This vast stellar award-winning science fiction novel blew my mind way open, shattering some personal paradigms and forcing me to realize that I am far more brainwashed by gender and cultural stereotypes than I had hoped. Ancillary Justice is like no other novel I’ve ever read and it kept me completely enthralled in the few days it took to race through its almost 400 pages. I’m still thinking about it days later.
Yes I’m shallow because normally I need a main character who is somewhat personable to interest me in spending time with a story, but Breq isn’t even actually a person. Instead she’s AI in a human body with no aspiration to be anything else. When another character suggests Breq could maybe get down to some latent inner human core Breq is uninterested, stating flatly that the person previously inhabiting her body is dead, but Breq isn’t without preferences or passions. She enjoys singing, has favorites among the people she’s worked with, and as the book opens she is planning revenge against a powerful many-bodied tyrant for crimes committed in part by herself as that tyrant’s not supposed to be able to resist orders agent.
For over a millennium, up until 20 years ago, Breq was, like the tyrant, a multipart (or rather a multi-whole) being. In her case she’d been a massive spaceship with lots of repurposed human bodies as ancillaries all able to intra-communicate fluidly--all one unitary AI identity--but Breq lost all but the one body she’s now left with in the incident that drives this novel. For the first part of the book chapters alternate between events surrounding that past event and the present day. Since Breq was multi-whole 20 years ago the chapters on those earlier times have a fascinating and unique narrative voice--a one made out of many or sort of a semi-omniscient first person--and that is one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel. What would it be like to coexist with many manifestations of yourself only to be cut off from all those other yous?
The word use in this novel is also noteworthy. Breq’s main language, spoken by the culturally-intriguing empire-expanding humans who created her, doesn’t distinguish between sexes with its pronouns, using “she” as the default for everyone, and Breq--maybe because no one bothered to program her any other way--has a very hard time telling male from female. This causes her no end of problems when needing to pass for human while speaking languages that do have pronoun or other language markers to recognize gender. Breq’s inability to tell if someone is a man or woman is dangerous because it’s a dead giveaway that she’s an ancillary and shouldn’t be roaming around as a free agent.
I consider(ed) myself fairly open-minded about gender roles and differences, but after Breq had been referring to someone as “she” for a while and then a human character used “he” for that same person it created a mental earthquake in my brain and rearranged all my thoughts and reactions to the character I now knew was actually male. This is a very skillfully written book, with information revealed piece by piece in a way that kept my attention locked even when I didn’t completely understand what was going on. Being a little lost is not normally something I like when reading, but in Ancillary Justice it’s a result of the richness and alien quality of its world and perspective, and isn’t something I would give up. I’m sure I will be rereading this book, especially since it’s the first of a trilogy.
I read a copy of this book provided to me by Hachette, the publisher, through LibraryThing. The review opinions are mine.