I first heard about this book while reading a sci-fi summer reading list on FiveBooks. It won the Hugo, Nebula AND Arthur C. Clark award. How could I not read it?
The book’s genre is standard Space Opera. In this universe, powerful AIs reside in military ships for thousands of years. They operate, not only through all the ships’ sensors and computers, but through humans, known as ancillarys. You begin the book by joining one AI 20 years into a mission of revenge after they were left trapped in a single ancillary body.
I enjoyed much of this book. The universe is compelling; its history and religions are intriguing. I am, however, on the fence about some of the techniques Leche used to write the story. The main civilization, the Radch, does not have gendered pronouns, nor are their adults distinctly gendered. The main character spends a lot of time fussing about which pronouns to use for folks outside of the Radch empire. Otherwise, everyone is always referred to as she. There are many characters whose gender was indeterminable. This fussing and ambiguity was distracting at first, but became less so within the first 20% of the book.
Leche used one other interesting technique in the book. The AIs are single identities which could inhabit many bodies. This enabled them to participate in several events simultaneously. In one sentence, you are in one place, the next another. This was disorienting at times. I’m tempted to call this and the gender ideas tricks, as they did little to contribute to the fullfillment of the story arch. But I will not, because their execution was solid and, ultimately, interesting.
In the end, a good science fiction book is about the seeds of ideas they plant. The writing, the characters, the universe, all exist as vehicles for them. This book’s seeds are an exploration of identity, the nature of selfhood and how we draw the lines for what we define humanity. For that, I am glad I read it.