Read: Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

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.

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Read: Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

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.

Read: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie‘s “Ancillary Justice” was published just as my reading funk began, oh so many years ago. I remember people speaking favourably of it, and I remember thinking that maybe I should… but as other books piled up unread I didn’t get around to it, not until last week.

In some respects it is pretty standard fare. A macro-political conflict between different visions of what the world should be and a personal conflict based on revenge and perceived injustices, all played out against a backdrop of a future or faraway civilisation vastly different from ours, yet alike.

Not as far out as the kaleidoscopic fractals of Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean Le Flambeur trilogy, nor as harsh and brutal as Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, to name just two, but it sits comfortably on the same bench – not as loud, not as brash, stealth mode operational, but the AI is online and running, telling the story from her perspective.

The choice of protagonist is brilliant. Breq, formerly Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, was once both the AI of one of the mighty Justices and one of many interchangeable and expendable avatars – here called ancillaries – of that same ship AI. She – it is uncertain if she’s female or not but her culture, the Radch, doesn’t care for gender pronouns and uses “she” for anyone – has lived through thousands of years, caring for a succession of human captains and officers, assisting in carrying out annexation after annexation of neighbouring civilisations, expanding the Radch empire. Through her experiences we get to see events evolve over a long span of years and through different eyes, until events unfold and she is left alone, without extended presence, without the ability to see and hear beyond what any unaugmented human might see or hear but still in possession of her conviction to set things right, at any price.

(It also makes it abundantly clear that what hype calls “AI” today is machines capable of learning to sort, parse and react to a specific and limited set of data – to adapt, really, under specific circumstances, rather than to evolve and think and judge in any meaningful way. But that’s for another discussion.)

Leckie’s storytelling is straight-forward. Where other writers get at least partially lost in convoluted subplots of intricate phantasmagoria fed by the endless supply of space offered by software-enabled writing Breq’s journey never loses momentum. She never gets lost in mirrors reflecting and re-reflecting favourite words or favourite images, while in bywords and in passing offering opportunity to reflect on gender, power structures, religion, loyalty, prejudice, and identity.  Among other things.

I am holding my thumbs for the rest of the trilogy to live up to the expectations set by this first instalment. And this is the advantage of being a latecomer: the rest of the story is already published, no years of waiting involved!

Review: Rule 34, by Charles Stross

Fast, fun, and highly rhetorical if not downright political. The standalone – yes, I think it works well on its own – sequel to Halting State Stross‘ Rule 34 is a good read.

The story revolves around sidestepped and showed sidewards Inspector Liz, a set of murders that are too coincidental to be coincidence, and the cast that comes with it.

At first the way the story is told throws me a little. To tell a story from different perspectives is relatively common in modern SF; that was not unusual. No. What got to me was that the story of every person is described as by someone else. Soon enough I got used to it, to the extent that I started to reflect on it… and indeed – it is a clue. The track grows stronger in the last third of the book, where clues are dotted all around – sometimes begging you to backtrack what you read, to check the way another person experienced it… and so the ending does not surprise.

Still, done in a neat way, so not to depend on the surprise moment.

Like with Halting State I think anyone living in the modern world should read it. Not for its poetic values and fantastic storytelling. There are, after all, better authors than Stross out there. No, you should read it because it is highly relevant to the times that we live in, asking questions about where we’re headed, and how.

This perfect day, indeed.

Review: Cyberabad Days, by Ian McDonald

Good science fiction is the domain of people who have something to say, some questions to pose, regarding what we humans and our societies and our cultures are. In that science fiction is a genre that can be urgent and immediate, facilitating discussion on topics on ethics and identity and cause and consequence on a level way beyond what is possible when you have to deal with the ordinary and everyday life in the here and now. Because to science fiction there is a possibility closed to others – the possibility to extrapolate future, to ask and explore the kind of “what if” that relates to society, politics and economics.

Ian McDonald is one of these great “what if”-people. In Cyberabad Days he explores the “what ifs” of artificial intelligence, man and machine and the self-interested middle class and its hunt for ever more personal glory against a background of  “what if” India got balkanized. The means is a series of short stories, some would call it a short story collection. But this is to belittle the book because each of the stories, together with River of Gods, build to something that is far more than a series of disconnected tales – it is a suite of different perspectives on the suicidal trip India’s upper middle classes enters upon as they try to outdo each other in wealth and glory; the stories showcases the effects on society as a whole, without never ever leaving the little person behind.

My favourite stories are The Dust Assassin, An Eligible Boy, The Little Goddess, and The Djinn’s Wife (which made me think of Iain M Banks‘ Culture books in general and Surface Detail in particular), but all are very good. And most of all – without the rest of them the last story, the one that actually relate to River of Gods in a more substantial way, would lose some of it’s impact.

Anyone who have read and enjoyed River of Gods should read Cyberabad Days. Anyone who have not read River of Gods yet should do so first to be able to wholly appreciate Cyberabad Days but it IS readble on it’s own, too.

And any which way Ian McDonald is one of the most important of our current authors, SF genre or not. Not only because he has something to say but because he says it well, respecting his readership and our brains, to think for ourselves.

Go support a living author. Go get one of his books. And start thinking.

Review: River of Gods, by Ian McDonald

River of Gods is a truly collective story, told as seen through the eyes of nine different people, living their different lives. Some are people of power, some are not, but they are all played by the main, hidden, character the revelation of which is a main turning point in the tale. Some such stories can be hard to follow but this one is not. Instead it reminds me of the ideas of “the weave of time” or “life mosaic”, were a lot of small pieces or different strands all contribute to a greater picture, an image larger than any of it’s pieces. For this is a well written and expertly told tale, as told by the cybernetic fires of the future.

What makes the book so good is not the inventiveness, nor the clever plot. Sometimes when I anticipate a certain development in a story I feel *d’uh* when it finally arrives. Not so this time, nor did the truly sciencefictional conclusion feel beyond belief, even if that’s what it was. No, the true greatness of this book is the vivid textures, the smells, the cast – all interesting, capturing the curiosity of at least this reader, even when they are disgusting or overzealous or delusional. Because when they are they are human, and true to their respective character. And in the end, for all their free will, they have been goaded in the same direction, to replay a greater story…

Definitely recommended reading for anyone enjoying science fiction not for the fun and escapism but for the intelligence and thoughtfulness.

(I’ll also venture that anyone with some knowledge about India will find it interesting, whether you are used to reading science fiction or not.)