Ancillary Justice

Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, Michael Crichton, William Gibson, Orson Scott Card – this is a list of the ten most influential western science fiction writers of the 20th century.

A brief glance at the above line-up reveals an odd anomaly: There are no female names on the list. This is not due to an omission, stereotyping or gender prejudice. Although women did write some high-quality science fiction prose in the past, notably Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which is, arguably, the first modern science fiction novel, for whatever reason, famous female science fiction writers, especially in the 20th century, are few and in between.

This is, however, about to change. Enter Ann Leckie and her science fiction novel Ancillary Justice.

Ann Leckie’s debut novel is old-school, hard-core science fiction, but with some highly original, never-before-used, concepts and ideas at its heart.

Radch, a galactic military superpower ruled the known universe unopposed for a thousand years. The Radchaai philosophy consisted of an endless expansion of the Radchaai territory, obliterating all those daring to stand in their way and bringing ‘civilisation’, Radchaai style, to the countless subdued alien races. In this sense, the Imperial Radch was not unlike Ancient Rome and its sphere of influence not unlike the Roman Empire and its provinces.

When most people spoke of the Radch they meant all of Radchaai territory, but in truth the Radch was a single location, a Dyson Sphere, enclosed, self-contained. Nothing ritually impure was allowed within, no one uncivilised or nonhuman could enter its confines. Very few of the Radchaai citizens had ever set foot there, and only a few houses still existed who even had ancestors who had once lived there. It was an open question if anyone within knew or cared about the extent or even the very existence of the vast, ever-expanding Radchaai territory, whose creation was once initiated by the Radch with the sole aim to protect this central, now almost mythical-like, location.

Imperial Radch and its sphere of influence was not unlike the ancient Roman Empire with its provinces.

The might of the Imperial Radch rested with the space-faring warships equipped with highly advanced artificial intelligence. The holds of every Radchaai ship were packed full with the cryonically frozen natives of the planets subdued by Radch, entities who were once humans but now, repurposed and eternally linked to the ship’s AI, were little more than mere bodily appendages of their respective warship. Radch called them ‘Ancillaries’ – their enemies called them ‘Corpse Soldiers’.

Whenever a fleet of Radchaai invasion ships, parked in orbit around the conquered planet needed physical presence on the ground, these ships’ proxies were taken out of the storage and put into use as murderous, ruthless, highly-efficient mercenary units, never questioning an order, as they in effect were only tools, mere extensions of their ships, having no will of their own.

At the very top of the Radchaai hierarchy stands Anaander Mianaai, omnipresent, all-seeing, supreme Lord of the Radch. Many a member of subdued race would readily sacrifice their life for a chance to kill the hated usurper, but Mianaai had a simple solution to this threat. Hundreds, possibly thousands, genetically identical copies of Anaander Mianaai – all spread evenly across all the Radchaai territory, yet linked to each other via the Radchaai communication network, were created, thus rendering any assassination attempt pointless.

But what was the Mianaai’s biggest strength, turned out to be also his/her (Radch didn’t have a concept of genders as we know it) greatest weakness. When one day Garseddai - one of the civilisations Radch tried to conquer, managed to do what no one did for a thousand years – destroyed a Radchaai warship, and Mianaai found out that the weapon that enabled them to do it had come from the Presger - an enigmatic alien race so far resisting Radchaai colonisation, two opposing strands of consciousness of the Lord of the Radch started a clandestine war between themselves. While one faction of the Mianaai signed a peace treaty with the Presger, ended all the expansion and started replacing ancillaries with the human soldiers, the other one wanted the exact opposite: return to the ‘good old days’ and preservation of the traditional ways of Radchaai life.

Ann Leckie will always remain up there with the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and other greats of the genre.

When Lieutenant Awn, one of the officers of the ‘Justice of Toren’, Justice-class troop-carrier warship, accidentally uncovers the secret war being waged between the two factions of the Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch decides to eliminate the threat of public exposure by killing the officer and destroying the whole ship (as the ship’s AI constantly monitors all what is happening on board) to cover his/her tracks. Alas, to his/her detriment, Mianaai reckons without the strong personal attachment that conscious Justice of Toren developed to Lieutenant Awn. Seconds before her unpreventable destruction, Justice of Toren gives an order to one of her ancillaries - One Esk Nineteen: “Get to Irei Palace, find Anaander Mianaai, and tell her what’s happened”.

The narrative of the ‘Ancillary Justice’ begins some years after the disappearance of the Justice of Toren, when this sole surviving ancillary (and, at the same time, a tiny fragment of the Justice of Toren 's consciousness), One Esk (now undercover, under a new, assumed name Ghaiad Breq), encounters a former Justice of Toren’s officer (now a pitiful junkie addicted to a substance called ‘Kef’) Seivarden Vendaai, on the ice planet Nilt. The plot then alternates between two timelines: Breq's present day quest for revenge for the Justice of Toren 's destruction, and One Esk’s flashbacks to nineteen years earlier, with the Justice of Toren still in orbit around the planet Shis'urna, which is in the process of being absorbed into the Radchaai empire. Breq/One Esk must not only try and, against all the odds, find and confront the Lord of the Radch, but in the process also find own identity, place in the world, and what being human really means.

I approached this book open-minded, purposely ignoring the many awards it won, wanting to make my own opinion, but I was immediately sucked in by the One Esk’s moving story and Leckie's effortless storytelling style. Seriously, it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed reading a sci-fi book this much.

Returning to the original question, why there aren’t that many great female science fiction writers, I can now say with great confidence that Ann Leckie addressed this imbalance and her name will always remain up there with the likes of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and other greats of the genre.

Ancillary Justice is the first novel in the ‘Imperial Radch’ space opera trilogy, with the other two books being Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy.