In a panel at Phoenix Comicon this year, paranormal military fiction author Myke Cole talked about gaining reader sympathy by emphasizing the humanity of characters – citing Watership Down as a story about rabbits who are people, and Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” series as being about a dragon that was a person.
In her remarkable debut novel Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie has given us a spaceship that is a person. Both figuratively and literally.
The novel, which has won every major sci-fi book award this year, follows Breq, the last ancillary of the 1000-year-old starship Justice of Toren, a humanoid host for the ship’s AI, as she seeks revenge on the leader of Radch Empire who orchestrated the destruction of her ship (herself?).
The story is told through two interlocking timelines – one in the present with Breq on an icy planet seeking a killer weapon for her revenge, and another set 20 years in the past detailing the events that led to her destruction.
Leckie plays with gender, identity and individuality extensively in Ancillary Justice. First, the Radchaai do not recognize separate genders, so Breq refers to everyone as she – often misjudging the actual gender of the people she is interacting with. For that matter, is she really a she —probably, she is a ship after all.
She also exists as hundreds of ancillaries simultaneously in the earlier timeline, so the perspective shifts as her various selfs observe and interact in different situations and locations. At points Breq, or Esk-One as she is known, describes watching herself interacting with other characters as well as actions taking place away from the immediate setting. It is delightfully disorienting at times.
But as Myke Cole said, Leckie triumphs because of the humanity she is able to inject into Breq/Esk-One/Justice of Toren. She develops close friendships with her crewmembers, like Lieutenant Awn, the commander she is assigned to in the earlier timeline. In the present, she comforts a child whose uncle was badly injured in a sled accident.
And throughout it all, Breq sings. Traditional hymns from the cultures she studied, folk songs and pretty much any music she can find. And she doesn’t just do this once her ship is destroyed – Justice of Toren developed an ear from one of her former captains and would use her ancillaries to perform vast choral works.
The storylines converge as Breq rescues Seivarden, a former captain of hers who was in suspended animation for a millennia and is now a drug-addicted drifter, and embarks for the Radchaai homeworld where she can confront the lord of the Radchaai, Anaander Mianaai. But Mianaai also benefits from multiple personas – he has hundreds of linked bodies and the ability to make more with ease.
Everything builds to a mind-bending climax with layers upon layers of conspiracies, betrayals, plots and counterplots converging around Breq, leading to a beautiful ending that affirms the ship’s ultimate humanity.
And also sets in motion a series. The next book is out in October. I can’t wait.