Definitely one of the better sci fi stories I have read. Partially because it addresses the very interesting issue of just what makes up a person, what is this *I* when we use that term, and just exactly what is ‘sentient’. It messes around with gender, and the entire story, told in first person, uses only the pronoun ‘she’ for everyone, leaving us readers with no idea which gender the referent might be. The main character talks about the difficulties of language, and how the gender referents are different from language to language, and the fraught situations which can happen if the wrong referent is used. I love this stuff.
But don’t get me wrong, you hard core sci fi buffs, it is also space opera. And it stars……… an intergalatic space troop transport ship! Yes, you understood me correctly, the protagonist is a ship. Let me explain a bit more.
The civilizations, particularly the dominant Imperial Radch, take humans and convert them into living weapons, with intelligence and superior mental and physical skills via implants, etc, and then attach them mentally to various ship captains and other high ranking people, the idea of ‘tools’ is wildly extended. And these huge ships, which have an extraordinary AI system and become extremely emotionally attached to their captains, also have hundreds of these Ancillaries. Some ships whose captains were killed went mad.
This is the story of Justice of Toren, the ship, and one of its AI ancillary segments, Breq. Because of the treachery of the head Radch person, the ship and all aboard except Breq are killed. Breq manages to escape, and is now the only embodiment of that ship, and determined to kill the head Radch.
But, get this!!! That head person has thousands of emanations and ancillaries, and ever since a horrendous tragedy in the take over of a small outlying planet, has suppressed one side of its personality, and is now fighting against itself.
This makes us think of the duality or multiplicity of all of us. We have expressions like, “Being of two minds”, “being sides oneself’; we have a mental condition known as schizophrenia. We have the condition known as multiple personality. This story examines in depth what the ramifications of all of this are. It forces us to find a way to wrap our minds around the concept, to question what we have automatically assumed was the core person. But as the book makes increasingly clear, a person is much like an onion. You can peel away the layers in order to reach the core, but find in the end there is no core, only the layers. And then you don’t even have your onion as an entity, only the layers.
But do not despair. There is a story in all of this, and the philosophical issues are painlessly presented within the story. I told you it was space opera. There are still villains and heroes, fantastic weaponry, amazing flying vessels, and the potential of the triumph of greed over the higher moral values, self-interest covered over with self-righteousness.
I leave you with a quote to ponder:
Thoughts are ephemeral, they evaporate in the moment they occur, unless they are given action and material form. Wishes and intentions, the same. Meaningless, unless they impel you to one choice or another, some deed or course of action, however insignificant. Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing.