The “what is it that makes you human” is a theme common to many story that acts against an sf backdrop. In that Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy both builds on tradition and expands on it.
Am I human? Who is human? What is it that makes you human?
Do one really have to be “human” to be regarded as of equal value as us bipedal ugly bags of mostly water? If an entity is aware of other beings, have a sense of time past, present and future, can reason around a topic, and are capable of making conscious decisions for themselves they are sentient – have they then earned the right to self-determination?
The hard thing – for a human, at least – might be to realise that no one except a human is human. So why should a non-human intelligence want to be labelled as human in the first place? Only human megalomania can assume that the non-human intelligence would want to be human.
Breq Mianaai, former Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, struggles a bit with what she is. For humans she’s an “it”. She’s an avatar of a ship AI, or what in the Radch is called an ancillary. An AI is made to serve humans, unable to make its own decisions, unable to take responsibility for its actions and its future. Or so the humans are used to think, and so many AI’s are used to think. The problem for Breq, though, is that her ship is no more; no more AI that can control the ancillary, and so she has to take control over herself – to make her own decisions: she needs to come to terms with the fact that she is worthy of the care and regard of other sentient beings, even when she views herself as an expendable.
With guest appearances from the enigmatic Presger – a species so alien humans cannot fathom them… and perhaps vice versa? – and Toren’s AI cousins, or maybe a host of born humans, Ancillary Mercy is a book that is in equal parts funny and ominous. When the tale comes to an end we are at a new beginning, a new set of “what if’s”. Maybe not fulfilling, but such is life and such is this tale. And maybe we think that other beings might not be as bad as the bad eggs amongst humans, when compared to each other – it is what we do, not what we were born as, that defines us.
Don’t start with this book. Do the sane thing and start with Ancillary Justice, move on to Ancillary Sword, and finish off with Ancillary Mercy. Sword lagged a bit but nevertheless the trilogy is well worth reading. And that regardless of if you take the opportunity to reflect on how we judge those who are not like us, or like you, or if you read it as action-oriented adventure.
I will continue to keep an eye out for Leckie’s stories. You should, too.