Justice of Toren was a warship crewed by hundreds of “human” soldiers called ancillaries. While these people were all individuals at one point, once they became ancillaries to Justice of Toren, they learned to ignore their previous existences and became part of the ship’s artificial intelligence: their thoughts are her thoughts, their emotions are her emotions. And she does have emotions, because, as Justice of Toren eventually says herself, “Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions.”
So when all but one of Justice of Toren’s ancillaries is destroyed, and Justice of Toren along with them, the last remaining ancillary soldier, One Esk Nineteen, has nothing to do but attempt to carry out the last order it received from the artificial intelligence embedded in its brain: shoot the emperor.
Ancillary Justice, the first book in the Imperial Radch series (made up of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy), follows the journey leading to a “desperate, hopeless act of defiance” by a person who isn’t a person, seeking revenge that is so much more than revenge. One Esk Nineteen, also known as Breq of the Gerentate, is the shell of a person inhabited by the ghost of a supercomputer that was once the brain of a warship in the Imperial fleet.
Breq has a lot in common with other sci-fi protagonists: she is impossibly good at everything she does (except sing, but it’s hard for the reader to tell), she has a super-human brain, and she is cagey and mysterious around everyone she meets. Unlike those other similar sci-fi protagonists however, (cough * Paul Atreides) Breq still somehow manages to be relatable, sympathetic, and endlessly fascinating. If she were the entire story, these books would still have been enough to satisfy me. I have a theory that Breq is not the dynamic character in the books, but instead forces everyone around her to change, to become better versions of themselves, and to open their eyes to all injustice around them. Breq is basically my hero.
But there is more to the series that merely the one interesting character. For instance, there is a species of aliens called the Presger who had to breed translators in order to communicate with humans. These translators, who are first introduced in Ancillary Sword, add whimsical non-sequiturs while still maintaining an important position in the plot. At a pivotal moment in that second book, when all of the reader’s attention is anxiously focused on one of these translators, she says very earnestly, “Eggs are so inadequate, don’t you think? I mean, they ought to be able to become anything, but instead you always get a chicken. Or a duck. Or whatever they’re programmed to be. You never get anything interesting, like regret, or the middle of the night last week.”
All three books manage to ask big questions about power, identity, society, and our assumptions about The Other. With the thorough and compelling world-building of Frank Herbert and the feminism and social conscience of Margaret Atwood, Ann Leckie has created a masterpiece, not just of science fiction, but of the wider fiction genre. The Imperial Radch series is socially conscious without being stuffy. It is a mystery novel that truly challenges you to try to solve the puzzle before the end of each book. It is a space action thriller without any glaring flaws in the laws of physics. It is an intellectual powerhouse that pulls no punches, having confidence in the reader’s ability to keep up. It has elements of a love story so painful and beautiful that you almost forget it’s not a love story at all.
I picked up Ancillary Justice around Christmas and had finished it and its two sequels all in less than a month, which for me is amazing. Compare that to Isaac Asimov’s Robot Trilogy, which took me the better part of a full year. The only way I could recommend this book more highly to you is to come to your house and force it into your hands and watch you while you read it. I don’t think you want me to do that, so I suggest you pick it up without my coercion.