Sometimes, reading SF, you feel like the writer is holding back the really good stuff; you're being shown a slice of a larger world, and the little bits around the edges seem far more interesting than the bits in the centre of the action.
There's a lot of that in Ann Leckie's curious Ancillary Justice, another project in my continuing experiment with buying SF books which get good reviews in the Grauniad and turn out to be harder work than I expected. There's a honking great big interstellar empire in the middle of the plot of Ancillary Justice, but the hints we get about the neighbours make the ominous alien Presger and simply mysterious Gerentate and Rrrrr seem more interesting than the centrepiece Radch (about half way through, increasingly fed up with unpronounceable names, I started to wonder if the Radch was supposed to suggest the Reich).
The background to the book is that the Radch dominate their whole end of the galaxy, more through lack of a better plan than anything more reasonable; you start out trying to secure your borders, and realise that there's no end to securing your borders. Meanwhile, your aspiring middle classes realise that there's gold in them there annexations, and the expansion becomes not just a matter of security, but the indispensable engine of economic growth. Fast forward a thousand years and the whole process is up against the buffers and falling apart on the inside, which is where we join the action.
I always wonder about a thousand years of social stasis, a recurring trope in SF and Fantasy. It's even odder when one character has spent a thousand years in hibernation - actual stasis - and is completely unmoored in contemporary society because of changing fashions and linguistic drift. Odder still when the engine of the plot is differences in the empire's one-person multi-bodied ruling class about the way society is run; whether to preserve the dynastic aristocratic elite or make openings for strivers.
Wait, do a record scratch there, and lets go back to the idea of a one-person multi-bodied ruling class, because that gets to the heart of one of the key schticks in the book; the notion of identity being shared across lots and lots of bodies. The narrator is one body from a unit of zombie soldiers maintained by a vast military starship; once bordering civilisations have been absorbed into the Radch empire, the prisoners of war get their personalities wiped and their bodies put to work as drones for the ship's AI; the Ancillaries of the title. The ancillaries have no minds of their own, and don't have those pesky emotions which make some soldiers into war-crimes waiting to happen and the rest of them into armed conscientious objectors - it's a continuing problem for modern armies that no matter how hard you train your men, most of them will still shoot wildly in the air rather than aim at live human beings. Similarly, the Emperor of all Radch is distributed over hundreds or thousands of bodies, simultaneously providing redundant backup and distributed command and control, so that Radch has no succession issues.
Which is all very well in theory, but the book is largely about how it breaks down in practice, with individuality and personal interest edging their way into the components of all the hive minds, and undermining the great notion of consistency and perfect administration.
The jarring quirk in the novel, from moment one, is that Leckie wants the Radch to be a genderless society, with its members indifferent to gender distinctions and bewildered by societies that preserve them. The way she chooses to foreground that is to have the narrator refer to every character as "she". It starts out being disorienting, becomes annoying, and eventually stops being noticeable, but obviously I'm part of the problem Leckie was trying to solve, because it was ALWAYS distancing; absent the sense of something so socially fundamental in my real world, I could never get my head round any of the secondary Radch characters. The outsiders were easier to follow, largely because they only ever presented one at a time, but once there were three or four unpronounceable Radch interacting on the page, I'd start losing track of who was doing what. Which can be a problem in a book where a lot of the action is subtle intrigue based on nuances of social standing. This particular problem is hard; the only other time I've seen it done was in an SF short story by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro where every character had a gender neutral name and she managed to dodge using any pronouns at all for the whole story.
And it's not like Leckie didn't already have a distancing problem; her narrator is an emotionless robot stooge for an artificial intelligence, after all.
Overall, it was pretty tough going, and I'm not sure about the pay off. The first half of the book is at least confident; Leckie is cutting between the surviving ancillary's quest for revenge and the events 20 years before which sent it off on its rip-roaring rampage of revenge; but halfway through the book, the flashbacks run out, and the narrative jolts into a strange pace where months are tossed aside in a paragraph and then a tea party will take a chapter, all while the narrator gets closer and closer to her showdown with the big bad. Which is jarringly Hollywood compared to the quieter and more grounded action scenes of the first and second acts of the book.
It's a trilogy, it turns out, and winds up feeling almost like an origin story for a continuing series about two wacky aliens; she's an emotionless revenge-fuelled robot; she's a thawed out aristocratic space popsicle a thousand years out of time; together they fight …. the whole damn universe or something.