December 18, 2016

ONE BOOK WOULD HAVE BEEN AMPLE (self-reference alert):

An Empire Divided (Graham J. Murphy, DECEMBER 17, 2016, LA Review of Books)

Within the trilogy, far-flung star systems comprise the territory of the Imperial Radch, ruled for the past 3,000 years by the authoritarian Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, whose clone bodies and interstellar gates enable her to achieve a distributed consciousness stretching across light years. This distributed consciousness is also the source of the empire's central conflict: ruling a vast empire is difficult for the Lord of the Radch when "it could take weeks for a thought to reach all the way across herself," an inconvenience that proves increasingly problematic when various parts of herself begin plotting against others. Lord Mianaai is quite literally at war with herself over the future of the Radch; this schism results partially from her own conflicted feelings about an insurrection by the Garsedd star system that ended in the utter destruction of Garsedd and its people, triggering Lord Anaander Mianaai's internal division.
Furthermore, myriad internal and external complications threaten the Radchaai in addition to Lord Mianaai's schismatic condition. First, the empire is beset by resistance to the changing shape of the Radchaai military. There are three classes of starship -- Justice, Sword, and Mercy -- and each ship is commanded by human officers; the composition of a ship's crew, however, is an increasing source of tension within the empire. For thousands of years, the crew had been largely comprised of ancillaries, corporeal extensions of a ship's central Artificial Intelligence (AI) arranged hierarchically into units under a human commanding officer. In the years prior to the main events of the first novel, however, the Imperial Radch has moved away from ancillaries in favor of human crews. This decision fuels divisions within the military as an increasingly emboldened contingent seeks to abandon human crews and return to the more profitable (and brutally exploitative) ancillary system, which depends upon the conquest of new worlds to harvest the bodies that become enslaved as ancillaries to the Radchaai ship systems.

Second, alien threats like the Geck and the Rrrrrr from outside Radchaai space perpetually haunt the empire, but it is the Presger -- a vicious and unstoppable species that has defeated the Radchaai in every previous encounter -- who are the greatest concern. Although the Presger never actually appear in the series, they conduct their business through envoys or operate behind the scenes. It is the Presger, for example, who not-so-secretly supplied the Garsedd with powerful weaponry to mobilize their failed rebellion against the Radch. Although a truce keeps the Presger from declaring all-out war, there is ongoing speculation that the Presger are directly or indirectly responsible for provoking Lord Anaander Mianaai's internal schism, which ultimately leads to the Radchaai civil conflict.

The adventures of a former ancillary known as Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen (who simply calls herself Breq) serve as the narrative heart of the series. Threats to the Radchaai empire are intensely personal for Breq: she spent most of her life as an ancillary, but her greater self, Justice of Toren, has been destroyed by one version of Anaander Mianaai in a strategic move against another; all that is left to fuel Breq is her rage at every version of the Lord of the Radch. The first book in the trilogy, Ancillary Justice, opens 19 years after Justice of Toren's destruction: Breq is on the planet Nilt searching for Arilesperas Strigan, a doctor who hides an unregistered Presger gun in her possession -- one that can easily penetrate Radch personal armor and ship shielding. Before Breq can find Dr. Strigan and the gun, however, she stumbles across Seivarden Vendaai, beaten and unconscious in the snow outside a local tavern. Seivarden served with Breq as a lieutenant on the Justice of Toren over 1,000 years earlier until she was promoted to captain the Sword of Nathtas: this was a disastrous posting that saw the Sword of Nathtas destroyed and Seivarden trapped in a stasis tube for a millennium. Seivarden is now a shadow of her former self, a temporally displaced officer addicted to kef whose life is wasting away. And, much like Breq, Seivarden finds the current Imperial Radch largely inhospitable: "You lost your ship," Breq explains to Seivarden. "You were frozen for a thousand years. You wake up to find the Radch has changed -- no more invasions, a humiliating treaty with the Presger, your house has lost financial and social status. No one knows you or remembers you, or cares whether you live or die." Breq could just as easily be talking about herself; she too is lost in an empire she no longer recognizes.

Pairing Breq and Seivarden in Ancillary Justice is key to the former ancillary's humanization. As Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, Breq was part of a localized distributed consciousness with access to a vast body of knowledge, but as a displaced survivor of the destruction of her larger self, she experiences herself as a vastly diminished entity. Breq's story throughout the trilogy involves balancing her quest for vengeance with an exploration of what it means to be human. Breq is a relatively flat protagonist, which shouldn't be surprising considering she is a lone segment of a powerful AI trapped in a human body; as a result, her feelings often struggle against the cold equations of the artificial logic that once governed her existence. Breq can be an off-putting character at times, demonstrating minimal levels of emotional warmth, although she warms up considerably as the trilogy continues. Seivarden helps to thaw Breq out of her isolationism: for reasons unknown even to the former AI segment, Breq bonds with Seivarden, and in so doing, she slowly learns about her own humanity, particularly when Breq risks her life and incurs a leg injury to save Seivarden from a fall off an ice bridge. As Ancillary Justice draws to a close, Seivarden has developed a fierce loyalty to Breq, all the while unaware that Breq is the last remaining segment of Justice of Toren. This loyalty remains unwavering throughout the remaining two books, particularly in Ancillary Mercy. At the same time, Breq develops a sense of responsibility for Seivarden. This relationship between two broken characters allows Leckie to explore questions of identity, loyalty, and addiction. Over the course of the trilogy, the two slowly piece their lives together, and although Breq is stronger in handling her fractures, they both come to rely upon one another in unexpected ways. 

Ancillary Justice also introduces key narrative strategies that help explain why the Imperial Radch trilogy has achieved its stunning success. First, Leckie refuses to allow biological sex to dictate characterization or unduly influence our reading practices. The Radchaai language doesn't differentiate sex or gender, so Breq makes no distinctions; at the same time, the narrative refers to everyone largely as she and her regardless of biological sex.

First, a confession, I listened to the books while walking the dog.  It's narrated by a woman, so every character had a female voice, even the ones I just assumed were men.  I truly didn't notice at first that they were all called she and her.  Of course, the fact that I assigned gender roles so easily must make some metaphysical feminist point or something.

Second, I happened to be listening to them at the same that I was reading a bunch about the fall of the Roman Republic and the American Revolution.  The trilogy itself is pretty glacially paced with almost nothing happening even at the climax and the characters are not terribly engaging, but I did enjoy the parallels to those historical moments and the decision about when it is proper to defy and move against state authority. But i'd rather that have been contemplated in about 400 pages.

Posted by at December 18, 2016 8:44 AM