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: Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

I will not lie. After the inspired and inventive Ninefox Gambit Raven Stratagem, the second Machineries of Empire book, was a bit of a disappointment. Well crafted, as expected from Yoon Ha Lee, but not as contagious as the first instalment.

Ninefox Gambit followed Kel Cheris, with a side of Shuos Jedao. This time the story is spun around the blank gap between the end of Ninefox Gambit and the start of Raven Stratagem. Is Cheris as dead as she seems to be? What is Jedao up to? What is Shuos Mikodez up to, and where in space and time is Nirai Kujen, the enigmatic mastermind behind the hexarchate?

Soaked in elaborate and nestled conspiracies, rooted in a world that is alien at least to me, the mathematical noob – “exotic” tech such as “mothdrives”, behaviour imprints such as “formation instinct”, or abilities such as “enthralment”, or the ability to kill a person just by touch; all made possible by “calendar” mathematics – Raven Stratagem gets a bit obscure; lost in its own cleverness.

On seemingly losing Cheris as a centre to the story we never get another character to root for. Instead the tale switches between multiple points of view while weaving a web of politics, but without ever getting close enough to any of the main players for real attachment to take place. There are some spectacular space battles, lots of fireworks, some intense moments, and I do enjoy the alien-ness of the setup, even when I don’t get it, but somehow it doesn’t embeds itself under my skin.

Definitely not a bad read, and some of the characters had promise, but too great a need to set the stage for the next instalment and not enough interest in the main players negatively affected the overall impression of Raven Stratagem.

Hopefully the third instalment, Revenant Gun, rumoured to be released around June 2018, will put character development back in the game.

Now we wait.

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!

Read: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Still in a reading slump, mainly listening to audio books that I’ve already read before, filling commutes with lecture series, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit might be the book that will restart my reading habit.

Found by accident as I visited the SF Bookshop to get the third Linda and Valerian omnibus something about it caught my eye, and so it followed me home.

It met every expectation – a universe vastly different from ours, engineered castes upholding an empire were humans have no value and no choice in who governs their lives… and yet not so different: challenging the expectation of humane society, of right and wrong, of who, indeed, is the bigger threat to human survival.

The Kel is the warrior caste, engineered to follow order without questioning them, even into suicide, but Kel Cheris is something more – a Kel gifted with numbers and mathematical patterns, able to define and execute “heretical” moves in order to defeat the “heretics”.

At first we don’t really know who these heretics are, but as Cheris is picked to lead a mission to put down a heresy from getting a foothold in a major fortress she gets to host the mind of a very successful but ultimately traitor general, deemed insane, long since dead but his mind kept alive and in stasis by clever tech. And as she fights him in her mind, meanwhile running a successful campaign, ultimately she gets to understand the true meaning of his treason.

Unlike many authors who emerged in this time of personal computers and word processors Yoon Ha Lee’s style is liberating.

Free from endless info dumps, barely disguised rants, or scenes that has no bearing on either story or character development, and packed with tight writing harnessing a vivid imagination I’ve already tried to get my hands on the sequel, Raven Stratagem, only the SF Bookshop was out of stock, temporarily, when I was in last week to get my hands on the book.

Until I can get a copy of it I’ll need to read something else, to tide me over.

Hopefully I found my medicine!

Read: Convergence, by C.J. Cherryh

Eagerly anticipated Convergence is the 18th instalment in the Foreigner series, and while Cherryh has run out of -er words imagination has not.

Convergence is two parallel stories but bot starting with Bren, the dowager and Cajeiri as they return to the atevi earth after the kyo encounter. One story is Bren’s, the other Cajeiri’s, and Bren’s is, in some ways, rather in the background.

Circumstances has Bren and his aishid going to Mospheira, to present the human population and their representatives with both the kyo agreement and with Tabini’s demands on removal of the Reunion group from Alpha station. This story is not centre of interest for the book, though: that honour goes to Cajeiri and his solo trip to Tirnamardi – a gesture to show that the aiji still stands with the Atageini, despite a rather unfortunate turn of events in the search for a new Ajuri clan lord.

Convergence sees a upping of the tempo, but also a more concise prose. Some books back (Deceiver, Betrayer, and thereabouts) each of these two stories could well had taken up several books, and now they are both packed into this unusually short text.

This is not a bad thing, all in all. We get to see how the heir has grown up, despite his still young age, and how he comes to understand his role and responsibilities, and maybe, just maybe, a shift in focus from Bren, who is now a rather established personality whose journey is coming to an end, developmentally speaking, while Cajeiri is just taking off.

My only complaint is that the book is too short, not to mention the cliffhanger ending. As no. 18 it is the concluding book in the 6th 3-book Foreigner story arch but it leaves off at a place were you expect to turn the page and find out what’s next… and next up is another year in the future.

I think I need to pick up some other Foreigner book, in the interim, to ameliorate the abstinence.

Read: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti is of a tribe and family that is protective of its own – their customs, their heritage, and their Otherness. She is also a prodigy at mathematics, with her future as her father’s successor in the family business already decided for. When she receives a stipend to attend the most prestigious university in the known galaxy she stealthily chooses to go against her whole family, none of which has ever travelled outside the planet and some not even outside the village, yet purporting to know everything about the world outside.

She doesn’t make a conflict about it – she just prepares without telling anyone and then slips away in the night to catch the shuttle to the space port, knowing that she by this will be rejected by her culture, never allowed to come back.

In many ways Binti – the novella, not the person – is an anthropological journey, echoing of Ursula K LeGuin and her work. I’m reminded of novellas such as the ones collected in Worlds of Exile and Illusion, but also LeGuin’s work as a whole – exploring and examining cultural and societal constructs, from the perspective  of the Other.

The person Binti – who is a Himba of the Namib, looked down on by the Khoush people that holds power over the economy and institutions on her Earth – is both perceived as Other and encounters the Other, both the known other, the other from allied but alien planets, and the Other with whom they are at war with.

The story is intriguing, and a fast read, but in the end I think it would had benefited from getting more meat on it’s bones. As now it felt much like a story outline, which was good up until the resolution. Until then the format worked well: the story is told in tight first person, in snippets but well crafted and holding together, a credible telling of a series of events. The resolution continued in that style but the ease with which a disoriented minority teen manages to resolve a long standing conflict simply by being able to talk to both parties stretches my belief a wee bit too far. A bit like those detective stories aimed at preteens were two smart kids who seemingly never goes to school and whose parents are conspicuously absent manages to outsmart both the villains and the professional police investigators.

I did like the tone and style in which Okorafor tells the story. Despite, or perhaps because of, the short length of the story she manages to instil empathy for a girl whose cultural veneer is very different from my own, conveying the idea that humaneness is intrinsic, and maybe not even exclusive to humankind. An idea examined by many authors before her but not less honourable an endeavour for that.

Despite the slightly disappointing ending I am going to seek out more of Nnedi Okorafor‘s works, and should you find Binti on a shelf close to you – don’t hesitate to read it. At 89 pages it will not take a lot of your time.