Ancillary Mercy: Flip’n all the scripts.
Ancillary Mercy is the third and final book in the Ann Leckie Imperial Radch trilogy. It started with Ancillary Justice, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, British Science Fiction, Locus and Arthur C. Clarke Awards (let me know if I missed any). The Amazon listing on Ancillary Justice is a good intro:
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.Once, she was the Justice of Toren – a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
Much discussion has been made of Leckie’s use of the pronoun ‘she’ for every character, regardless of their gender. Part way through the first book I became accustomed to the device and stopped noticing. Most of the action takes place within the military, and it might be natural (though incorrect) for me to assume every character is a ‘he’ if another pronoun was used. Lechie talks about her choice in this really long interview. By referring to everyone as ‘she’ it illuminated my unconscious biases. The series in general delightfully challenges many unconscious assumptions.
To be honest, I found the second book Ancillary Sword a bit disappointing compared to the fast paced first. The plot was less far reaching, with more emphasis on politics and taking place within one system. Leckie talks about her conscious decision to slow the pace in this interview with Lightspeed. She felt it was more true to where the main character Breq was in her development. But to me it made the second book feel like a setup for the third and final book.
Ancillary Mercy continues this emphasis more on politics than action. It does have some cool space action, but still not as much as the first book. What saves it for me are the clever mysteries and plot twists. I was glued to my couch for hours towards the end.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but there are several interesting themes in Leckie’s universe that haven’t received as much attention as her treatment of gender.
Religion is one aspect of humanity that is frequently left out of futuristic science fiction universes. Perhaps it is because of the assumption that science and religion are in direct opposition to each other, and therefore a civilization with advanced technology would have left religion behind long ago. In the future science will “win”.
But not here. In Leckie’s universe priests and the casting of omens co-exist alongside artificial intelligence and gates in and out of the universe. Because the narrative is told from the perspective of a nearly all seeing AI, the religion is not fetishized or over-wrought with drama. The main character presents and participates in it as something more utilitarian, as ritual to create commonality between people and mark transitions in life. When the Radch empire annexes a culture, they absorb its religion into their polytheistic one.
I think the religion ads a richness and complexity to the universe Leckie has created. It makes this future feel similar to my current life, where religion and spirituality give many of my friends lives meaning and purpose. It also adds an interesting contrast with the AI protagonist, who decides life and death with precision, valuing her own life least of all. Breq does not try to make sense of the world and how it works, doesn’t look for “meaning” or a “larger purpose”. Existence simply is, and then it isn’t.
From Warrior to Peacemaker
Breq started out thousands of years ago as a military ship, and her development from killing machine with little remorse to peacemaking politician is interesting, if a bit anti-climactic. But then, that’s kind of the point. I found myself hoping to see Breq kick some major ass like in Ancillary Justice. Maybe its because I’ve been habituated by Hollywood to expect large pitted battles to solve major plot tension. Breq does kick some ass in the third book, but not as spectacularly as in the first. However the mysteries set up by the second book made the final one an engrossing read. I suppose I might have had different expectations if I’d read the second first, or if it was in a different section of the bookstore. Funny how expectations change the experience. It would be interesting to go back to the books a second time and see what I missed.
Free Will and Sentience
It wasn’t until 2/3 of the way through Ancillary Justice that I consciously realized the trilogy was also a thought experiment on free will and sentience. Told from the perspective of a (mostly) master-less AI, this seems obvious in retrospect. It is a testament to Leckies writing skills that this theme fit so seamlessly into the plot. It could have been executed with a heavy hand, fraught with long speeches and heated discussions. But Breq is refreshingly unencumbered by our modern affliction of self-analysis, falling into it only occasionally.
From the beginning the AI’s in her universe do have a measure of free will. It would be tedious if they didn’t, they are managing moon sized ships with thousands of ancillary bodies. They exercise this free will in a humorously passive aggressive manner that any server will recognize. If you are the ships favorite, your tea is always the correct temperature, doors open before you ask, and your lieutenants are notified of your wishes before you ask for them. If you are not a ships favorite, you are always a little uncomfortable.
Breq, especially in the first book, isn’t quite sure if her vendetta is her own will or a subconscious program. This too felt familiar. Its something any human who has done a moderate amount of self-reflection can relate to. Do I want that chocolate bar because my parents didn’t hug me enough? Do I want to kill the Lord of the Radch out of revenge for something she made me do, or because one of her enemies programmed me to kill her? You know, the usual late night ramblings.
The entire series is a Turing test, as for most of it the other characters do not know Breq is an AI. It is fascinating to see the subtle ways she messes up and exposes herself, most notably in languages other than Radachaii where gender is key. But there are other ways she betrays herself, and it is fascinating to watch.
I am a bit ashamed to admit that I didn’t realize till half way through the third book that I had been imagining all of the characters as white. Given the syntax used for names this was a dubious assumption. I am no linguist, but most of the names (Anaander Mianaai, Seivarden Venadaai) do not appear to be of northern European (white) origin. Oops, more of my unconscious bias is showing. Leckie leaves out descriptive details that may hint at the gender of characters, which leads to her also leaving out ‘racial’ ones (such as race is currently delineated, I’m not going to even go there). The skin tone or appearance of humans thousands of years in the future is anyone’s guess, and I love her for leaving the question open.