Space opera, military scifi, and feminist literature all in one Hugo, Nebula, British Science Fiction, Locus and Arthur C Clarke winner. Because of it’s immediate success and use of only female gender pronouns, I was skeptical Ancillary Justice was being recognized primarily for it’s feminist presence in a still male-dominated genre. But the pronouns turned out to be a stylistic choice interspersed within a much bigger conceptually ambitious story.
First, the protagonist is a ship! Rather, she’s an artificial intelligence who is the ship Justice of Toren and her thousands of ancillary soldiers, all at once. Or, at least, she was. We first meet Breq, or Justice of Toren’s ancillary One Esk, long after an act of treachery has destroyed her, leaving our protagonist as an individual AI in a human body, who has been plotting her vengeance for decades. And that’s just the set up.
I’m reminded of a fantastic episode of ST TNG when a single Borg drone is recovered, brought aboard the Enterprise, and forced to learn what it means to be an individual without his collective. It’s wonderfully tragic, and one of the first times we felt empathy for a Borg.
But back to the book at hand. Be prepared. It’s confusing at first. The gender pronouns mean you’re not sure who is male or female. There’s also a lot of politics and culture you have to absorb before you really know what going’s on. And alternating chapters mean you’re following two separate storylines. But it’s nice not to be info-dumped-on at the start. It’s a slow burn, but such a fantastic read! I thought about it for quite a while afterwards, pondering on AI consciousness and the arc of the the individual man, woman, or computer.
Ancillary Justice is a smart challenging book with a surprisingly simple and effective plot. Recommended for serious scifi fans who don’t mind a space opera with limited action, a military scifi without spaceship battles, or a feminist novel without gender exploration.
“Ships have feelings.”