Science fiction was my bag (my jam? my deal? I’m not hep to the jive these days) as a teenager. I was the perfect age to have my mind blown by ideas taken to their logical extremes, and too young to gripe if the prose was really bad. I have few fonder reading memories than of Stranger in a Strange Land saving thirteen-year-old me from a few boring days on a cruise ship, and grokking some sophisticated ideas in the process.
I grew out of the genre because of two false assumptions: the writing was pretty bad and thus a slog to read, and writers seemed to have run out of new ideas to explore. Turns out the problem was my own: avenues of access (like the Science Fiction Book Club, a Columbia House for sci-fi) were predominantly full of writers of the same background, namely white and male and a bit on the hack-ish side of prose, and mostly interested in the same things. I had no friends who were into the genre, so I didn’t know people like Ursula K. Leguin or James Tiptree Jr. existed.
Over the last ten years there’s been a push to legitimize science fiction for a mainstream audience. All of it gets my hackles up a bit, the same as it does with legitimizing comics. First, there’s a name change (speculative fiction) that suggests maturity and moves away from the nerdy connotations of “sci-fi”. Then there are some new arbitrary new definitions (thanks, Margaret Atwood) to set these new works apart from older works that are more entrenched in being known as sci-fi. Then finally there are the reader apologies, the “I don’t normally read genre books but this one is great!” Kind of a bummer, but like comics (sorry, graphic novels… blech), I’m willing to tolerate it if it will expand the audience and thus help these writers earn a living. If Atwood wants her absolutely brilliant Oryx and Crake to be known as speculative fiction, so be it. It doesn’t change the fact that I love the book.
(I could also go on about how hybrid fiction authors, like David Mitchell, are whetting readers’ appetites for fantastic ideas, and thus expanding readership, but I’ll stop here.)
All this to say that I have a definition of science fiction that started in my teens and is not at all related to some of the contemporary definitions of the genre. Science fiction introduces a new piece of knowledge, or a scientific breakthrough, or a technology, to society and then tracks how it affects the individual, the society, and our future. Science fiction is a mirror to the contemporary, to our anxieties and hopes and psychological roadblocks. By this definition, Star Wars is not science fiction, because it would work just as well if it were set on sailing ships as it does on space ships; there are no important ideas that affect what it means to be human. Star Trek, on the other hand, was always willing to challenge its audience’s preconceptions of ourselves and the exterior world.
To quote Nikolai Krementsov, a teacher of mine from my undergraduate degree, science fiction answers the questions of Paul Gauguin: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?
I’ve dipped my toes into the genre over the last few years and mostly enjoyed what I’ve found. The prose can still be pretty rough at times, but it turns out there are some great writers and a lot of new, interesting ideas to explore.
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is a well-written book with many fantastic sci-fi conceits. It’s as strong an argument for the genre as I’ve read in ages.
Briefly, Ancillary Justice follows Breq, a compelling narrator and character who happens to be the last remnant of a vast artificial intelligence. In this future, AIs not only run the space ships of an interstellar society, but components of the AI (ancillaries) are embedded into human bodies to act as soldiers, crew, and assistants. This quickly raises the interesting question of Whose bodies are they using to make ancillaries? And from there, concepts of imperialism/colonialism and societal expansion quickly follow. Without ever having to define it, you quickly get the sense that Breq’s creators, a society bent on annexing every human colony, are the bad guys, but in a cold, complicated way. Breq, previously the AI of a ship and a bazillion bodies, is now locked into a single body and out to get revenge. It’s a riveting set-up.
The surprises, namely its novel concepts, are one of the best reasons to read Ancillary Justice, so I’m not going to say much more about the great ideas this book has on display. But since Breq’s identity is revealed early on, let’s explore that one a little more. Every other chapter of the book goes back to when Breq was the ship and its many ancillaries. That means she can see from hundreds or thousands of perspectives at any one time, maintain conversations with countless people while also steering a massive space ship. In other words, you get the benefits of both an omniscient narrator and a first-person account at the same time. Multiple scenes in separate locations can be happening on the same page, changing even between single lines of dialogue. I’ve never read anything like that.
While this is an awesome story concept, it also betrays something else about Leckie: she’s a great writer who knows how to exploit her concepts to better the writing. She has a two-thousand-year-old AI with immense knowledge, but is brilliant in balancing something so inhuman against a very real and understandable characterization (revenge is universal). Leckie also manages to pull off an objective perspective, as befits an AI, but balanced against great introspection and occasional lapses into rash judgement that feel totally congruent. She’s made something typically devoid of character (an AI) the most interesting character in the book, and our narrator to boot. And all the while, the novel is sharply written and way above par, prose-wise, for the genre.
If I had any gripes about Ancillary Justice, it’s that the climax gets usurped by a greater story that bleeds out into subsequent books. I didn’t know until I was nearly finished that the book is the first in a trilogy, and while it doesn’t suffer as much as some media, it’s not nearly a satisfying enough resolution to an otherwise well-characterized, engaging novel. Please, everybody, stop killing your narrative arcs for the sake of sequels!
Still, this is a great read. I’ve hardly even brushed the surface of the plethora of ideas in this book. And as science fiction, it’s a fascinating exploration of identity, our colonial history, and rejecting the status quo. I love imagining some thirteen-year-old weirdo being saved from a boring cruise ship by getting lost in this book.
Go read Ancillary Justice.
Thanks to my illustrious colleague for the recommendation!