First-time novelist Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice is a tale of war crimes whose astropolitical scope is stunning. It's a military thriller, a mystery, and a very complicated love story about sentient starships and hive minds in an alien civilization that looks a lot like something out of Earth's history.
What's immediately impressive about Ancillary Justice is that Leckie is introducing us to two incredibly alien worlds at once: that of her main character, and that of the civilization this character inhabits. The story is told in a kind of hardboiled first person by Breq, a mysterious figure with ninja fighting powers who is on a remote, icy world looking for something — an object, but also a self. You see, Breq is a fragment of a hive mind, called an ancillary, that once ran a starship called Justice of Toren. What has happened to the ship? Where is the rest of Breq's collective consciousness? We don't know. But we do know that Breq is seriously pissed off. And she's out to destroy the supreme leader of the Radch Empire where she once served.
Not only does Breq see things from a strange perspective because she was once a starship, but she's also on a long journey which has taken her far from the culture where Justice of Toren served for two-thousand years. The Radch language and perspective keep tripping her up — for one thing, the word for "civilized" is the same as the word Radch. So whenever Breq encounters another civilization, she comes up against a kind of linguistic paradox in her own mind. No one can be civilized except the Radch, and yet there is evidence before her eyes of civilizations that are not Radch.
Even more confusing, at least for Breq, are the gender norms in these other civilizations. The Radch have sex, but no concept of gender whatsoever. Instead, they have rigid class hierarchies, organized around ever-shifting Houses that are halfway between royal families and corporations. Though you'd never be able to tell what sex a Radch person is by the way they dress or look, they each wear several pins and ribbons to show their House affiliation, and their social bonds. Radch are known by their place in the social hierarchy, and when it comes to pronouns everyone is "she" or "her" just for convenience.
So Breq's perspective is initially disorienting to the reader, partly because of her memories of being a plural being, and partly because the former starship calls everyone "she." Leckie does a terrific job introducing us to this alien perspective bit by bit, and exploring what it would mean to have a mind like Breq's. I've just skimmed the surface here; part of the mystery of the novel is what her mind is really like, and what different parts of her are capable of doing and remembering.
As I said initially, there are two layers of alienness here. Breq's perspective is one, but the other is the brilliantly-realized world of the Radch empire — both the 2,000 year history of it that Justice of Toren remembers, and its more recent troubles. The Empire is haunted by two horrific human rights crimes that have been covered up. One is something we only hear about in fragmented rumors, and the other is something that Justice of Toren witnessed.
Learning about these crimes allows us to plunge into the rewardingly complicated story of a ruthless empire that is trying to reform its savage ways. The Radch are much like the ancient Greeks of Alexander's era — they arrive on a world, engage in limited slaughter, and then make inroads with the local ruling elites to assimilate them into Radch society. Like the ancient Greeks, the Radch are polytheistic, and don't mind adding local gods to their pantheon. So any local religion and social hierarchy can be easily reshaped to be Radch — in the same way that many Middle Eastern civilizations were reshaped as Hellenistic in the 300s and 200s BCE.
But over the thousands of years of slaughter and oppression, many of the Houses of the Radch have started to see that military imperialism is morally flawed. They are slowly changing Radch practices, eliminating some of the most disturbing elements of their colonial system, and retiring warships like Justice of Toren along the way. On some worlds, they are actually trying to help oppressed minority groups gain a foothold in the upper levels of Radch society.
It's in the middle of one of these colonial occupations, on the planet Shis'urna, that Justice of Toren witnesses the war crime that sets Breq on her lonely quest. But it's a lot more than social justice that she seeks — it's also personal atonement for her role in the crime, and answers to questions that are as much emotional as they are political. The more we learn about the structure of Radch society, the closer we get to understanding who stood to gain from the atrocious crime on Shis'urna.
Perhaps one of the most difficult things a writer can do is to stage a mystery from an alien perspective in an alien world. But Leckie has pulled it off, and created a story that's both intellectually rewarding and full of a true sense of wonder. Yes, there are a few hiccups of infodumpery that become slightly repetitive toward the end of the novel, but in some sense we need them to understand the political and psychological weirdness at the heart of the story.
Ultimately, Leckie asks what it would be like if we could imagine social change as being an event that's parallel to what happens when somebody changes their mind after a long period of confusion and denial. And getting to the answer will have you reading the hell out of this book late into the night.
For people who love science fiction, there are also many little tips of the hat that are pleasing without being intrusive or fan servicey. Breq's division on Justice of Toren are fond of singing, which brings to mind Anne McCaffery's incredible novel of ship consciousness, The Ship Who Sang. And of course the Radch civilization's lack of gender roles is reminiscent of the civilization that Ursula Le Guin describes in The Left Hand of Darkness. But as I was reading, the one comparison I kept making in my mind was to Iain M. Banks, who always reminded us that politics (and people) are far more complicated than most space operas will allow.
It's very rare to find an author who can balance suspense and violence with subtlety and character development. But, like Banks once did, Leckie has done a marvelous job here. This is a novel that will thrill you like the page-turner it is, but stick with you for a long time afterward, infecting your perspective on the so-called familiar world around us that is a lot more alien than any of us give it credit for.
Ancillary Justice comes out tomorrow, October 1. Buy it now!
Annalee Newitz is the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.