Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie

Book cover

After reading “The Martian” by Andy Weir, I started feeling like I wanted to read some modern sci-fi–feeling like I knew almost nothing about currently-producing authors. With only a little research, “Ancillary Justice” appeared to be an obvious choice–it was a “staff pick” at a local bookstore, and won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2014 (two big sci-fi awards–only a couple of dozen novels have won both of them, including outstanding books such as “Dune,” “The Dispossessed,” and “Ender’s Game”). I came away from it feeling like it was reasonably good, but nowhere near the caliber of those books (or “The Martian,” for that matter). I don’t intend to read the sequel, “Ancillary Sword,” which just came out.

The “hook” of AJ is that the protagonist is an artificial intelligence, formerly attached to the spaceship Justice of Toren. The AI controlled not only the ship itself, but hundreds of “ancillary” drone soldiers associated with the ship. For reasons that are explained over the course of the book, the AI is now marooned in just one of those drone bodies, but the narrative jumps around in time, and many chapters cover the period when Justice of Toren was “whole.”

It’s a cool idea that only works moderately well. The mere fact that Leckie largely confines the AI to Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen (the drone) indicates what a challenge it is to write narration that convincingly portrays the perspective of an AI of that scale. In reality it would probably be completely confusing for any human to experience, and of course no one wants to read a completely confusing book. For the most part, JTOEN comes across as something like Jason Bourne–an extremely competent but not invincible human; that’s fine, but it doesn’t really deliver on the promise of an AI protagonist.

Other gripes. I once read an io9 review that described the movie “Elysium” as portraying “too many dystopias,” and I think AJ portrays “too many unfamiliarities.” Sci-fi works when it shows us an interesting twist on our own world and plays out its consequences. AJ makes too many twists on our world, in my opinion, with a result that ends up feeling unrelatable. The existence of AI ships is practically twist enough, but there are a lot of other little tweaks that end up seeming superfluous; for example, the way reference to gender is always made extremely complex.

Perhaps related to the above, I felt like AJ wasn’t sure what kind of book it wanted to be. It’s not a swashbuckling action book; it’s not a suspense book; it’s not a high-politics-and-intrigue book, though it has a little of the latter. The best characterization I could come up with is that it is a mystery–we spend much of the book trying to figure out how JoT came to be in its current state, and why it wants to do what it wants to do. But I didn’t feel like it was a very successful mystery either. In particular, I felt like JoT’s main objective in the “present” was out of character for it. Of course, many great books are more than one of these things, but I didn’t feel like AJ inhabited any of the roles particularly well.

The last disappointment was characterization. JoT is an interesting concept but doesn’t really come across as a relatable character (though perhaps that is appropriate). Seivarden Vendaai is probably the most real character, but she is extremely passive throughout most of the book. Anaander Mianaai is a wholly un-engaging antagonist. None of them are anywhere close to, say the protagonist of “The Martian.”

I put a lot of gripes in this review, but really I thought the book was reasonably good. It just didn’t live up to the high praise I had seen for it.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars