Home > Clement's Game > Science Fiction Round 52: Ancillary Justice

Science Fiction Round 52: Ancillary Justice


Well, this book was a wild ride.

First, I’ll note that Ancillary Justice has chalked up a lot of big awards — notably including the Hugo and Nebula awards.  So, there’s definitely something there.

Second, if you’re interesting in mind-bending future stuff where the how does it work of the technology is less important than how does it change society, and how cultures clash as a consequence, this is a great read.

With lots of thinking to be done afterwards.

I'm not sure which starships these are on the cover...

I’m not sure which starships these are on the cover…

The Pronouns

One of the most interesting parts of the story is that the protagonist (whose name is… variable, so let’s just call her Breq) is from a culture that places little significance on gender.  She uses feminine pronouns throughout, save when she is explicitly speaking a foreign language — and even then, she complains about the difficulty of getting genders right.

It’s a bit mind-twisting, to realize that all these people being referred to with feminine pronouns might be male or female… and that, for the most part, their gender, whatever it is, isn’t really important to the story.

I’ve had a similar experience while working on fiction of my own — in this case, aliens who are hermaphrodites, and whose personal pronouns can really only be translated to the gender-neutral “it”.  It’s been fascinating to see how many times I type “he” or “him” without even thinking about it.

In short: Culture!  It’s a thing, and it affects how we perceive the world.

The Ancillaries

The titular ancillaries are kind of scary.  The Radch empire builds its population of soldiers by taking captive populations, and then turning them into popsicles to be awakened when needed.  When needed, they are then hooked in to a troopy-carrying starship’s AI.  Their personalities are replaced by that of the ship’s AI.

It’s like slavery and murder, except now you can you do both at the same time to the same person!

The leader of the Empire operates in a similar manner, by cloning himself multiple bodies that are in regular communication with each other.  It’s one way to ensure immortality.

That being said, there’s something that puzzles me a bit about the book.  Fairly early on, it’s revealed that there is technology which can disrupt the communications of the Radch — everything from everyday radios to the high-tech communications between the AI and its ancillaries.

While it’s only used twice during the story, it still makes me wonder: why haven’t the enemies of the Radch used this kind of technology?  It would be devastatingly disruptive to the AI/ancillary combos.  Although the ancillaries can function independently, much of their strength comes from their interconnected and well-informed nature.

Sure, the Radch is shifting away from using ancillaries back to fully human soldiers (the AIs aren’t considered sentient beings with rights), but still.  I’d think that would have slowed down more than one invasion.

The Surveillance

This discussion of communications leads to another terrifying aspect of Radchaiian culture: constant, pervasive surveillance on a scale and depth that even Orwell didn’t consider.

A typical Radchaii person is used to this but — you are constantly tracked.  You have a tracker embedded in you, so that the AI for the city or ship or station where you live knows where you are at all times.  You are constantly observed.  Your every word, motion, tic, twitch, sigh, blink, is monitored by the AI.  Your vital signs may also be monitored.

The AI is good enough to infer your mood and what you’re likely to be thinking about from this information.

While the characters from that empire accept it with aplomb… it’s still terrifying.  Any privacy is polite fiction.

And now, I am reminded of some seasonal lyrics:

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good, for goodness’ sake…

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