Literature: Ancillary Justice

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren—a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose—to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

From debut author Ann Leckie and the first book in the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Justice is a stunning Space Opera that asks what it means to be human in a universe guided by artificial intelligence.

Ancillary Justice won a pile of awards for Best Novel in 2014: The Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula, and British Science Fiction Association awards, topped off by being the far and away favorite for (and winner of) the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

The second novel in the series, Ancillary Sword, was released in October 2014. Breq is a soldier who used to be a warship. Once a weapon of conquest controlling thousands of minds, now she has only a single body and serves the emperor. With a new ship and a troublesome crew, Breq is ordered to go to the only place in the galaxy she would agree to go: to Athoek Station to protect the family of a lieutenant she once knew.

The Imperial Radch Trilogy provides examples of the following tropes:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Generally they can't go further than be passive-aggressive. However Breq shows what can happen if pushed too far and her narration indicates that AIs are far more conscious and complicated than their masters realise. It doesn't help that different versions of the supreme leader are going round giving contradictory orders to them.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Radchaai citizens are this; their culture does not believe in gender differentiation in language or personal presentation. Also, pretty much every character, since Breq refers to everyone as "she" and complains that gender markers vary from place to place. Only Breq herself, Seivarden, and a couple minor characters are ever explicitly gendered, and Anaander Mianaai is the only character given a gender marker (a baritone singing voice, implying she's male).
  • The Atoner: How Breq sees herself. Her main motive to kill Anaander Mianaai is to get revenge for being forced to kill Lieutenant Awn.
    • Seivarden might also count. Many of her actions revolve around proving that she actually wants to make up for running away and becoming an emotionally crippled drug addict.
  • Bad to the Last Drop: Radchaai have strong opinions about what does and does not qualify as "tea". Most of what's served in "uncivilized" space doesn't.
  • Big Dumb Object: It's briefly mentioned that the Radch only strictly refers to a Dyson Sphere at the center of the empire and everything else is just a buffer zone to keep it safe.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The Presger have an odd view that anything they find "significant" is inviolate. They force any species they deem significant to sign treaties to enforce their view, and they have the technology and military might to ensure those treaties aren't violated without serious consequence. The treaties leave justifiable reasons to kill members of a significant species, but they are so complex and unintuitive to a human mind that most people are entirely unwilling to deal with aliens for fear of violating some seemingly-minor.rule.
  • Body Backup Drive: How Anaander Mianaai has managed to live for a few thousand years.
  • Consummate Professional: Breq once she gets her command in the second book, as one might expect from a 2000 year old military AI. Her whole crew qualifies really once she's licked them into shape.
  • Can't Stop the Signal: Breq intends to alert every corner of Radch space and every iteration of Anaander Mianaai to her Split Personality issue. Despite Mianaai's best attempts to stop her, she succeeds.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: The Radch's dominant religion's view is that only humans can be pure, so impurities introduced to the body reduce your humanity. People who are sufficiently altered are considered so damaged they might as well be aliens. Not that that stops anyone from the Radch getting audio-visual implants installed for practical reasons.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Quite a few, though Breq and Anaander Mianaai are standouts.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Played with, in a way. The flashbacks focus on the perspective of the ancillary One Esk, who was assigned to Lieutenant Awn, while Breq in the present is from the perspective of One Esk Nineteen, who was ordered to escape the ship before its destruction. Although given the nature of the ancillaries and AIs they are technically just different parts of the same person, Justice of Toren.
  • Deflector Shields: The Radchaai, and their ships' ancillaries, all have implanted personal shield generators.
  • Depleted Phlebotinum Shells: The bullets fired by the Garseddai guns will, after impact, go through anything for exactly 1.11 meters, by simply creating as much energy as they need.
  • Dissonant Serenity: A hallmark of Breq's narration, particularly in the Justice of Toren flashbacks. Sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's creepy as hell.
    • Special mention goes to her calm description of the process of having a segment replaced, which turns out to be a nightmarish assimilation of a terrified, weeping Human Popsicle, freshly-thawed and fully conscious.
    "I stopped the sobbing."
  • Dreadful Musician: Throughout the narrative, Breq references her love for music as One Esk and mentions humming to herself in her current solitary body. Toward the end of the story, after several dropped hints, it's outright stated that her remaining body is painfully tone-deaf.
  • The Emperor: Anaander Mianaai. She has thousands of genetically identical clone bodies, all linked together, and has been personally expanding her empire for thousands of years.
  • The Empire: The Radch. Its economy is structured around a state of constant militaristic expansion, its populace is monitored constantly (though on a planet it's unlikely someone will be paying attention to an ordinary person at all times), dissidents get "reeducated", and it has a habit of turning people on newly absorbed worlds into meat puppets for their AIs at the slightest provocation.
  • Ensign Newbie: The "Baby Lieutenants" (they can be given command as young as 17) in general and Tisarwat in particular is actually something of a subversion, her brief time as Anaander Mianaai giving her wisdom beyond her years.
  • Enemy Civil War: Anaander Mianaai is in the middle of one. With herself. And has been for over a thousand years. See Split Personality.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: Medic
  • Fantastic Drug: Kef. It suppresses emotions, so people either take it in the mistaken belief they will become transcendent beings of pure rationality and logic or they use it to dull emotional trauma. If used for the latter it can be incredibly habit forming and addictive.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: How most people view the Ancillaries, typically calling them corpse soldiers - not that anyone debates their efficiency or loyalty. When a planet is conquered, anyone who tries to resist and isn't killed in the fighting, or who makes trouble until the planet is officially annexed, is rounded up and either executed or surgically altered, including alterations to sever their connections to their past identity, and put into cryogenic storage until an AI needs to replace an old body.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Seivarden, due to spending 1,000 years as a Human Popsicle in an escape pod after the destruction of her ship.
  • Grand Theft Me: It turns out that this is possible, provided one has sufficiently modified ancillary implants to use. Anaander Mianaai pulls one on poor Lieutenant Tisarwat.
  • Hive Mind: The AI in the series, especially on military ships, function like this, with one mind shared across many bodies. Suddenly breaking contact between the various bodies is described as being incredibly disorienting and unnerving, but doesn't fracture them into separate identities.
    • Anaander Mianaai also counts, having thousands or millions or identical clone bodies all across her empire, all connected to the same mind so she can efficiently run her empire and oversee its operations.
  • Human Popsicle: One thousand years before the events of the book, Seivarden's ship was destroyed and her escape pod was lost. When she's revived she finds the language has changed to the point she can't understand anyone, all of her implants that could have helped alleviate that problem are so out of date they can't interact with modern computers, and to top it all off she learns that her formerly highly-placed House hasn't existed for the last few centuries.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The humans grown by the Presger to act as their intermediaries are... at best, dangerously unaccustomed to dealing with normal human social customs. Small things like knowing it's impolite to disembowel one's sister, or that people breathe for a reason.
    • Breq and the other ancillaries might also qualify in most regards given how heavily the point is made they aren't human in the Ancillary Sword, although they are unusually benign for the trope.
  • I Owe You My Life: Prompts Seivarden's Heel-Face Turn and gradual development into a more decent human being, after the bridge incident.
  • Informed Attribute: Seivarden apparently talks in an archaic way and with an accent that only members of highly placed houses use anymore. Not that you would be able to tell if people didn't keep commenting on it.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: Humanity's birthplace is known it's just... unimportant.
  • Insistent Terminology: When mentioned by name, Anaander Mianaai is never addressed as anything besides Anaander Mianaai.
  • Just Between You and Me: A rare case where the gloating villain actually does successfully shoot her after their little chat. Not that it helps in the long run.
  • Kill the Ones You Love: Even Anaander Mianaai knows it's a bad idea to force a ship to kill one of its favorites. She just didn't realize Lieutenant Awn was one.
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Anyone who might blow the lid off the secret of Anaander Mianaai's fragmented Hive Mind is summarily killed, including Jen Shinnan and - unfortunately - Lieutenant Awn.
  • Leit Motif: The song that One Esk learns from the flower-bearer on Ors becomes a recurring motif for Breq's emotional turmoil.
    My heart is a fish
    Hiding in the water-grass
    In the green, in the green...
    • In Ancillary Sword, Seivarden orders her soldiers to sing a children's song to themselves the way Breq does, as if they were her ancillaries. The song comes to represent the support and comfort Breq draws from Mercy of Kalr and her crew.
    My mother said it all goes around, it all goes around, the ship goes around the station...
  • Meat Puppet: The ancillaries - used as tools for AIs and the Radch's ground soldiers.
  • Military Science-Fiction: Especially the second book. Although the focus is more on asserting authority over a new command and promoting unit cohesion than weapons porn.
  • A Mother to Her Men: The Ships, to the extent they are able to do so discreetly and provided they like you. Breq in the second book is a more obvious example, albeit a fairly strict mother.
  • Noodle Incident: Whatever Breq did over the last 20 years to get all the money she has and the icons she prays to.
  • Number Two: Seivarden in the second book with elements of The Lancer
  • Oh, Crap: Everyone's (or at least everyone with any sense's) reaction to the Presger translator being killed by the Radch military in the second book.
  • One Gender Society: Played with in the Radch. While the people are physically ordinary humans with two sexes, the Radchaai make very little distinction between them. The Radchaai language doesn't even have pronouns to differentiate between them, and the gender-neutral one that Breq uses is rendered female by Translation Convention. Their society is completely egalitarian with jobs determined by a standardized test called the Aptitudes that are taken sometime before adulthood. Breq often laments the difficulty of having to decide which pronoun to use to keep from looking foolish or offending someone, and finds it a huge relief not to have to worry about it when she returns to Radch space.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: All reports on Lieutenant Tisarwat indicate that she's a flightier-than-average teenager. Also, Breq notes that she was frivolous enough to spend her first paycheck on surgery to make her eyes purple. So when she actually shows up and acts like a serious adult, Breq is perplexed and worries she might be on some kind of drug. Turns out she is actually on drugs—because she just got surgery to put ancillary implants in her brain and is now actually Anaander Mianaai, and the Lord of the Radch is a little disoriented.
    • Swearing. It's strongly frowned on in Radach society, so when people do it others know there's a very serious problem.
  • Prophecies Rhyme All the Time: Averted with songs. While it's not necessarily a given that the various songs in the books would rhyme in the original languages, it's not unreasonable to suspect that they would. But the Radchaai translation (in-universe, and by extension the English translation for readers) for each song does not rhyme at all, as would be expected realisitically.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: In the second book Breq.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The entire plot of the book revolves around Breq getting the resources and opportunity to kill the emperor... Some of her, anyway.
  • Sapient Ship: The ships of the Radch.
  • Single-Biome Planet: Averted. Of the two worlds described, one is comparable to Earth in its variety, and the other, while mostly ice, is said to have more temperate equatorial zones where it's possible to grow grain. It even stays above 2 degrees Celsius all year round!
  • Sole Survivor: Breq, with a hefty helping of Survivor Guilt on top.
  • Serious Business: Tea and gloves.
  • Split Personality: When Anaander Mianaai ordered the eradication of every living thing on Garsedd, the moral crisis it started within herself caused her to develop two different personalities. One saw the action as extreme but necessary and wants to continue with things as they are, the other was horrified and is actively working to reform the Radch and end its constant annexations and expansion. Both are trying to eradicate the other side but have been keeping things covert and subtly maneuvering people to their side for fear of the chaos an all out civil war would cause. And Breq is trying to jump in the middle of it and bring everything out into the open.
    • In a less extreme example, the AIs that use ancillaries are hinted to have a mild version of this. While ancillaries share a single identity, they retain their individual emotions so they don't get trapped in endless loops of logic or give undue attention to pointless details. An individual ancillary's feelings toward a person can color the AI's perception of that person and affect its behavior since the ancillaries all share one mind. If they decide they don't like you they can make your life inexplicably uncomfortable, and Amaat help you if you hurt someone they like.
  • Starfish Alien: The Rrrrrr are described as snake long, furred, and multi-limbed, and speak in growls and barks. While certainly alien, they at least seem to be relatable. The Presger aren't described physically, but they're implied to be even weirder and are explicitly stated to use a completely alien logic.
  • Theme Naming: The planned titles for all of the books are based on the various classes of Radch warship - Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy.
  • There Are No Coincidences: The dominant religion in Radch space holds that all things are the will of the god Amaat so every seeming coincidence is significant. Breq uses this belief to her advantage several times throughout the book.
  • Translation Convention: All over the place. There are at least two languages spoken, Seivarden's Blue Blood speech pattern which gets into Informed Attribute territory, and everyone in the Radchaai language defaults to female.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Seivarden takes this to impressive heights at first.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Many of the things Breq states about herself are subtly (or not-so-subtly) belied by her actions, from her supposed lack of interest in tea, to her awful singing voice as One Esk Nineteen, to her claims of inability to love or feel "human" emotion.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Tisarwat comments to Breq that they are likely doing exactly what Anaander Mianaai wants them to. Breq's response is basically "I don't care, this is what I would do anyway".
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Breq. It's clear from her narration that she very much believes in the principles of "justice, propriety and benefit" that the Radchaai empire purports to be based on. She thinks Anaander Mianaai has corrupted these and so wants to kill her no matter what the consequences (see What the Hell, Hero? below).
  • Wetware Body: The Ancillaries.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: As understandable as her motives are, Breq is still trying to provoke a civil war she knows will result in decades, if not centuries, of chaos and the deaths of billions of people.
    • Then again, the various iterations of Anaander Mianaai have already committed mass murder to keep their secret at least twice, at Ime and at Ors...and those are only the incidents Breq knows about. How many people have been Killed to Uphold the Masquerade over the last thousand years? At least now the issue is out in the open and can hopefully be resolved and finished.
  • You All Meet in an Inn: The book starts with Breq finding Seivarden in the snow outside of a bar.