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: The Casual Angel, by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Casual Thief has been lurking in my TBR-pile ever since I first pre-ordered and then fetched it from the SF Bookshop, two years ago. There are, of course, multiple reasons for this delay, but I really did want to understand what was going on in that faraway version of our future universe populated with the Sobornost, the zokus, Jean de Flambeur, and Mieli, in The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince books, so though late I did recently began to read it.

It was, from the start, as splintered – post-modern, if you so wish – as the previous installations. Rajaniemi has a brilliant imagination.  He has peppered his tale with references to contemporary pop culture and ancient mythologies galore, and armed with those images one can easily conjure explosive, florescent, fractal, visuals to go with a tale, and it is told in shards – sometimes having to wait for things to make sense. The Thief  – Jean – is on a quest that neither he nor the reader fully understand the ramifications of, to find the Kaminari jewel, but is he a tool, and for whom, or is he self-determined? Mieli, wandering the universe to find her lost lover. Is she a tool (too)? Is this a game? Do I care? Am I made to care?

Am I compelled to read beyond the first pages?

Yes.

As I once more dived into the fantastical imaginary world that he built, and as I kept adding his world-specific concepts and their labels to my mental dictionary, the pace slowly but surely picked up. And surely soon everything would come to a conclusion, surely soon everything would start to make sense? But as  I kept turning pages, searching for content and meaning, the more I felt left floundering in the void, hope for sense and conclusion diminishing as the number of pages left to convincingly pull the trick dwindled.

The visuals and imagination is both daring and stunning, as is the world-building. But beyond that at least I need something more than one more fantastical set of props and toys, more than what if fireworks. More than a creeping revelation that everything is a game, and relative.

I found it difficult to engage with the characters, to feel for them. At times it felt a bit like I was in the middle of a Skylanders challenge, or dropped on a Minecraft plain. Cunningly designed to keep your attention, but impersonal. It is possible to smile at the odd Harry Potter reference; at the gesture of showing how storytelling creeps into our reality. But still – impersonal.

There are other authors – like the late Iain M Banks, whose Culture universe is as post-human as this one – who manages to pull it off with more conviction, adding depth beyond wonder, despite veering off on personal rants against (or for) this or that.

I do think the trilogy would benefit from being read as one book, in one sequence, as I imagine that will make the experience an easier one. Maybe then one would be able to empathise with Jean, with Mieli. As it is I didn’t feel the experience worth the effort to start it all over again, just to test this hypothesis.

Kudos though  to Rajaniemi for the trilogy being well crafted, imaginative, and consistent; I imagine that a lot of people will enjoy reading it, as did I, as long as it lasted. Fireworks can be fun. Our stories do make us who we are. Just not a once more into the breach-experience for this one.

Read: The Fractal Prince, by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Fractal Prince is a hard book to review. It picks up where The Quantum Thief left off. But were left it off? And were to? The Thief is after something but what, we don’t know, just as no one else in the tale seems to. Except perhaps Matjek, the head of the disembodied Sobornost; those who believe Mind is more precious than Matter and thus have left it behind. Who might be the one the Thief is after.

But not even the Thief knows, being denied his Sobornost qualities as part of a punishment.

Making any sense? Weeeell…

In this book the Thief is trying to get hold of a back-up copy of Matjek and the hunt takes him to Earth. And beyond everything else the Thief is a con artist so he cons his way into Earth politics, meeting up with the other thread of this story – the Gomelez sisters, living on an Earth were stories are viral, in all respects; in a post-apocalypse so wide it could just as well be another part of the galaxy.

The Earth parts I think the best. The overall context is still Brit SF, what with quantum theory and metaphysical minds, but Rajaniemi’s vision of a future Earth is poetic and visually wonderful, even in it’s monstrous ruin, filth and poverty.

Rajaniemi writes well – he manages to drag me into the book even as I sometimes have no clue about what really is going on. Not a book for everyone but I, I am looking forward to the next one which I hope will hold the conclusion.

I want to know what this is about!