This book, set way, way far in the future, is very complicated and very out-of-the-box. The story, a mystery/thriller, employs some stunning premises. One is that some of the characters, including the main protagonist, are massive entities with hive-minds that reside in multiple bodies at once. The second is that, in this future galaxy, gender is maybe a matter of choice, or maybe of convenience; it’s unclear. All we know is that we don’t know what gender anyone is, but everyone is universally designated as “she.” This creates some eye-opening confusion for the reader, revealing, by that very confusion, just how much we attribute to, and assume by, gender designations in our own world.
As the story begins, Breq (whose name might well have been Brusque) has occupied a single body for nineteen years. Before that, he/she was the troop carrier Justice of Toren in the Radch Empire, with a number of “ancillaries,” or mobile units on detached duty down on a planet’s surface. (An ancillary is created by adding artificial intelligence to a captured human body.) The individual we meet as “Breq” was formerly the ancillary One Esk, but because Breq occupies only one body now, he/she can pass for “human.”
Breq is on an obsessive and seemingly impossible mission to kill the Lord of the Radch Empire, and we learn why in chapters that alternate between Breq’s existence as Justice of Toren nineteen years ago, and life now as a single individual. As the story unfolds, the tension ratchets up, and the book becomes “easier” as well, with the gaining of greater understanding into some of the complex aspects of this universe.
Discussion: A major theme of this book is a problem we have even in our present day, which is what role citizens should assume in the face of immoral laws. If a law violates all that we consider to be worthwhile and just in the human community, must we still obey? Are we culpable if we do? What if the result of disobedience is death? Is it an excuse to say “I didn’t have a choice?” What would “justice” mean under those circumstances?
Secondly, but in a related way, there is the issue of imperialism. Is one nation (or planet) really qualified to determine what constitutes “civilization” for the other, and to enforce its own ideas over those of the natives? Again, these are problems we have grappled with in our own time, and readers will find it thought-provoking to read the opinions bandied about in political wrangling in this future galaxy.
There are some appealing secondary characters (all human) who accompany Breq on the journey past and future, including Captain Seivardan Vendaai, Lieutenant Awn Elming, and Lieutenant Skaaiat Awer. Are they male or female? I have no idea, but it was revelatory to see my own preconceptions unfold as I unconsciously assigned a gender to them based on their behaviors. In any event, they are all incredibly nuanced and interesting.
Evaluation: This story is very demanding; the universe of this far away future is very different than ours, and it takes a bit of mental work not to feel disoriented. Nevertheless, if you like having your conceptual framework taken out for examination from time to time, and if you enjoy suspense and science fiction, this book is worth the effort.
Published by Orbit, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2013