Reading: Ann Leckie — Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie is Iain M. Banks, and Ancillary Justice is what the Culture would look like if they’d gone all Roman Empire on the galaxy. Of course, Leckie is not Banks, not his heir, nor the new, nor is she a replacement. She is an author whose themes, narratives, and ethics fills for me Banks’ absence.

Ancillary Justice almost certainly came to my attention via io9, helped by Hugo nomination, Nebula award, good things from WisCon, pretty hard to avoid having a closer look at. As I’m in a science-fiction reading mode currently – new things from Charles Stross, and Hannu Rajaniemi soon, plus Jo Walton and others make it a delectable time to be reading – this one I picked up a week or so ago, and began on the weekend.

Let’s start with John Harris’ cover art. It is beautiful, in the style of 1970’s science-fiction space art, as if done in oil paint, rough and blurred with the appearance of brush- and pallet-strokes, the soft background of cratered moon filling the upper third cut on one diagonal by a vast and only partially seen space ship, reminiscent of an aircraft carrier, and on the other by its terminator, the sun illuminating only the upper-right side, all in muted, blue-tinged greys. And crossing these diagonals, dropping like weighted needles, two small, one- or two-person craft, the upper white with red detailing, and the lower in blood red. There is depth and motion and solidity in this cover I seldom see in contemporary science-fiction artwork of this kind, which is more often than not dominated by clean, antiseptic ‘futurism’, which actually looks nowhere near as genuinely futuristic as this cover.

Anyway, it’s a book I’m reading, not a painting in a gallery (I would buy a print of the cover now if I could). I’ve read some pretty good sci-fi and fantasy since last October, a couple of which will certainly on my best of the year list. Ancillary Justice would need to be met with an even more spectacularly brilliant novel to not be my book of the year. It’s really that good, and yes, Ann Leckie is filling the void of Iain Banks’ absence with this work alone, her first full-length work even.

Early in the book, I was reminded of both Consider Phlebas, Banks’ first Culture novel, and Against a Dark Background, also an early work. Reading towards the end now, I recognised even parts of my favourite Banks of all, Feersum Endjinn. All these are more feelings in the narrative, protagonists, settings, structure, and I’m definitely not talking about a work that is written in the style of Banks, or one that takes his ideas and plants them in front of a different background. That for me would be a depressing experience; I want to read him or not at all, and never an imitation or poor copy. With Leckie, there is this familiarity, for example in the first half the setting alternates between first person narrative present and their past, chapter for chapter, much as Banks’ Use of Weapons does (without the literal reverse chronology), before discarding this once that line is finished. Then there is the gun Esk One/Breq is seeking, something capable of violence in a culture that no other weapon can achieve, this similar to the Lazy Gun, or even The Algebraist‘s search for the zero coordinates and what they entail, yet this also is not the fundamental narrative; simply a section from which we move on from. Many delightful similarities yes, but it’s the writing and story itself, that make this particularly good.

And the differences. The Culture equivalent here, Radch is more Roman Empire (or even a refined Ghengis Khan), committed to expansion, annexation, with an army of Ancillaries, – the corpses of conquered civilisations rendered alive and eternal through artificial intelligence and arrays of implants, operating as a unity across multiple bodies – and a single (also multiple-bodied) leader. This culture though takes Banks’ ideas of gender and identity in the Culture and goes somewhere else: there is no gender, nor gendered language; characteristics of gendered bodies appear on single bodies in multiple combinations, and as a whole the civilisation looks down on other civilisations which do define gender as brutish, uncivilised, not human. Leckie uses the personal pronoun, ‘she’ for everyone, breaking with this only for (uncivilised because they differentiate) non-Radch cultures, and it’s only the interaction with these cultures who gender the protagonists that we learn whether they are assigned he or she. It’s not a conceit; it’s the kind of thing Banks would do – in fact did, merely made explicit in language of the text. We also learn some way through the book (as with I think Jernau Morat Gurgeh in Banks’ The Player of Games) that Breq has brown skin. As with various characters’ gender, it’s the late-arrival of this information that retroactively changes both our perception of the character – our internal image of them – and makes very plain our own assumptions and habits about these fundamental things of identity and the meaning and value we assign to them.

Like Banks, I love it for all the high Space Opera, and that irrespective of the Radch themselves (almost the equivalent of Archimandrite Luseferous and the Starveling Cult as viewed subjectively from within, or possibly even the Culture itself from a slightly different viewpoint), there’s something utopian in Leckie’s writing, very rare for a genre that is mostly filled with Randian libertarianism and right wing reactionaryism. It’s a phenomenal first novel.