Breq is what remains of the spaceship Justice of Toren‘s Artificial Intelligence – an ancillary, a fragment of the AI in a human body. Justice of Toren was one of many warships that were used in the conquest of all of the human plantes to bring the into the Radch empire. Now Breq, haunted by memories of her last Lieutenant and the entire ship, is alone on a remote, icy planet where she stumbles upon Seivarden, former Captain, who was lost for a thousand years. Seivarden is on the brink of death and Breq can’t bring herself to leave him, even if it might hamper her plans. Because Breq definitely has a plan.
Ancillary Justice is such a good read, building from a great concept to draw you into its complex world and then just not letting you go. It’s not the easiest of SciFi, but it’s more than just worth it.
There was a lot going on here, so it took me a little to get into the groove of things. First, the concept of the Ancillaries was incredibly interesting to me. Not only, because it’s AI in human bodies, but it’s, I think, the first AI I read about that actually feels emotion and it’s not a bug, but a feature. That acknowledgment that emotions are not only pleasing additions or annoying inevitabilties of human nature that keep humans from achieving absolute rationality, but that they actually serve a purpose – that was incredibly rewarding as a concept.
That she uses that idea to explore what identity is and the question of how cohesive one’s identity needs to be or how fragmented it can be, takes the entire thing one step further and was also a fascinating thing to think about.
At least equally as rewarding was the fact that the Radchaai are a gender-neutral people (like really, not just a society were men and women can both do anything). That leads to Breq’s inability to tell genders apart and using she-pronouns for everybody (as the gender-neutral version). When she speaks in other languages that do have genders, she struggles with finding the appropriate terms for their genders. Even when she realizes that people – like Seivarden – are actually male, she continues to refer to them as she. And this had such a strong effect on me as a reader. Even when I knew that Seivarden was male, for example, I had to actively remind myself of that. It is one of the strongest examples for why we need gender-inclusive language (in German even more so than in English). And at the same time, it gave me a novel where really everybody is female unless otherwise specified, which is also fantastic.
But even apart from the conceptual things, the book has so much to offer. The plot and politics are engaging and well-paced. Oh, and the characters! Breq is a great character who I liked from the beginning and Seivarden is a great character who I learned to like as she grew and changed. I completely empathized with Breq’s feelings for Awn and Skaaiat – and I liked it.
As you can see, there’s a lot packaged into the novel, which makes it understandable that it’s sometimes a challenging read. But it’s not a novel you have to work for all the time – a lot of it is simply gripping and exciting. Even if it was, I’d say, it’s work worth doing. There really is much to love here.