansion over thousands of years. As part of that expansion they captured entire civilizations and turned the leftover bodies into these ancillaries – soldiers that shared a mind with their ships, that were effectively as much a part of their ships as any piece of the hull. Corpse soldiers, to quote a slang term.

Breq, who comes from a ship called the Justice of Toren, has spent the past twenty years tirelessly working towards revenge against Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, who shares one similarity with Breq and other ancillaries: she has thousands of bodies under her control. This, naturally, complicates Breq’s plan for revenge. In the current day scenes, Breq searches for an artifact that will help her carry out her plans while also caring for a petulant drug-addicted former solider who once served on her ship. These alternate with flashbacks to Breq’s time spent as an ancillary soldier on the last planet annexed by the Radch.

Leckie does a great job of slowly revealing more and more about Breq’s past and the nature of the tragedy that befell her ship. She also takes fairly simple building blocks and turns them into fascinating philosophical mind-benders. What, after all, does it mean for Breq’s I to mean the ship Justice of Toren but also all the hundreds of ancillary soldiers in her hold? The narrative is simultaneously first-person and omniscient, jumping from place to place as the ship’s many perspectives build to a greater whole.

Leckie also sets up the Radch society as one that does not distinguish between the genders when speaking. In practice, this means that everyone in the book is “she” regardless of gender. Further complicating matters for Breq is the fact that she has a hard time distinguishing gender traits when in other societies, and tends to use incorrectly gendered pronouns. At first I found this a bit confusing, but once I got used to it, I found myself not really worrying about the gender of characters. Leckie drops hints here and there as to the actual gender of certain characters, but in practice it doesn’t actually matter.

The scope of Ancillary Justice feels simultaneously personal and global; Breq’s actions are deeply rooted in events from her past, but the result of her fight against the Lord of the Radch could have far-reaching repercussions. The world-building is pitch-perfect, and never feels heavy-handed or overwhelming. As soon as I finished this book, I checked to see if Leckie has any plans to continue writing in this world, and she does – apparently this is the first book in a loose trilogy. That said, it feels like Breq’s quest is contained; the end does set up possible future stories, but I couldn’t begin to guess where else Leckie might take the world of the Radch. However, I find that exciting.

I think my favorite part of this book was the way that Leckie took so many truly alien elements and made them feel natural and believable. The characters are human, but a type of human thousands of years removed from our society, and changed in many strange ways. We don’t ever meet any non-human characters, but they lurk just at the edge of the story, menacing and dangerous.

I can’t wait for the next book in this series, and I’ll definitely be checking out Leckie’s short stories as soon as possible.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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The Many-Headed Hydra: John Scalzi’s The Human Division

The Human DivisionPublished: January – April, 2013
Publisher: Tor
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: Various

The Human Division is many things at once; it is, of course, a new story in the Old Man’s War universe, but it’s also an experiment in digital distribution. It feels a bit like the modern equivalent of a fix-up novel, but also vaguely resembles the first season of a TV show. It’s a business model as old as Charles Dickens (older, perhaps), but it’s also uniquely well-suited to the world of ebooks. It’s an excellent addition to Scalzi’s most well-known fictional setting even though it’s not my favorite in that world or my favorite Scalzi book (Redshirts is a hard act to follow).

In very broad outlines, The Human Division tells the story of Lieutenant Harry Wilson, his friend Hart Schmidt and the missions of the Clarke as its crew and diplomatic corps work to heal the rift between Earth and the Colonial Union. However, instead of adding up to parts of a unified whole, the episodes unfold more like standalone adventures in a television show that disregards traditional broadcast storytelling structures. Unlike a TV show, the episodes generally have one storyline (no subplots here), and Scalzi occasionally focuses entire episodes on characters seemingly unconnected to the main plot.

The Human Division also has episodes that – while they certainly contribute to the overall whole – could be lifted out of the story wholesale to stand entirely on their own… and I don’t just mean the ones that focus on other characters. Episode 7, The Dog King, is a humorous aside about an unfortunate incident with a diplomat’s pet dog that feels like a complete story in and of itself. It’s followed by my favorite episode of the series, The Sound of Rebellion, which focuses on one-time characters but also feels like something you could read and enjoy without much prior knowledge.

I do think that if you go into this series expecting it to end up shaped like a novel, you’ll probably be disappointed. Apparently the final episode has garnered a number of one-star reviews, and I’m not surprised because it honestly doesn’t provide much in the way of closure. It doesn’t have a cliffhanger ending, but it plays more like the season finale for a show that expects to let its major conflict play out over more than one season. That’s why I’m glad I listened to it knowing that a second “season” would be forthcoming. I wouldn’t have been upset, mind you, but it does help to set expectations accordingly.

Overall I liked the series, but I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t have the emotional punch of Redshirts or Fuzzy Nation. However, from what I can remember, that’s also generally true about the earlier Old Man’s War books, so perhaps your mileage may vary. I did feel like the character development was a bit limited throughout, but Scalzi compensates by keeping most of the episodes plot-driven and full of action. In any case, I’m glad he’ll be continuing this story with another “season” of episodes, because I’d like to find out what happens next.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Published: October 28, 2010
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Audiobook
Length: 20:28

Surface Detail is the ninth book in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, and the third I’ve read. As soon as I read the summary, I couldn’t wait to pick it up. Fortunately, the Culture books are generally standalone stories, so it was easy to skip ahead.

The book has a good half-dozen plot threads that run concurrently, all somehow touching on the effects of technologies that have made it possible to back up a person’s “mind-state”, essentially a digital recording of their soul. Once a mind-state is backed up, it can be “re-vented” into a new body, or consigned to a virtual afterlife, some of which are decidedly unpleasany. Naturally the disposition of digital souls has huge social, political, and religious implications. The issue of virtual hells is a controversial one, and a war has broken out in the galaxy between The Culture (among others) and societies who believe it is their right to send the digital dead to eternal damnation.

The main thread of the book focuses on Lededje Y’breq, a young woman who is an indentured servant of the most powerful man in her society, Joiler Veppers. She is more than just a slave, however; her society has a form of indenture that involves a full-body tattoo genetically etched onto every cell in her body. She is an “intagliate”, and is marked with both an exotic beauty and an ever-present reminder of her status as chattel.

When Lededje tries to run away from Veppers, he hunts her down and stabs her to death in a sudden rage. However, what neither Lededje or Veppers realize is that The Culture has taken an interest in her plight. After she is murdered, she awakens on a Culture ship light-years away and discovers that all of her memories are intact, along with a pressing need for revenge. Events in the book are set into motion when she begins the journey back to her home world to exact that revenge.

Some of the story takes place in the real world, some in virtual worlds simulating an endless war, and some in the virtual hell run by an alien society. The story jumps wildly from place to place and character to character. We are introduced to so many fascinating people and exotic places over the course of the book, it is sometimes hard to keep track of everything as it flies by. The book is basically impossible to summarize succinctly, and must be read to truly be experienced. The plot is twisty and full of misdirection, but rewards a patient and attentive reader.

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of Surface Detail, which is narrated by Peter Kenny, and I would highly recommend experiencing the book that way. Kenny does a fantastic job of giving each character a unique voice and temperament, and that made it a lot easier to keep the huge cast straight in my mind. Also, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book was only made possible by his narration. Near the end of the book, a normally sedate alien – who Kenny gives a cutesy high-pitched voice – starts becoming seriously pissed off when his plans start falling apart. The alien becomes so foul-mouthed and sarcastic that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I was pleased to find out that Kenny does the narration for all of Banks’ novels on Audible, so I’ll definitely be picking up another one sometime soon.

I think my only criticism of the book is that the ending falls a little flat. Although all of the disparate threads do end up connecting in some fashion, it still seems like an awful lot of fuss for something that feels a bit anticlimactic. However, I enjoyed the ride up until that point so very much that I wouldn’t necessarily discount the resolution for not quite adding up.

Surface Detail is a hell of a book. It manages to discuss incredibly complex moral and philosophical issues in an engaging and entertaining way, all while throwing in a bit of action, terror, and humor for seasoning. It’s another fine slice of Banks’ particular brand of space opera, and if you’ve enjoyed previous Culture books, I think you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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P.S. If you’ve never read a Culture book, the Kindle version of the first book in the series, Consider Phlebas, is 99 cents for the month of April!