Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The meat industry is one of those background entities of civilization that few people question—but would if they knew more of the details that go into turning a live animal into gleaming pink wads on white styrofoam pads in your local supermarket.  For example, the meat we buy is almost always pumped full of water (and other chemicals).  After removing a hunk of cow or pig from the carcass, it is placed between two needled plates, injected with a fluid mix, and shaken—like a mixed drink.  While keeping the meat fresh longer, weight is also boosted in order to, of course, make more money on the sale.  Why sell one piece of meat when you can pump it full of slurry and sell it for two?  After reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (2013), I’m starting to get the same feeling about another industry: the current incarnation of speculative fiction.

A quality novella hidden in a blasĂ© 400 page novel, Ancillary Justice is the story of Breq, a former ship captain.  Once occupying the minds of hundreds of avatars, she hunts for a secret weapon on an ice planet, bent on revenge against the empire that reduced her to a single body.  Encountering a colleague of old dying in the snow, Breq revives him, and for as much trouble as his drug withdrawal brings, drags him across a frozen planet on her quest for the weapon.  Told in alternating chapters, a second thread, nineteen years in the past, describes how the empire reduced Breq to a single existence with nothing except vengeance on her mind.  But whether she is able to find and kill the multiple existences of Anaander Mianaai is up to the reader to discover.

While Leckie utilizes the idea of an AI sentience capable of controlling hundreds of avatars in the climactic showdown to entertaining effect, Ancillary Justice remains standard kill-the-evil-ruler space opera.  At times feeling like a Western, Breq goes about her revenge in cool, calm, Clint Eastwood style.  The action slow in building, those not left yawning by the overly long intro will find the plot moves like a parabolic curve; the majority stagnant, the ending sees matters escalating to a relatively tense conclusion.

A lot of hullabaloo has been made regarding Leckie’s usage of pronouns in Ancillary Justice—including comparisons to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  But upon reading the novel, it’s apparent the default usage of ‘she’ is, in fact, incidental.  Where Le Guin integrates gender perception to the point it transcends plot to reach thematic heights, Leckie’s narrowing of gender terms remains subsidiary to plot.  Leckie acknowledges in interviews she had no agenda behind using ‘she’ and ‘her’ as default reference, but thought it would be an interesting idea.  The reader is struck by the paradox which results: a) everyone rendered as ‘she’ has a profound effect on interaction with the text, and subsequently provokes interesting thoughts/discussion on real-world gender defaults, while b) gender is never assimilated into plot to the point of being anything more than “let’s see what happens when I play with pronouns”.  In other words, for all the feminism apparent on the surface, Leckie never truly applies the idea to the story, and as a result gender remains disconnected from plot—a veneer only, as it were.  A provocative idea most certainly, but an insular exercise it remains.

I’ve also seen Ancillary Justice compared to Iain Banks’ Use of Weapons and other Culture novels.  But again, the comparison is superficial, and limited only to story type.  Looking at the details, where Banks hones scenes like a playwright, conscious of whether elements are pertinent to the plot or character development, Leckie is far less focused.  Lacking Banks’ narrative awareness, a significant portion of Ancillary Justice is bound up in irrelevant world-building.  My notes are filled with examples of extraneous text, the following one example:

    I also stood some forty meters away, in the temple itself—an atypically enclosed space 43.5 meters high, 65.7 meters long, and 29.9 meters wide. At one end were doors nearly as tall as the roof was high, and at the other, towering over the people on the floor below, a representation of a mountainside cliff somewhere else on Shis’urna, worked in painstaking detail. At the foot of this sat a dais, wide steps leading down to a floor of gray-and-green stone. Light streamed in through dozens of green skylights, onto walls painted with scenes from the lives of the saints of the cult of Ikkt. It was unlike any other building in Ors. The architecture, like the cult of Ikkt itself, had been imported from elsewhere on Shis’urna. During pilgrimage season this space would be jammed tight with worshippers. There were other holy sites, but if an Orsian said “pilgrimage” she meant the annual pilgrimage to this place. But that was some weeks away. For now the air of the temple susurrated faintly in one corner with the whispered prayers of a dozen devotees.

When a (good) writer goes into such detail of a locale, and ends on the narrative’s present tense, it’s assumed that the detail will be used for some purpose.  But this is not the case with this novel.  The details have no relevance that could not have been made in a passing reference at a later time when said "scene of significance" fleets onto the page.

But the description of the temple is only one instance of narrative detritus.  Appearing seemingly on every page is exposition, description, or dialogue that could be elided to no cumulative effect.  The following quote occurs three-quarters through the book after Breq has shot and killed multiple people without missing once:  They never had to face opponents with guns. I had a gun, and because of who I was, I was deadly with it.” Really, do is it necessary to inform the reader as such when it has already been made explicit?  On another occasion, Leckie interrupts an argument to explain to the reader the euphony of the Rrrrrr species’ name, and then, switches back to the argument.  Again, a lack of narrative awareness.  (In the interview tagged onto the end of the novel, Leckie states here scenes are often doing three or more things at once.  Yes, it is possible to do three things, but they have to be thematic layers, not three different characters elements, or three plot elements, as the result, in the case of the novel, is muddled padding.)

There are also many such unedited lines as: “Some shuttles were armored. Some even had a larger version of my own armor. This shuttle wasn’t, didn’t. This shuttle’s hull was built to withstand a fair number of random impacts, but it wasn’t built to endure continued stress on the same spot, over and over again.”* And dialogue is sometimes more awkward: “You know me too well for me to believe you aren’t here because of me.  I’ve thought so from the moment I actually started thinking about it.” And this mouthful: “’You can’t,’ I said. ‘I know what you are, better than anyone. She’s you and you’re her.  You can’t remove her from yourself without destroying yourself.  Because she’s you.’  The personal pronouns overwhelming, it’s obvious Leckie doesn’t read aloud what she’s written to see how it sounds to the mind’s ear.  As a result there are numerous lines that jar comprehension, precious little fluid about the text.

Another significant issue with Ancillary Justice is its lack of tension.  And it stems from two points (three if you include the quantity of padding).  Though existing in a human body, Breq is an AI entity, i.e. emotionless.  This drains scenes with character interaction of most of their human, i.e. emotional, content.  (This is, of course, beyond the paradox of not seeking revenge against Seivarden for the trick he pulls compared to the revenge mission Breq is on.)  Secondly, Leckie has difficulty writing action.  There is a scene near the beginning where Breq is traversing a frozen wasteland, dragging the body of the colleague with her.  Fully exposed, a plane lands on the snow and out step three would-be killers, armed to the teeth.  Rather than using the potential momentum, for example, having some pointed banter to increase the emotional stakes, or including some description to heighten the sense of danger, or defining the terms to create a true showdown, Breq simply blasts them—Clint Eastwood style—1-2-3 in the blink of an eye.  As quickly as the opportunity appears, it dissipates, and the reader is left to wallow for dozens and dozens of pages in the sub-story that follows of a doctor and little girl who have no agency in the overarching story.  Given the novel was aiming to entertain, the poorly to adequately written action sequences are a major hole.

What I see, looking at Leckie’s page on isfdb, is a writer who successfully published several short stories and decided to have a whack at a novel.  The premise quickly getting out of control, she stretched the important details thin over an amazing amount of spurious setting detail and meandering exposition that has little to no effect on the core story.  Were there to have been an agenda beyond ‘good space opera’, the extra material might have served a purpose.  But as it is, the reader can actually skip the first 200 pages, and within 50 will be caught up to where things stand, nothing of significance missed.

In the end, Ancillary Justice is an overwritten debut novel that offers little new in the genre save its usage of pronouns—which in itself is a significant achievement considering the resulting meta-textual discussion.  Featuring a bloated narrative and run-of-the-mill revenge premise, it is a mainstream work of science fiction that will fall into the wheelhouse of readers looking for comfortable space opera and are uncaring as to the quality of the writing.   As such, comparisons to Banks and Le Guin are far less salient than actual similarities to writers such as Alastair Reynolds or Vernor Vinge.  There is a good story lurking in the novel—a quality morsel of meat.  But as it stands I’m left wondering: if Leckie had used gender pronouns in standard fashion, would the novel would have received the attention it has?

* Let’s re-write those lines to eliminate the waste: “Some shuttles are armored—even better than I, sometimes.  This shuttle wasn’t.  Its hull was built to withstand a number of random impacts, but not continued stress on the same spot.” 

1 comment:

  1. My exact thoughts upon reading the first half of this novel were "this would have made a decent novella or single sci-fi episode". In looking back over the entire book I can honestly say there isn't really much meat there at all.