It's been awhile since I read a book that really challenged me, which probably doesn't speak highly of my reading habits, but at DragonCon I finally got to finish up Ancillary Justice, which was a Christmas gift. Once I got a firm grasp on the world, I was in for the long haul and I'm looking forward to picking up Ancillary Sword soon. It took awhile for me to get into it though, due to a constellation of factors.
The premise hooked me straight off. Here's the high concept: ancillaries are former human who are mind wiped and essentially enslaved by AIs at the behest of a conquering empire. These AI are spread across numerous human bodies, with their brains effectively serving as cloud processors. So you have collective entities with shared perception and consciousness. They often make up armies, but our protagonist was part of a starship. Breq, formerly known as One Esk, was one of many ancillaries used to control and run an enormous battle cruiser that is several thousand years old; the Justice of Toren. The challenging part is the en media res opening in a very dense universe, and a story that tells itself in both directions as it progresses. I can learn a lot on how to avoid info dumps here, but I actually found myself wishing for some more explicit exposition earlier on.
What really challenged me was the language. It’s one of those books with a lot of unique terminology, and very alien words (there is a race of aliens named the “Rrrr,”) and very rigid codes of etiquette that are explained in fits and starts, but employed throughout the book. One convention hit me harder than expected, which was the use of ‘she’ for all gender pronouns in the Empire (the culture that uses Ancillaries). Maybe I felt ‘othered’ by it, and I cling to the patriarchy tighter than I admit (that may read snarky but it’s a real possibility), but my frustrations manifested as trouble picturing characters. Now obviously, that estrangement is part of the point. At first I thought it was kind of a trite way to hint that gender doesn’t matter, but really it’s a very clever way to characterize Breq. She (I think she is biologically female) often screws up other characters’ genders. It kind of taxes suspension of disbelief that a genius AI who can read facial expressions near-flawlessly would have trouble recognizing secondary sexual characteristics, until you realize that as a collective being, Breq is thoroughly desexualized. She thought of herself as genderless, and her culture also de-emphasized gender linguistically. Conversely, most human imperials don’t give a fuck, because they can tell who is what by looking at them.
The gender politics were less fascinating to me than the book’s political intrigue, which is weird because I generally prefer stories that operate on a more personal scale. Vague spoilers to follow in this paragraph only. Around midway through the book, it is revealed that Ancillaries, and other beings spread across multiple bodies, can be given a unique consciousness that exists independently in the collective being with personal agency. This allows them to advance opposing agendas simultaneously, hidden from the other facets of the collective (talk about a mindfuck). If that collective being happens to be the leader of an intergalactic empire, you can see how a mind divided against itself might be a problem.
Ann Leckie walked away with both the Hugo and Nebula for this one (and rightfully so), so I imagine most of my sci-fi friends have already read this or at least have it on their radar. But I would also recommend it to folks who are fascinated by gender stuff.
It’s encouraging to know that collective/shared consciousnesses are trending in sci-fi (as evidenced by this, Psycho-Pass, and Sense8), because it's a huge part of my book. And since you didn’t ask, the revisions are slow going, but I’m feeling good about them. It was cool to discover that I didn’t need to revise Part 1 as drastically as I thought I would. In a perfect world, Parts 2 and 3 would be done by the holidays, but since this is the first re-write for those parts, I suspect it won’t be done until the end of next spring. At that point, I will need loads of feedback, since I am serious about getting this one published.