One of the reasons that science fiction is my preferred genre in fiction is the possibility of the what if. When at its best science fiction manages to combine a story that is interesting in and of itself, with rounded characters, good world-building, and a good pace, with a discussion of what kind of world we do want for ourselves. It can explore the large-scale economical and political ramifications, as well as the psychological effects, of different economic systems, of power struggles, and of ideologies, both on their own and as they clash. A few authors manage to consistently stay in that sphere. Ancillary Sword is only the second story by Ann Leckie that I have read but I think she manages to present the reader with the “what is it to be human” dilemma, in an underhanded sort of way that is very becoming in a time when smoke and explosions is par for the course.
Ancillary Sword picks up right where Ancillary Justice left off, with Breq, former One Esk Ninteen of the troop carrier ship Justice of Toren, having failed at killing the Lord of the Radch, the three-thousand year old autocrat Anaander Mianaai.
On the surface Breq is ordered to an adjacent space station, to keep the station, the planet, and the people safe from the civil war that now has broken out in parts of the vast Radch Empire. She – he? gender is utterly unimportant in the world of the Radch – has been appropriated by the Lord of the Radch, or rather by one of the factions of the multi-bodied emperor, and forced into the role of Fleet Captain, carrying the same surname as the supreme ruler. But here the story starts to acquire layers.
The Radch differentiates between Citizens – people who are perceived as “Radch”, a word that also means “civilised” – savages, the uncivilised, and ancillaries.
The civilised can be very uncivilised, while the uncivilised are not uncivil but rather just not part of the Radch culture. Ancillaries, though, are human bodies, harvested from the uncivilised worlds as the Radch “annex” them, to be used as avatars for ship and station AI’s. A ship AI is the ship, and so when Justice of Toren went down One Esk Ninteen was the only fragment left of that two-thousand year old entity, once with hundreds, if not thousands, of ancillaries, all providing eyes and hands for the ship.
As the story picks up speed it is clear that Breq miss being one of many. She tries to interact with and through her new ship, Mercy of Kalr, but while faster, stronger, and older than any human, at the core human is what she is – and despite having reactivated her old ancillary implants she lacks the processing power or capacity to be part of the ship. Being at multiple places at once is just not feasible anymore.
Is she human? Is the ship human? The station? Breq attracts attention when she interacts directly with station and ship, treating them as of equal value as the humans, some of who in their quest for perfection actually try to impersonate ancillaries.
While on one level it is fully possible to read Ancillary Sword for the political drama it is also possible to read the story as a discussion on what it is to be human. In times such as ours, when machine learning is starting to leave the labs, with mobile devices packing enough computing power to connect us to a grid of many such learning machines, the question of what it is that makes us human is more relevant than ever.
A long way from The Caves of Steel, but also kin to that universe.
A pleasing reading experience.