Ancillary Justice was the “it” book of science fiction in 2013. It won the 2014 Hugo, the Nebula, the Arthur C. Clarke, the Locus, and other awards. The list of books that have simultaneously won those awards is the pantheon of science fiction. We’re talking Dune. Neuromancer. Ender’s Game. And apropos this book, The Left Hand of Darkness. Ancillary Justice also was involved in the Hugo/Puppies controversy, which I won’t rehash here, nor take sides — feel free to Google it.
I was late to the party. Hadn’t read it. When the ebook came up in my library, I decided to go for it.
Ancillary Justice follows the adventures of Breq, formerly a sentient ship, now exiled into a human body and apparently seeking revenge for something that isn’t made explicit early in the book.
Ancillary Justice also features gender ambiguity and a pair of characters making their way across a hostile environment. The early phases of the book have strong echoes of Left Hand of Darkness. But there, gender ambiguity was essential to exploring the role of gender in love, honor and friendship. Here it just seems a linguistic “tic” where the main character never seems to get people’s gender pronouns right — and that’s the end of it.
The story was reasonably enjoyable, but really slow to develop. About 50% of the way through, I was sufficiently bored that I thought I’d simply skip the rest. I regained some momentum and finished the book. I will say that the end of the book accelerated a bit, and I enjoyed finishing it.
Most of the characters just seemed flat to me. Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the essentially the entire universe becomes an on-stage character for a time. And …nothing. Not the hissing menace of Darth Vader, the cackling evil of Emperor Palpatine, not the philosophical insight of Marcus Aurelius or the arrogant assurance and political wiliness of Julius Caesar, just another character in the plot machine…If you’re going to bring a character like that on stage, the character better be unforgettable. Mianaai is not.
One of the main characters in Ancillary Justice wakes up after a thousand years — and that’s the end of it! One little anecdote about how manners might have changed, otherwise it’s like she never left. So many missed opportunities to exploit interesting characters and situations.
The tropes of Ancillary Justine aren’t exactly novel, and have been explored very convincingly by other novels. Intriguing by souls inhabiting new bodies? You’re better off with Altered Carbon. Interested in gender fluidity? Left Hand of Darkness pretty much ruined that concept for any other author. Characters waking up after a thousand years? Try The Far Arena by Richard Ben Sapir. Sentient Machines? Charles Stross’ Accelerando blew the doors off this concept ten years before Ancillary Justice. A grand Space Opera with a thoughtful exploration of military service? Linda Nagata’s The Red was a far superior 2013 SciFi novel to my mind.
In short, Ancillary Justice was a reasonably good book. But I don’t really get what all the fuss was about. The book doesn’t seem of the same caliber as other Hugo / Nebula award winning books. Neither does it seem especially controversial, or left-wing gender “agitprop”, as the Puppies seem to be suggesting. Just an decent space opera with tropes that have been explored in more interesting ways a long time ago.
Ancillary Justice is a debut novel; evaluated in that light it shines a bit brighter. I wonder whether the future books step up?
If you see something I don’t in the book, chime in — I’d love to grasp what I seem to be missing.