Ancillary Justice, is a space opera written by Ann Leckie about an Artificial Intelligence unit seeking revenge on an Imperial Overlord for disintegrating it.
Ancillary Justice is set in distant future where an Imperial Empire Radch is colonizing the planets in the galaxy. The Imperial Radchaai has been ruling over the galaxy for at least four thousand years. Radchaai empire is governed by Anaander Mianaai, a distributed consciousness who represents the supreme leader. Anaander Mianaai has thousands of units who are connected through a single consciousness. Together, Alaanda Ammaniai units represent an omniscient deity who rules over the known Radchaai empire which is expanding by means of annexing planets.
The planets of the future are inhabited by different beings, some of who are human. An interesting being is an Ancillary. Ancillary units are again a distributed consciousness, a hive mind who are tethered together by artificial intelligence. The ancillaries are part of spaceships and the Ancillary hive mind controls and operates the spaceships. The ancillary units themselves are called as Ships or Stations. These units look like human beings on the outside but mostly are re purposed corpse-like beings who are tethered into a distributed a hive mind.
The social structure of the Radchaai civilization is based on hierarchies. The Radchaai humans follow an ancient being called Amaat and believe that whatever happens is the will of Ammat. Radchai society has strict norms and pecking order depending on the stature in society. They regard Radchai citizens highly and lay out elaborate plans to integrate their colonies into Raddchai society. The Radchaai government places high importance on following rules and disobedience is punishable by death. Anaander Mianaai sometimes metes out harsh judgment to assert Raadchai dominance and suppress rebellion cause.
The ancillary units who serve Radchaai Generals aboard ship can analyze situation and gauge probabilities of events by sensing and quantifying data from their environment. They are agile but mostly act subordinate to Radchai generals and Anaander Mianaai.
The story progresses through two time lines. In the present, an ancillary unit from the ship Justice of Toren is stranded in an icy-col planet after all the other units of its hive mind were destroyed in a political plot. The unit assumes the identity of Breq, and roams around the planets with the singular objective to seek revenge. Breq comes across Seivarden, a vagabond and a drug-addict, who turns out to be the general from the same ship Breq was part of from some thousand years before. Breq recognizes Seivarden and nurses Seivarden back to health. Seivarden does not recognize Breq and dislikes Breq’s cheeky remarks, but joins Breq’s journey to the Radchaai ship.
In the other timeline, Breq describes how it disintegrated after a political conspiracy devised by Anaander Mianaai destroys the ship. Breq, who is known as the ancillary unit - One Esk, serves General Awn on the ship Justice of Toren. General Awn gets involved in a political maneuver by Anaander Mianaai, and ends up dead. Anaander Mianaai destroys the ship as well, but One Esk survives and develops individuality and self awareness after the individual units of the hive-mind representing the spaceship are destroyed.
The story is told in the first-person narrative by Breq. An interesting aspect of the Radchaai language is that there are no gender pronouns. The generic pronoun - she and the possessive - her is used for everyone. You never get to know what gender the humans have.
I read rave reviews about the book before reading it. I found the concept of distributed intelligence fascinating and the fact that the narration is from the perspective of an AI unit. Distributed units act like nodes in a distributed system, and it was fascinating how a scifi story drove home such concepts like Partition Tolerance and consistency. Breq is an independent node functioning without the hive mind that it is supposed to be a part of. It is interesting how phrases like - conflicted with oneself, divided in opinion and go fuck yourself, can make sense for a divided entity. Ann is clearly influenced by scifi classics like Dune. The world building is first rate. This is important because the setting of the book and the characters are abstract, and the more vivid details the world is described with, the better.
I found the novel slow-moving. The narration is erudite and balanced, but it did not move me or make me care for the protagonist. This brings me to my biggest issue with the novel - who is Breq. I agree it is a divided entity and an AI, but it is not consistent, it’s not clear what her intent is. The singular gender trope is clever, but the author does not use it. At best, it does not hamper the narrative. At worst, it was a wonderful opportunity to bring home lot of points, but sadly, this does not happen.
The novel’s premise is chokeful of interesting ideas - a distributed intelligence, a gender less society, a place where your emotions and reactions are quantified and ranked, but sadly I did not find the narration or plot doing service to these wonderful ideas.