Thursday, February 26, 2015

Halfway Post: Ancillary Justice

There is so much going on here, I can't wait till the end to write about it.

I mean, I always hate waiting till the end, and I think in some ways that's a failure on my part because it demonstrates a reluctance to engage my critical facilities in deconstructing the work I've just completed.  But let's be honest: when I write a review after I've finished the book, I end up writing about the book; if I write it while I'm reading, I write about my reaction to the book, which I fully admit is what I want to write about, so I guess that works out okay.

Anyway, reading this one for my NEWEST book club, which is at work, and it's so much fun to read something everyone around me is reading and talk about it.  Although it's also crazymaking when you're both talking about how shocked you are, and you have to hedge, like, I'm at the part on the bridge.  Are you there yet?  Oh, I'm way past there!

On the subject of work book club, I will have more to say, but on the subject of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, let's dive in.

First (and this will be interesting in a book club setting, especially a new one), this is the kind of science fiction that non-scifi readers are talking about when they say they don't know how to read scifi.  This is a book that starts out deep in complicated world-building and lets you sort out what's going on, and you will be a good 20% of the way through the book (sorry, I don't do page numbers anymore) before you get your feet under you.  It's okay, it's still a fun ride, but if you don't trust the author to carry you through, it can cause serious floundering.  People who don't know how to read for clues about things like technology, social order, and alien life forms are going to get lost fairly easily; this is not for beginners.

Second, because it's obvious and very talked-about: the gender thing.  I feel like there are so many layers to my reaction to this.  First, from a strictly theoretical point of view, I love it. It takes all these cultural assumption--a lot of which you don't even know you have--and turns them on their heads.  You see, the Radch (the race of the ruling empire) has no gender.  It's not perfectly clear (yet), but it's implied that they have sexes, but their language lacks gender.  The narrator, being a native speaker, uses "she" for everyone, except in conversation, where she struggles to identify genders correctly.

Beneath the cool level of challenging the reader's assumption and adding to the flavor of this alien world (and mind), you get the layer on which it affects the narrative, which is also fascinating.  Because not all the characters we encounter are from genderless cultures, and so there are sometimes things going on below the surface that our first person narrator might not be fully grasping, and that we get to sort out.

Besides which, there's the level on which it challenges you within the narrative, which is tied up with the ways it challenges your notions of how you think about gender yourself.  At first, I found myself parsing every scene carefully to see if I was able to tell the gender of the people Breq was encountering.  This character has a beard: male.  This other person referred to that kid as a girl.  But the very act of doing this makes you examine why you're doing it--does it matter whether Seivarden is male or female?  She's an officer in the Radch, kind of obnoxious, completely helpless, whatever, but does maleness matter, especially if her own culture says it doesn't?

Well, but then you get an interaction where she's advising a cousin who's new to the military about social standing and romantic relationships, and it just feels very different if you cast her as male vs. female.  And when Lt. Awn has a romantic interlude, it crosses your mind to wonder what gender means to these two people.  And when Awn--young, thoughtful, and liberal-minded--is having an interaction with an older, I-think-male religious leader in an occupied city, I can't help but feel that the complicated power plays that are going on in that scene get more complicated when you add the religious leader's read of Awn's gender, whether it's male or female.  Watching myself watch these interactions was fascinating.

I feel like this is what I've heard most about regarding this book, and it's complicated and fascinating--but it's such a small part of things.  It's just there, perfectly crafted and running right through the narrative with a thousand other complicated things.

Good lord, like slavery and bodily autonomy.  You see, once there was a ship called the Justice of Toren, which had its own artificial intelligence, and which was embodied not only in the physical ship itself, but in its ancillaries--individual bodies that had once been people, but whom, for one reason or another, had been killed or taken or destroyed, and whose bodies are now--let's call it reanimated, though that's not quite right--for the use of the ship.

Justice of Toren is a troop ship, and most of the troops she carries are human (well, Radch).  But each deck of the ship--each century of troops--has a set of servant bodies.  So the first portion we meet is One Esk, whose mind is part of Justice of Toren's mind, but is also its own.  And this character--One Esk, or Justice of Toren, or whatever you call it--is this amazing character who is artificially intelligent, obedient, and only exists to serve, but has her own sense of morality, of humor, of self.  It's so complicated, and so beautiful.

I think what I love most about Breq--the identity our narrator has taken and the easiest name to use--is that she's so kind and generous with everyone, even when they're kind of awful, even when she's angry or frustrated or horrified.  She's got this pragmatism coupled with what seems like a deeply settled optimism, and an unflagging sense of herself that lets her be patient with those around her, whether they deserve it or not.

Are you confused yet?  Would it turn you upside down if I say that the narrative jumps between times--primarily two, but with little bits of other memories thrown in for fun?  Should I start talking about colonialism, or slavery, or how the lieutenants treat her?  Should I talk about body ownership, or loyalty based on affection vs. duty?

And I'd like to point out, NONE of this is the plot.  I mean, I'm talking JUST about the world building here; I haven't even started in on the ideas of power and status and imperialism and...and...and...

This book is dense.  And amazing.  And I'm only halfway through.  I am having an absolute blast here--all the amazing reviews I've read have been totally right.

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