“One Small Part of Myself” – Ancillary Justice

A few days ago I finished Ann Leckie’s multi-award winning debut novel Ancillary Justice, released in 2013. I had heard and read about it in the past, and picked it up for my e-reader as it was on sale earlier in the month. I am really pleased that I did; it doesn’t need me to say it, but Justice is a splendid example of science fiction, the fiction of ‘ideas.’ Spoilers of major plot points follow, so please be aware if you want to read the novel unspoiled, stop now.

The story, set at some indeterminately distant future, follows the experiences of Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, an Ancillary of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, who is on a mission to avenge the murder of one Lieutenant Awn. Of course, the story is straight-forward neither chronologically nor motivationally. One Esk Nineteen – by this point operating under the identity of ‘Breq of the Gerentate’ – is not just a subsidiary component of Justice of Toren. She became the totality – or as near as possible – of it after the ship Justice of Toren was destroyed. Even before that, One Esk Nineteen had quirks of behaviour that differentiated her segment from the other segments within Justice of Toren; she sang, she had her own favourites. Justice of Toren was Awn’s executioner, just not the segment of which One Esk Nineteen. It is the ruler of the space empire of which Justice of Toren is subservient to who ordered Awn’s execution: Anander Mianaai. Mianaai has multiple bodies who have started to struggle at cross purposes to themselves, segments of the ruler as One Esk Nineteen is a segment of Justice of Toren.

Science Fiction uses technology as a device to have readers ask about both the world we live in, and of our assumptions about it. Ancillary Justice continues this tradition by questioning our ideas of what is the self and what it means to be a person, asking questions of how we construct our identity. As Breq thinks “It seems very straightforward when I say “I”” yet is anything but. Breq is open about not understanding her subjectivity, the novel begins with her professing that “sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do.”

We are told in the first chapter that she “is not what [she] once was” a statement that at face value is linked to her diminished capabilities but, underneath that, hints at the sprawling complexities of an identity: “it’s hard for me to know how much of myself I remember.” She was once part of a ship with many components, and is now one alone;

“I was all but dead, had been for twenty years, just a last, tiny fragment of myself that managed to exist a bit longer than the rest.”

Before that, the body of Breq was that of a human taken in an annexation – the conquest and subsumation of a planet in to the Radch. Whoever that person was is lost, unless they exist on in One Esk’s love of singing. Breq’s identity is questioned, not just by herself, but whether she is herself at all. On Nilt, with the doctor Strigan, Breq is advised to seek out a new life away from Radch, to which Breq’s response is, if she did as advised, should she let go of her vendetta, would Strigan require monthly updates on her exploits, so that she ‘approved’ of Breq’s identity. Does she at all have any say in what Breq makes of herself as a person?

“Is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by a convenient or useful narrative?”[1]

This is something that Breq struggles with, the way in which societal convention plays a part in how we construct ourselves. For example, among the Nilters, there are differentiated genders that she cannot identify:

“I had to take gender into account – Strigan’s language required it. The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant… yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did.”

I was really intrigued by the gender construction in Justice as I was reading the book, as it forced me to stop and think. Obviously, I live in a nominally two-gender society.[2] The Radch have only one gendered pronoun, ‘she’, and Breq continues throughout the book to refer to characters as ‘she’ and ‘her’ almost exclusively. Even Seivarden, a time-lost officer who Breq rescues, who is identified as biologically male, Breq thinks of as she and her. Leckie could have just used a neutral pronoun, or a made-up one, but by instead going with she, she pushes us in to a critical position. As Breq explains to Strigan, it is not that there is no gender, or sex, but that the priorities of Radch are different. In English, we possess two gendered pronouns and, as grammarians would have it, ‘he’ is the neutral pronoun. In Justice, ‘she’ is not just the default, but the exclusive pronoun. This inverts the linguistic culture in which the text is composed, forcing the reader to pay attention to the characters in the text, and communicating Breq’s discomfort. Being part of Patriarchal society, we are taught from an early age to look for gender signifiers, which Breq struggles with. In turn, we the reader peer in to the text trying to discover gender without the helpful shorthand of pronouns. It also places us in a position to approach the characters divorced from any hold-over linguistic assumptions: Breq, Seivarden, Mianaai, Awn, Saaiat are just there; old Sevin’s cognitive estrangement achieved with the simplest of flourishes.

Justice does not present self in a dichotomous fashion, with reason as you and your emotional life as some nefarious other desperate to drag the higher mind down – I mentioned in watching the film Lucy that I find this othering of emotional consideration a frustrating and lazy tendency that manifest in sf – but rather a vital part of the cognitive process. When we are introduced to Seivdarden, she is suffering withdrawal from a drug called Kef. This drug numbs the emotions of the users, in the belief that “emotions out of the way, supreme rationality would result.” Breq, (and the ship that she once was) dismisses this simply that “it doesn’t work that way.” Emotions are useful: Mianaai does not excise the emotional reasoning of the ships despite the risk of disloyalty because without it, they are simply unable to prioritise. It is because she, or One Esk, is able to have emotional attachments that she is able to oppose Mianaai. Seivarden, without emotions, was dying in a snow drift until Breq found her.

It might be easy to dismiss that as all that book does, explore the fragmentary psyche of a being questionably possessed of personhood, but Justice is far better, and far smarter, than that. Breq’s problems are reflected in the universe she travels in, and the conflict of the story, those contradictions that flourish in living. The culture that Justice of Toren originated within and served, the Radch, is structured around the idea of civilisation and being civilised. Breq illuminates a pun within Radchai is that to say one is not Radch is to say one is not civilised. Yet, much like the Roman culture which Leckie drew on for some inspiration, the Radch are barbarous, a culture built on ceaseless aggression and conquest, that dispenses atrocity in conquest, a police state; it is also a utopia that provides for its citizens, practices syncretic religion, and has (as evinced in the pronouns) massively more progressive values re gender than our own society. Yet “the noblest, most well-intentioned people in the world can’t make annexations a good thing.” This is absolutely clear to the reader, as it has already been described to us that the humans that are converted in to Ancillaries are neither dead nor insensate, but aware the whole time. The things in Radch that are considered good, that civilise the society, are inextricably intertwined with the brutal, bad things:

“The same drugs used for aptitude testing… could also be used for interrogation.”

Radch had an irreconcilable differences within it that manifest in the supreme leader, Anander Mianaai.

“Which me do you serve?” Mianaai asks Breq near the end of the novel, when the crippled, vengeful ship has come to kill Mianaai, as many of her as she can. Of course, what she is really asking Breq is what vision of the Radch she aligns to: the nominally progressive Radch that wants to change as circumstances change, or the Radch that seeks to retrench militarily and preserve, or reassert, the older values of the imperium. Breq rejects the idea that she serves either – “I didn’t kneel, or even bow” – or even the Radch; if she serves anything it is only the memory of the dead Lieutenant Awn. The point of allegiance to the Radch is, for Breq, a pointless one. The whole thing is morally compromised as, whatever end is met, it will be Anander Mianaai. This is familiar territory for science fiction[3] but it is Mianaai who observes that for all the fact that, while from a high-level view, small changes mean nothing, for many people those small changes could be the difference between life and death:

“If you’ve got power and money and connections, some differences won’t change anything… It’s the people without the money and the power, who desperately want to live, for those people small things aren’t small at all. What you call no difference is life and death to them.”

To return to the Roman inspiration for a moment, Breq and Mianaai both have their Rubicon moments that establishes discreet identities, the choices they make birthing their new and separate selves, connected to their prior identities but also forced to acknowledge they are somehow different. As we experience the story in Breq’s perspective, that sense of self is always tinctured with a feeling of loss, of diminishment. The synthesis (if you’ll forgive the butchered Hegelianism) is more a fall from the perfect knowledge of Justice of Toren to the limited perspective of just One Esk Nineteen. And yet as Breq she can achieve things, think things that the ship never could. Similarly, when Breq forces the Mianaais to recognise their fracturing in to more than one self, something is lost in the change, but something is gained, even if only in the possible. Justice is replete with the idea that identity is not a fixed thing, subject both to ourselves and others, and often unpredictable, whether it is One Esk shooting the Mianaai that ordered her to kill her beloved Lieutenant Awn, or the change in perspective that Seivarden undergoes that sees her embracing change in the face of reaction. Though, as she thinks she is dying, Breq thinks of herself only as “a machine meant for killing” we see that her internal contradictions make her much more, and create the possibility for us to consider others in the same light.

[1] The idea that identity is something that is subject to scrutiny resonated with a favourite exchange in China Mieville’s Embassytown, here BrenDun tries to explain to Avice: “If I’d thrown his away and kept mine, you’d think I was clinging to my dead identity or resenting his death. If I threw them both away, you’d see me in denial. If I kept his but not mine you’d say I was refusing to let him go. There’s nothing I can do you won’t do that to.”

[2] It should be noted here that the reality of life is very different from the way it is described – basically, two genders doesn’t even begin to describe what actually goes on, but it is used to do so.

[3] Any conversation about utopian cultures and intelligent spaceships gravitates around the late Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels, and if I still had access to those, a compare and contrast with, say, Use of Weapons, would be cracking.

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