Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I didn't like this nearly as much as I thought I would.  Not only did it win the Hugo and the Nebula for 2014, but a few things I read here and there made it sound like a mixture of two of my favorites: Ursula LeGuin and Iain M. Banks.  Sadly, for me it failed to live up to the hype.  Maybe I set my expectations too high.

For more on the book, see my Goodreads review.  In the interest of fractured identities, here's my Amazon review as well.

The writing style didn't click for me (Leckie is no LeGuin or Banks), and I thought most of the first half of the book was extremely unclear (call me old fashioned or stylistically gauche, but some violation of the "show, don't tell" rule is allowable or even necessary, especially in science fiction).  Nonetheless, I will say that the basic idea is really cool: an AI that used to be a ship mind now in a single human body.  The fact that the protagonist's language has only female gendered pronouns makes for some interesting reflections on gender, both in that the protagonist is constantly getting it wrong when speaking a dual-gendered language and in the reader often not knowing the gender identities of characters.

The Philosophy Report

This book gives an awful lot to think about concerning personal identity.  Several characters have identities spread throughout hundreds of individual human bodies as well as ships or stations, each with some degree of independence.  These fractured identities can make the storytelling difficult, but it's also fascinating to think what it would be like to be such a creature.  If you could be in hundreds of places at the same time, would you get along with yourselves?  Mild spoiler: one of the characters literally does go to war with herself, which is fascinating.

In my Philosophies of India course this week, we've been covering Buddhist theories of personal identity.  Buddhist philosophers have been saying for thousands of years that our identities are far more fractured than we normally take them to be, so much that there's no real person at all! Nāgasena, the possibly fictional monk featured in The Questions of King Milinda, compares a person to a chariot: just as a chariot is ultimately nothing but a collection of non-chariot parts that we simply call a chariot for convenience, so are people ultimately nothing but collections of impersonal parts (the five aggregates) that we simply call people for convenience.

So if the Buddhists are right, and I think they are (along with their Western compatriots like David Hume and Derek Parfit), then we already have fractured identities just like the Justice of Toren and Anaander Mianaai.  Just as their identities can expand and contract, divide and merge, so can ours.  One of the things I do really like about Ancillary Justice is that it can prompt us to think through deep issues of personal identity, all with the help of galactic empires, AI, and spaceships.  I just wish I liked the execution more...

Rating: 75/100

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