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By Ann Leckie
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Imagine a futuristic Roman Empire that spans that galaxy, working the same way the original one did -- with every new territory gaining all the benefits of any other Roman citizen after annexation, but with annexation happening whether they like it or not, including genocidal-style violence for those who resist. Now imagine that, as a way of providing the firepower to handle such a new annexation, the empire has built giant city-sized spaceships containing hundred of thousands of soldiers, run by a single AI whose consciousness has been split into dozens of zombie-like human "hosts," that allow her to be in multiple places at once and working on multiple things at once. Now imagine that it's a thousand years later, that the aggressive expansion of this empire has gone out of style, and that these massive ships are being retired in order to become permanent unarmed space stations instead, the AIs becoming nothing more than perpetually bored caretakers. If you were one of these AIs facing obsolescence, what would you do?
That's merely page one of Ann Leckie's 2013 Ancillary Justice, with the story going in unexpected new directions starting on page two; and that gives you a good idea of why over the last year, this has become one of the only books in history to win the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke Award and BSFA Award simultaneously, an unheard-of event that demands that this novel be taken seriously, no matter how silly and '70s its cover art. And indeed, after reading this it's easy to see why it's been gaining so much attention, because it's the kind of perfect blend of mind-blowing theoreticals with action-oriented adventure that represents the "holy grail" of science-fiction, a space-opera and brain-teaser rolled into one perfect story bound to satisfy all genre fans no matter who they are. Told simultaneously through three different periods of this ship's thousand-year life, the complicated storyline on display relies on surprise for maximum effect, so I won't go much into the plot itself; but along the way it poses plenty of questions about what the emotional life of an artificially sentient being might be destined to actually be, and how the moral and ethical decisions an AI might make might be heavily influenced by its non-corporeal form and profoundly longer life span than the average human, taking everything about artificially intelligent behavior we've started combining into the "conventional wisdom" and turning it all on its head, within a sweeping vista that spans hundred of planets under an empire more influenced by Indian Hinduism than anything else. The book has a few problems at the very end, which is why it's not getting a perfect score today -- in a nutshell, too much Star Wars, not enough Philip K. Dick -- but in general one can very safely say that Ancillary Justice earns every award it's received in the last year, and I'm looking forward now to reading the other two coming volumes in this heady, satisfying series, including the sequel Ancillary Sword which came out just this month.
Out of 10: 9.5