Thursday, July 7, 2016
One of the ironies of the movement that I think is worth mentioning is that the last couple of years have been exceptionally good for books that resemble an older style of Hugo winner. As I mentioned in my round up of the '00s, traditional forms of science fiction, like space opera, have been in a very rough spot since around the turn of the century, leading to many unconventional Hugo winners, including several fantasy books. If you squint hard and ignore 90% of what people in the movement say (and 100% for the rabid ones), you can almost see a half-decent point that the vast majority of the books from the previous few years didn't fit traditional definitions of mainstream science fiction (hell, I sort of obliquely complained about this is my only posts of 2014).
The problem is, here we have a winner that is absolutely what the Hugos have been missing for the previous decade or so. Ancillary Justice would be right at home in the 1980s, and it draws heavily upon the types of sf (like the works of Ursula K. LeGuin) that did well in 60s and 70s. The fact that a book that represents the best of classic sf won in 2014 really demonstrates the hollowness and sexism of the whole sad puppy "we just miss classic sf" movement.
Breq is an ancillary - a human body that is controlled by the AI of a massive starship of the Radch Empire. Most ships have many ancillaries, which are used as enforcers of colonial rule as the Radchai take over new planets, and these ancillaries share the consciousness of the ship AI. But Breq has lost her ship - she is a lone sliver of that AI consciousness now trapped in human form. She's also on a quest, the nature of which is unveiled over the course of the novel. It has brought her to an icy planet, where she meets one of her former captains, now strung out on drugs, named Seivarden. Much of the novel follows her attempts to fulfill her goals while dealing with her washed-up former commander. Meanwhile, alternating chapters flashback to the Radch conquest of a planet called Shis'urna and reveal Breq's backstory.
It's fairly straightforward, accessible space opera, recalling in world and tone Iain Banks' Culture series and the aforementioned LeGuin's Ekumen books. It doesn't necessarily equal the best works of either of those series, but it's a first novel, and a strong one. And, as a fan of space opera as the quintessential SF sub-genre, I'm happy to see this book gets lots of attention.
It's not perfect. There are plenty of ideas floating around, and not all of them get proper development and attention. The one that seems to interest people the most is the fact that the Radch don't distinguish by gender, meaning that you don't actually know the gender of most of the book's characters (everyone is referred to as a "she"). This is a fun little wrinkle to the world, and Leckie doesn't belabor the point. I think this is mostly for the best, but I did expect a bit more from it. Leckie is more interested in the theme of identity, and what it means to have these distributed consciousnesses. This makes for some crucial plot points, but you rarely get a sense of Breq's personal struggles with identity. Which leads me to my biggest problem with the novel: the prose. Ancillary Justice is written with first person narration, and it is very dry. This does make a certain amount of sense, as the the narrator is an AI fragment, but I think there could have been a more clever and poetic way of conveying this, and I suspect it is as much the result of this being a first novel as it is intentional. I don't want to suggest the prose is bad; it's probably above average for its genre, and it's certainly readable, but I hope for a bit more from Hugo winners (and have gotten it more recently with the likes of Walton and Chabon).
Overall, it's a nice return for space opera to the Hugo novel winners, and I look forward to reading Ancillary Sword (on my to read list thanks to the Locus voters).