ancillaries [book review]


“A Radchaai would have tossed that coin. Or, more accurately, a handful of them, a dozen disks, each with its meaning and import, the pattern of their fall a map of the universe.”

How good must a novel be to win five major awards the same year?! Among which the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards. Pretty good, I would bet, and this is clearly the case with Ann Lecke’s Ancillary Justice. Which I picked in Oxford two weeks ago mostly because of this tag. And of an unusual cover. And even because it involved the word ancillary. Actually the cover looks less unusual and artsy when put together with the next two volumes, as shown above. An obviously deeper, more literary, and all inclusive review of the whole trilogy can be found in Slate, but I have only completed the first volume. (I realised only when writing this post that some controversy comes with the Hugo Award given to this very book, raised by some conservative or worse sci’ fi’ writers, who complained that it was selected for political rather than literary reasons. Read the book before reading the arguments, and they then just fall apart as grossly political!)

“Information is security. Plans made with imperfect information are fatally flawed, will fail or succeed on the toss of a coin. “

At a first come first serve level, the story is a traditional space opera where a galactic empire methodically conquers new planets and turn the lucky survivors into new citizens, while the others are turned into brainless warriors controlled by an AI that doubles as a spaceship. The major ship in this story is called Justice of Toren and the soldiers are called ancillaries. All this very connected to the history of the Roman empire. Although this approach has presumably been tried in many other sci’fi’ novels, this feature means that the ancillaries are aware of all other connected to the AI, while retaining some degree of autonomy. And it brings very interesting interrogations on the nature of self in such a hive civilisation. Interrogations that quickly get unexpected answers [warning!, spoilers ahoy!] since one of those auxiliaries, Breq, develops an independent line of thought and eventually reaches complete libre-arbitre. While keeping his or her elite soldier abilities, which turns him or her into a ruthless avenger. I write him or her because the novel and this auxiliary are constantly unclear about the sex of the other characters, which seems to have become such a private matter that it cannot be directly mentioned in the conversation… A fairly interesting concept, once you get around this missing degree of freedom in interpreting the relations between the characters. The empire is of course governed by an emperor, called Anaander Mianaai, which has a massive schizophrenic issue in that by creating many copies of himself or herself over thousands of years, they have drifted in their personalities and now partly escape the control of the associated AI… The final chapters of the first novel see Breq fighting and killing several of those copies. (There are spaceoperaous moments in the novel, which even matter in the grand plot, but they are dealt with very lightly so that the psychological bits are the true flotsam of the novel. I am most obviously looking forward the second volume [procured thanks to ‘Og readers’ links to amazon associate!].)

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