I just read: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice‘Quite a few’ is a weird term. I wonder why adding ‘quite’ to ‘a few’ changes its meaning to ‘a lot?’ Any-whoo, I’ve read quite a few space operas in the last year, and I’ve been struck by how many similar themes and ideas pop up in each of them. Some of these ideas get a fresh spin in Ancillary Justice.

Cloning will be a substitute for space travel.
Make copies of yourself, and you can be many places at once. This is especially helpful when these locations are light years apart. Now keep cloning yourself, and you can effectively live for thousands of years. This is the Ann Leckie’s premise behind the imperial villain in Ancillary Justice. This is also the premise behind Charles Stross’ villain in his novel Neptune’s Brood. The unique spin that Leckie puts on her multiplied monarch is that her motives are not entirely villainous. But she is utterly ruthless in the way she gets things done.

Spaceships will have personalities, and they’ll dress up in human bodies.
The heroine of Iain M. Banks’ novel Surface Detail has several encounters with humanoid avatars of huge, nearly omniscient battleships. In Ancillary Justice, the heroine is an avatar of a gigantic, super-intelligent battleship. Breq is one component (a copy) of an interstellar ship’s AI. She’s been…let’s say ‘separated’…from the rest of herself, and she’s on a mission to right the wrongs that have been done to herself and to the ones she cares for. Breq explains the rationale behind her hardwired emotions: “Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s easier to handle those with emotions.”

In the future, humans will redefine what it means to be human.
Many writers have speculated that life outside of a ‘gravity well’ will change human physiology, change the way humans communicate (both verbally and nonverbally), and create new tribal tensions between planets and planetoids. In 2312, many space-dwellers upgrade their brains and their…naughty bits. When the two main characters decide to hook up, the reader realizes that they are both hermaphrodites.

Ancillary Justice is set in a future that is mostly post-gender. X and Y chromosomes are still in effect (as are, I assume, wee-wees and hey-nanner-nanners), but everyone is called’ she.’ I was surprised at how troubled I was by this ambiguousness. Leckie seems nonchalant as she prunes her pronouns to one gender. As she should be. This is what her characters are used to; they don’t particularly care if their peers are males or females. And I can honestly say that the character’s genders do not affect the plot or even the character arcs in the book. But even now my primitive, binary-sexed brain can’t fully grasp the characters. Was Breq truly a female? No, she was basically a robot. And no, it shouldn’t matter. But why do I want to call her a ‘heroine’ when she could simply be called a ‘hero?’

Favorite books: Winter 2014

Apparently, for me, this winter was all about sci-fi space operas. I read three novels, and they were all great.



2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson 
This book and the next focused stuck to action within the boundaries of our own solar systems. Robinson in particular seems very pessimistic on the idea of humans EVER making the jump to interstellar travel. A complaint that I saw again and again about this book is that it skimped on character and plot in favor of developing incredible set pieces. I can understand this complaint, but that doesn’t change the fact that the set pieces are INCREDIBLE. You’re got:

– Ecospheres on the tubular insides of spinning asteroids. (Imagine standing inside a rolled up map—except the fields and cities and lakes that are around and above you are all real.)
-Astronauts bodysurfing in a wake of ice-chunks in the rings of Saturn
-A flooded New York that’s become a Venetian utopia (Who says all climate change is bad? Not Postal Service!)
-A city-on-rails that constantly moves to straddle the line between the shady and the (brutally) sunny side of Mercury. That line is called a terminator. I did not know that.

A volcanic planet. A sea planet. A dust planet. Who needs warp drive when we’ve got so many amazing (and real) locales right here in our own ecliptic? Robinson explores them all, and the result is awe-inspiring. Also, there’s something about evil terrorist computers who like to play bocce balls? That part was OK too.


Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
This book has two protagonists who start off (at least in my mind) being nearly indistinguishable. Both are bright guys who are too independent-minded to advance to the upper-tiers of their profession (one is an executive officer on a commercial spacecraft and the other is a police detective). Like most average-joe types in a sci-fi/fantasy book, these guys are swept up into extreme, world-shaking events, and this is when each character’s unique flaws are exposed. At the point when the crewman and detective meet, they are already on diverging, well-developed character arcs. One of them clings to his idealistic principles (sometimes to the point of foolishness); the other descends into obsession and ruthlessness.

The action really pops, and the story never meanders, which tells me the author(s) are really strong at outlining their plot. I’m looking forward to seeing what Corey has planned for the rest of the series.


Surface Detail

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
This was my first time reading a novel by Iain M. Banks, and I have to say at first I felt like I had missed something. The first five chapters of this book gave me whiplash. The stabbing of a sex-slave! A medieval castle siege! A terrorist attack in space! The resurrection of said sex-slave! And Hell-ephants! (Of course, those are an alien species of elephants who been banished to their own alien version of Hell)!

After a while, all of these trippy plotlines coalesce around a central concept: The idea that (with enough advanced technology) a person’s consciousness can be copied and downloaded into something else. You’ve probably seen this before (Lawnmower Man, Freejack, Avatar, Inception, and perhaps most horrifically, in the Kirk Cameron vehicle Like Father Like Son). But Mr. Banks takes this idea one step further: Why not copy everyone’s psyches so that we all can live on after our physical bodies fail? And if you’re really into the idea of spiritual retribution, why not send (un)deserving souls to a virtual-reality version of Hell?

Some alien societies see these virtual Hells as a logical manifestation of their religion. Others think they’re the equivalent of eternal concentration camps. Hmmm. Lxet’s have a galactic war about it! Awesome! The ideas, action, dialog, and descriptions in this book were all brilliant. Surface Detail might not have been the most noob-friendly introduction to Bank’s ‘Culture’ world, but it definitely hooked me. Now I just have to figure out who is Mr. Zakalwe. The Culture’s version of Ron Burgundy?