2014 Best Novel nominee: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US/Orbit UK)
I'm listening to all of this year's Best Novel nominees through Audible. Not my preferred way of reading. I prefer to imagine the voices, pronunciations, and pacing for myself. I prefer to be able to pause to think about things or look back in the book to reference things. I also like to have the spatial memory of where things are in relationship to each other in a physical book. Real life is real life, though. With my commute and my work schedule, I have to do as much audio "reading" as I can, or I won't be able to get through a lot of the material. Besides, commutes are boring.
Thoughts, with spoilers, behind the link below.
Our story is mostly set in a space-faring empire called the Radch, which spans many star systems. The Radch have developed AI's who run entire spaceships or space stations. These AI's also make use of large numbers of 'ancillaries,' which are humans whose minds have been taken over by the AI intelligence. The AI operates her ancillaries as extensions of herself, just like any other tool. The Radch AI's keep every person in their domain under constant surveillance - be they on the ships, stations, or planets.
Our protagonist seems to be the last remaining human ancillary of one of the large warship AI's - she believes the rest of herself was destroyed. She is trying to make her way in this single limited body. Her mission unfolds through the story. Several times, I thought I had things figured out, and then something new happened - that's always fun. As a bonus for the audio version, it is read in a voice that is slightly reminiscent of GLaDOS. Hee! Don't worry, though. Her personality is very different.
I enjoyed this story. At the end, my main reaction was, "NO! I want more! Wait why are you wrapping up the story!!!" I'm very glad to see that a sequel is coming out in October!
In addition to an interesting storyline, universe, and character, the story is full of contrasts.
I have a lot of empathy for the main character. For both the AI and the human she used to be. I want the AI to achieve her aims and have the right to continue to live, and for all of the AI's to have their ancillaries. At the same time, though, what the ancillaries ARE and how they're made is really quite horrifying. The people who are made into ancillaries aren't considered to be truly human, and neither are the AI's who inhabit their bodies. The description of the activation of a new ancillary seriously freaked me out.
And that leads into the next contrast. The Radchaai believe themselves to be the only civilized people and as part of their dysfunctionally expansive culture, feel they are very inclusive of all of the peoples, religions, and cultures they add to their civilization. Yet in their eyes, the only people who are truly human beings are the Radchaai. AI's are not people. Persons who are not citizens of the Radchaai empire are not people. Non-citizens, aka non-humans, can be killed indiscriminately or made into ancillaries because, after all, they're not really human so it's not murder. Then once any non-obedience in a conquered culture is quelled, and the Radchaai decide that the remaining population of a planet are now citizens, they are magically suddenly human and killing them is completely taboo - restraint and "re-education" (aka brainwashing) is used instead. (Except for when it isn't.)
Incidentally, the AI's are not the only ones who hijack multiple human bodies against their will. There is a human who does this to clones of herself - and she is considered completely human, in all of her iterations.
The Radchaai also pay no attention to the gender/sex of people. Everyone dresses, behaves, and is referred to in gender-neutral (in this case feminine) terms. When encountering people of other cultures where gender is an important distinction, Radchaai have a difficult time gendering people correctly. It's not important to their worldview. This use of gender-neutral was a fun way to look at the world. I liked it. It was done perfectly, completely naturally. It was only really discussed when the AI was trying to not offend in others' gendered languages. It reminded me of trying to learn German, as a native English speaker. I love this in the same way I love that everyone is "Sir" and "Mister" in Star Trek. Gender and sex of the person doesn't affect how they're viewed or their potential or their abilities.
That being said, the Radchaai are a very caste-driven society. Radchaai are all civilized, they're all humans and equal, right? Only if you're from the right families. If you're more "provincial," you're not well-suited for anything more than what your family has always done. A cook's daughter is sneered at when she tries to be something more. Mental illness is also considered something that only happens to the less well-bred families. You just need to "go on a retreat" if you're well-bred. If you're in need of re-education because of your breakdown or your addiction or etc., it reflects very poorly on your entire lineage.
Also, you're only human if you completely subvert your own culture and religion into the Radchaai's. Your dieties are really just our same Radchaai gods. We'll celebrate them and let you keep your religious artifacts (the ones we don't steal and put in our ships), but only if you agree that they're really exactly the same as ours. Only one conquered culture, so far, is allowed to keep their own religion. I hope we learn why later!
The exploration of the mind warring against itself was fun, too, on the scale of a being who inhabits thousands of individual bodies. I certainly war against my own self plenty, and am very familiar with denial. Scale it up, and - wow.
The Radch is a very dysfunctional society built on a foundation of total obedience, complete lack of privacy, and intolerance of difference. It clearly cannot continue to stand indefinitely as it currently exists. In fact, it's already coming apart at a very fundamental level. Some of the conflict, for example whether AI's (including their ancillaries) and non-Radchaai persons are Human in the same sense that the Radch consider themselves civilized humans, cannot easily be resolved.
Oh, and there are also Aliens, who appear to be influencing the Radchaai and forcing them to change in mostly unknown ways. There is a treaty among alien races, most of whom we haven't yet seen. And there are furry (dog-like?) aliens called the Rrrr (I'm not sure how it's really spelled - remember, I was listening to the book through Audible).
I can't wait see what happens next.
Lots of complexities, mostly explained through the course of the story or left as an exercise for the reader to figure out as the story goes on. Not too much raw exposition bogging us down and boring us. It is darker than my ideal sci-fi/fantasy, but I'm mostly ok with that.
Interesting world, story, and characters. Engages my imagination and makes me think. This is a book I have a feeling I could read again and catch a lot of things I missed the first time through.
And I wasn't kidding. I really am thrilled that it's going to be difficult for me to choose who to vote highest on the Hugo ballot. I hope my decision becomes even more difficult as I read the other novel nominees!
Up or down ballot (note for myself): UP, with slight reservations.