In the third and (so far) last part of her series about Breq, the last ancillary fragment of a battleship taking on the genderless Radchaai empire, Ann Leckie changes focus again. The first part (Ancillary Justice) was about plotting revenge and heading towards her target (see my review here); the second part (Ancillary Sword, reviewed here) was about establishing authority. Ancillary Mercy is about making people feel better, and it’s a decisive change of tone. It’s very good, but Leckie has chosen to focus on the small things (human emotions, justice), rather than go all-out for a riotous slamming space opera finish, so, be careful what you’re looking for.
I am a passionate admirer of Leckie’s technical achievement in finding a way to write adventure and space opera excitement without gender by the simple trick of making every pronoun feminine. If everyone is described by the same gendered words, then gender becomes meaningless, and we can all get on with the job of fighting injustice and righting wrongs without messing about with preconditioned gender roles. This worked magnificently in Ancillary Justice, because Breq establishes herself as a superb fighting machine and tactician against terrible odds, and against some nasty people. In Ancillary Sword she commands a battleship, takes over an orbital space station, administers calming influences and upholds the law down-planet. These are leadership roles, and in a few, beautifully positioned episodes, Breq shows what a formidable fighter she is as well because she’s not actually human.
Ancillaries are created to be the military parts of a spaceship, and have constant multiple communications with each other and Ship itself, a strange but supremely efficient mode of existence. Ancillaries are super-fast in their reactions and live for thousands of years, but can also be casually thrown away if they sustain damage too time-consuming to mend. New ancillaries can be grown, or enslaved by hooking up captured humans. Breq is, apparently, the first ancillary to act autonomously in the Radchaai empire because she is the only survivor of her ship, Justice of Toren, from when it was destroyed by one of the splintering fragments of the tyrant Anaander Mianaai, the all-powerful Emperor who, like the ancillaries, exists in clone form, grown in multiples to ensure her complete command over the vast numbers of star systems colonised and subdued by the Radchaai over thousands of years. Gosh, it’s getting complicated. Let’s end the catch-up summary now by remarking that Leckie balanced scale and details very well in the first two novels by focusing on the fate of individuals we grew to care for, because they were affected by planet-sized issues that represent the fate of this Empire. But in this third novel she ignores scale and focuses on the human stories, to the detraction of the trilogy’s overall impact, even while it is very satisfying to find out how Seivarden and Ekalu and Breq sort out their relationship issues.
In Ancillary Mercy we already know these characters: Breq herself: stolid, careful, confident, blandly purposeful, who sings when she’s happy and expects nothing more from these latest years in her very long life but the probability of death and the hope that she will not be betrayed again. Seivarden is her protégé, an arrogant aristocrat rescued from hundreds of years of pod suspension while being lost in space, to be awoken in a time where her House name means nothing, and no-one cares who she is or thinks enough of her to give her deference. She has self-esteem problems. Ekalu is Seivarden’s fellow officer under Breq’s command on the Mercy, a ranker lieutenant, trying not to be unnerved by her responsibilities, and passionately in love with Seivarden, while resenting her sense of entitlement. Ship of Atagaris, Sphene and Mercy of Kalr are battleships learning to think of Breq as a cousin, rather than a human, due to her unprecedented understanding of what it is like to be an AI, and how an AI might like and want autonomy and choice. Tisarwat is another lieutenant, with lavender-coloured eyes (she spent her first pay on tasteless contact lenses: nothing changes), was planted on Mercy of Kalr by Anaander, but willingly had her spy implants removed, and now Breq can use her tyrant-level accesses to any AI anywhere by being assured of her loyalty, though unsure of how much a seventeen-year old soldier can actually take. Translator Zeiat is a bewildering alien envoy, or diplomat, probably also a weapon, who has been sent to the Radch in human form (she’s eager to explore what a human can eat, even if it means temporarily disengaging her jaw to swallow the really large things) to see if peace is being kept while the rogue Anaander arrives at Athoek Station expecting to take over the system, and is outraged when Breq’s AI capabilities prevent her from wholesale destruction. That’s probably enough recap. But I am very fond of Kalr Five, Breq’s batman with a passion for teasets.
It’s curious how in this genderless setting there is so much insistence on personal relations, and balance in respect and deference. Leckie borrows elements from Japanese tea ceremonies, Chinese social protocols, and the elaborate rituals of Shinto religion to create a densely layered social structure to the Radchaai empire across the vastness of space and its galaxies. In every Radch station or planet there will be a Temple and priests, in every Radch ship the lieutenants will be led by the senior lieutenant in morning prayers, and every Radch citizen wears gloves except in the most intimate of situations, and even then gloves might be beworn to indicate respect, status, propriety. This is an Empire capable of overwhelming destructive power and vicious violence, and yet every member of the crew on Breq’s ship know the value and historical importance of a porcelain tea service. Leckie skews our expectations of space opera and makes us watch a tea ceremony instead of exploding planets, because the nuances of the participants’ behaviour at that ceremony give us political clues to power and intentions.
Underneath the elaborate anthropological invention throughout the trilogy, Leckie has been setting down clues for us to pick up and wonder about: what is it to be human? If the Emperor can rule as sole leader while also being a clone of more than twenty individuals, are any of those clone Anaanders more or less human than the others? Do they have free will? Are they like Breq as she once was, part of a greater united whole but with no volition of their own? Physical damage can be healed and repaired in days, and lost limbs can regrow in a month or so. If all the parts are regenerated or prosthetic, is the person still human? Mercy of Kalr advises and instructs her junior lieutenants on how to resolve their lovers’ quarrel with thousands of years of experience, and powerfully empathic understanding. Breq is in tears as she lies in a hospital bed, Seivarden keeping her warm on her damaged side. She cries involuntarily, not knowing why, and her Ship sends a soldier to hug her by proxy. These AIs are as human as the humans they care for and protect. I think this is the way that Leckie might develop this series, setting artificial intelligence free to be human in any way they see fit. It’s a minor note with the potential to develop into a new series in this fascinating society.