Thoughts on reading Ancillary Justice

Posted July 16, 2015 in books  |  No Comments so far

I’ve just finished reading Ancillary Justice, the recent recipient of multiple science fiction awards including the coveted Hugo. It was the first science fiction novel I’ve read for some time.

Having once read that genre almost exclusively I was expecting to like the novel far more than I did, so I was left wondering if I’ve become less receptive to the genre as a whole or if it’s down to Ancillary Justice in particular.

Before reading Ancillary Justice I’d heard a lot about its similarity to Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, and I could see some common elements, in particular the notion of starships having sufficiently advanced AIs that they develop personalities and become engaged in political affairs. But is that even an interesting idea any more? It seems to me that, in the early 21st century, our portrayals of the far future would be stranger if they didn’t include some form of advanced and politically engaged AI than if they did. So I’m not sold on the idea that the use of an AI as the novel’s protagonist is particularly radical.

Of course it’s not fair to say that science fiction novels are only made good by the novelty and uniqueness of their underlying ideas, but I found Ancillary Justice flawed in some other ways too. There’s an over-reliance on what seem to be quite amazing coincidences, including the chance meeting with Seivarden which kicks off the story. For a while I expected some explanation for these, what with the numerous references to the Radch belief that there is “no such thing as coincidence”, but as the novel drew to a close it became clear that the coincidences were what they’d initially seemed to be: a convenient and lazy literary device. There were other problems with characterisation and motive but I’m not going to get into the details of these here.

Don’t get me wrong, Ancillary Justice isn’t a car crash and it’s by no means the worst science fiction novel I read. Maybe my expectations were inflated by the awards it received; maybe I was wrong to think, upon starting it, that I was about to encounter the state of the art of modern science fiction. But I’m left with two questions. First, should I press on and read the sequels to Ancillary Justice? And second, are there other novels out there that better exemplify the best modern sci-fi?

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