Ancillary Justice

October 13, 2015

Can there ever be a just empire?

Ann Leckie’s Hugo Award-winning Ancillary Justice—the first in her Imperial Radch trilogy—is a fascinating work of modern sci-fi. In its pages, Leckie grapples with deep questions of justice, ethics, and identity in a story populated by full-fledged, sympathetic characters. Unexpectedly, one such character, our narrator, is an artificial intelligence with dozens of bodies (or “ancillaries”), unlike any narrator I’ve read before. Her adversary is a similar intelligence who suffers a psychotic break as a result of trauma, splitting into two or more factions within her own multiply-embodied identity. What follows is a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse (cats-and-mice?) across the galaxy.

But Ancillary Justice is a slow burn, light on combat and heavy on interesting conversation. Its treatment of colonialism is especially engaging. The Radchaai empire spans the galaxy, having annexed worlds for thousands of years. It is at once benevolent and brutal, guaranteeing food, clothing, shelter, and security for all of its annexed “citizens,” but it rules with an iron fist and, most disturbingly, extracts a tax in the form of bodies. During an annexation, a number of inhabitants are killed and reanimated as “ancillary” bodies for military AIs. The Radchaai maxim is “propriety, justice, and benefit,” and their civilization is arguably more enlightened than our own. In many situations, the Radch rules more justly as an outside party than the local planetary authorities with their entrenched ethnic conflicts. One is reminded of the British in India and their outlawing of widow-burning (Sati). Knowing full well the arrogance (not to mention violence) with which they imposed their way of life, it nonetheless strains the moral mind to imagine that it wasn’t ultimately just in this case.

But of course, like all empires, the Radch is often grossly unjust, especially when it comes to resources. As one aristocratic lieutenant lays bare:

Luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience.

And one of the story’s defining moments is an act of genocide on an scale impossible to all but an interplanetary empire. It was

the first time so many Radchaai officers came away from an annexation without the certainty that they had done the right thing.

The speaker continues, explaining how until this event, most Radchaai truly believed their empire was just:

…Do you still think Mianaai controls the Radchaai through brainwashing or threats of execution? Those are there, they exist, yes, but most Radchaai, like people most places I have been, do what they’re supposed to because they believe it’s the right thing to do. No one likes killing people.

Here justice and identity are revealed as sisters. When we believe ourselves just and good, what happens when we—or those on “our side”—do something horrific? Can our society remain the same? Can our identity?

Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction?

Here, our narrator knows well what it means to be divided. She is, after all, a single intelligence spanning dozens of bodies each with their own memories and emotions. But there’s also something human in that, which she knows. And when she struggles to narrate that, I found it truly moving:

It makes the history hard to convey. Because still, “I” was me, unitary, one thing, and yet I acted against myself, contrary to my interests and desires, sometimes secretly, deceiving myself as to what I knew and did. And it’s difficult for me even now to know who performed what actions, or knew which information. Because I was Justice of Toren. Even when I wasn’t. Even if I’m not anymore.