A few days ago I realized I’d never mentioned Ancillary Justice here. It’s an excellent book, and much metaphorical ink has been spent on it – it’s won several awards. In all, I probably don’t have much that’s new to contribute. On the other hand, if I wanted to be the first to have any given idea about most books, I’d be doomed to perpetual disappointment. So here is what I love about Ancillary Justice: it has a really excellent main character. A unique idea, executed well.
The main character is a ship’s AI. The ship is called Justice of Toren, but the ship itself has been destroyed (a story that unwinds slowly through a series of well-executed flashbacks), and the AI remains only in a single human body who calls itself Breq. I’m sure this sort of thing has been done before, though I haven’t personally encountered anything similar. It’s just so well done in this book. Toren/Breq is human and not-human at the same time, and not just because she/he/it is a ship in a human body. Breq has very human values, unsurprisingly slanted towards qualities like service and loyalty, but s/he doesn’t express them in the same way that humans do. Justice of Toren has emotions, but it doesn’t emote. I felt as I read that no matter what Breq was doing, s/he always seemed calm. The feelings that motivated his/her/its actions had to be inferred. Toren/Breq goes on a twenty-year quest across the galaxy, which must be driven by some stupendous emotion, yet that emotion is difficult to see. Toren itself doesn’t really seem to feel it, exactly. It seemed calm even as it told another character it hated him, even as s/he flung itself off a bridge to save him, even as its heart raced knowing s/he was discovered and killers were coming for him/her. At times it almost seems that the character must be in shock, because s/he’s clearly acting under the influence of powerful emotions, but doesn’t seem to truly feel them. Breq isn’t in shock, though; s/he’s just not human.
The other major way this shows up is that Toren/Breq doesn’t care about most human distinctions. Class, race, gender – s/he’s aware they exist, they just don’t particularly matter to it. Obviously, they don’t apply to Breq itself, so much so that I can’t even figure out what name or pronoun to use for the character. Breq is a pseudonym and not the right name. On the other hand, Justice of Toren doesn’t quite fit either because the character isn’t a ship any more. Toren/Breq isn’t an it because it’s clearly a person, but male and female are just as clearly meaningless categories to him/her. As for other people, Toren/Breq seems to view these distinctions simply as data, information that’s important only for its importance to others. Physical descriptions are rare in the book, though the few scraps that appear make it clear that the confluence of class, race, and beauty standards don’t match up to those in our world. More radical, however, is the fact that the book uses only female pronouns. In the world of the story, this is justified by the idea that the dominant language doesn’t have gender-distinguished pronouns, but for the reader, it becomes one more way to elide what are, to Toren, meaningless distinctions. It works, too. The categories clearly matter to human characters, but to the reader, they’re immaterial. It’s a fascinating and surprisingly refreshing perspective, being human and not-human at the same time, looking at human society when people are defined primarily by their actions. I thoroughly enjoyed it.