“Ancillary Justice” is an innovative sf masterwork from Ann Leckie about the nature of artificial intelligence and human emotion set in a nasty science fiction empire run by the Radch. In Breq, the main character of this quest for revenge story, Leckie touches on how an artificial intelligence controlling multiple independent people can still have feelings for the human officers who serve on the ship. Its an “I, Robot” moment for a more weathered science fiction universe. This multiple award winning work of science fiction is assured and gripping.
The Imperial Radch is not a nice place. Expanding outward into space and conquering worlds in their wake, the Radch conquer planets and forcibly join their people (called an annexation) into their sphere of influence. Think of the recent taking of Crimea by Russia. During an annexation, the Radch use huge conquering ships to control the population. The ships, who travel long distances, are controlled by an artificial intelligence. The Radch have human soldiers but they do not want to waste their soldiers on controlling a planet. So they scoop up people and forcibly freeze the bodies and then inject the artificial intelligence into the prisoners brains. Its an operation in which the mind of the person is destroyed and the body is then inhabited by the ship brain. Typically during this annexation, the Radch force is led by officers who are served by Ancillary soldiers controlled by the ship brain.
Most such officers are merely interested in loot and taking power. In worlds where there are haves and have nots, the Radch typically favor the haves and use the populous of the have nots for the Ancillary forces that subjugate the population. The upper tier of a world then is more interested in joining.
During an annexation on a distance world, Lieutenant Awn has upset the apple cart a little by favoring a group of what would pass for the middle class, as opposed to those of more wealth. Lieutenant Awn is cared for by Justice of Toren, the huge warship and her twenty conjoined Ancillary. One of the specific Ancillary’s is specifically tasked with guarding and being the personal attendant to Awn, and sees that Awn is a more noble Radch, who is interested in the well being of the conquered planet. As a result, the leader of the Empire, the Emperor herself, a muliple clone entity, comes to visit the planet and questions Lieutenant Awn and precipitates a showdown, in which something happens.
All of this is revealed piecemeal through flashbacks. All we know is that Breq, who used to be an Ancillary of Toren is now hunting for someone who has an alien designed weapon capable of going through Radch armor.
Between the flashbacks and the present, Leckie gradually reveals her story and the story of Breq, who she is and who she is hunting. It is also a story about humanity as Breq, is also caring for a former officer of the Radch.
Its powerful science fiction. Very similar in characterization to the best of C.J. Cherryh, this is the best science fiction book of the year, and the winner of the Nebula Award.