The Politics of Justice: Identity and Empire in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Trilogy

“…I don’t think you know many Radchaai, not personally. Not well. You look at it from the outside, and you see conformity and brainwashing… But they are people, and they do have different opinions about things.” [Leckie, Ancillary Justice: 103]

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch books—the trilogy which comprises Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy—have a significant amount of thematic depth. On the surface, this trilogy offers fairly straightforward space opera adventure: but underneath are a set of nested, interlocking conversations about justice and empire, identity and complicity. How one sees oneself versus how one is seen by others: when is a person a tool and when is a tool a person? The trilogy is one long argument on negotiating personhood and the appropriate uses of power; on civilisation and the other; and on who gets to draw which lines, and how.

It’s also, as I may have observed before, about what you do with what’s done to you.

This post assumes you have read the trilogy in question. Therefore there will be spoilers, and prior knowledge is taken for granted. With that said, let’s talk about Breq.

Breq, and Seivarden, and Tisarwat, and Anander Mianaai; Mercy of Kalr, and Sphene, and Athoek Station, and Translator Zeiat. But mostly Breq, for it is through Breq’s eyes that we see the world of the narrative. (Breq is an unreliable narrator, in a charmingly subtle way: in many ways extremely perceptive, but not where it comes to her own emotional states. Leckie’s narrative deliberately understates her emotional responses, so the disjoint between what Breq tells us and what the reactions of people around her tells us is a distinct and noticeable thing.) Breq has occupied—does occupy—many roles: she remembers being the troopship Justice of Toren, of which she is the last remaining fragment. She is a lone ancillary, and she insists on her identity as Justice of Toren. She might not be what she was, but she is still a ship. In the Radch, a ship is not a person, not a she but an it: a tool, not a citizen.

But Breq is other things as well.

Breq, over the course of the first book, is seen by various different people as a representative of the Radch, as a tool of the Radch, as a foreigner within the Radch (when she arrives at Omaugh Palace), and as an aberration: a tool gone mad and self-willed. In Ancillary Justice, Justice of Toren has very little power except as the tool of others’ wills, and Breq is an outsider. A wealthy outsider, and one who is intimately familiar with the culture and assumptions of the society in which she is moving—the society at whose leader she intends to strike—but still, not a citizen. Not Radchaai; not civilised.

In Ancillary Sword, though, Breq has been given the name Mianaai (against her will), a name which signifies to others that she belongs to a Radchaai elite. She has the title Fleet Captain, a position which literally gives her the power of life and death over those assigned to her command, and in some degree beyond it; she has command of the ship Mercy of Kalr and is the senior officer in the Athoek system—which makes her one of the most powerful political actors in the Athoek system, if not the most powerful. Vanishingly few people know that she is an ancillary, that she was (is) Justice of Toren: no one looks at her and sees an outsider.

“You are so civilised,” says one (not Radchaai) inhabitant of Athoek to Breq:

“So polite. So brave coming here alone when you know no one here would dare touch you. So easy to be all those things, when all the power is on your side.”

and goes on to accuse her:

“You’re the just one, the kind one, are you? But you’re no different from the daughter of the house… All of you! You take what you want at the end of a gun, you murder and rape and steal, and you call it bringing civilisation. And what is civilisation, to you, but us being properly grateful to be murdered and raped and stolen from? You said you knew justice when you heard it. Well, what is your justice but you allowed to treat us as you like, and us condemned for even attempting to defend ourselves?”

To which Breq makes the answer: What you say is true.

(There are ways in which the novel’s examination of neurological identity—in the case of Breq, and especially of Tisarwat—parallels its examination of cultural identity and imperialism. But I think I will get to that later.)

In Ancillary Mercy, the lines between Breq-as-outsider and Breq-as-Fleet-Captain—other and aberrant vs. powerful and prestigious—are breached: her human crew is now aware of her nature as the last remaining part of Justice of Toren, by her own choice, and her identity as an ancillary soldier (as an it, a thing, a tool) is revealed to the inhabitants of Athoek system by Anander Mianaai in order to deprive Breq of her allies. Yet Breq has not made allies—won loyalties—because of her position, but because of how she used that position: because of what she does with who she is. (The result within the narrative of Anander Mianaai’s revelation is rather less to deprive Breq of allies and rather more to destabilise the local norm around the perception of AIs—if someone who they’ve seen as a person was once a tool, then perhaps the tools around them are also people—thus laying the groundwork for the trilogy’s denouement to be both believable and satisfying.)

Breq’s arc through the trilogy involves negotiating with power from the perspective of someone who understands what it is to be utterly subject to another’s will, and who is then given the power to subject others to their own will—and who acknowledges the difficulties, the moral greyness, inherent in the responsible use of power. Breq never tries to excuse her own participation in and complicity with imperial violence, past or present. She doesn’t justify it, though she is able to see and articulate how other people justify it:

“…Imagine your whole life aimed at conquest, at the spread of Radchaai space. You see murder and destruction on an unimaginable scale, but they see the spread of civilisation, of Justice and Propriety, of Benefit for the universe. The death and destruction, these are unavoidable by-products of this one, supreme good.”

“I don’t think I can muster much sympathy for their perspective.”

“I don’t ask it. Only stand there a moment, and look. Not only your life, but the lives of all your house, and your ancestors for a thousand years or more before you, are invested in this idea, these actions. Amaat wills it. God wills it, the universe itself wills all this. And then one day someone tells you maybe you were mistaken. And your life won’t be what you imagined it to be.”

[Leckie, Ancillary Justice: 103]

And she is remarkably clear-sighted about its costs and effects, and throughout the text, is at pains to work respectfully around people where the hierarchy of power puts her at a distinct advantage. (Although Breq is not always successful at this, because of the very nature of power.)

Compare—contrast!—Seivarden Vendaai, the only character bar Breq herself (and Anander Mianaai) who has a presence across all three books of the trilogy. Seivarden, who was born near the pinnacle of the Radchaai hierarchy of power, who was Captain of her own ship—until she loses that ship and a thousand years, to boot, and wakes up in a Radch that’s just familiar enough to make its strangenesses all the more jarring. We meet Seivarden as an addict face-down in the snow of a planet beyond the Radch’s borders, unlikeable and self-absorbed, inclined to self-pity and unwilling to ask for help, but still sufficiently convinced of her own importance that she assumes Breq is on a mission to bring her back to the Radch. (Seivarden has never understood what it means to be powerless.) Seivarden has all the flaws of her context, as Breq points out quite mercilessly:

“She was born surrounded by wealth and privilege. She thinks she’s learned to question that. But she hasn’t learned quite as much as she thinks she has, and having that pointed out to her, well, she doesn’t react well to it.” [Leckie, Ancillary Mercy: 130]

And to Seivarden herself:

“You have always expected anyone beneath you to be careful of your emotional needs. You are even now hoping I will say something to make you feel better.” [Leckie Ancillary Mercy: 176]

She has her virtues, as well—her unshakeable loyalty, her stubbornness, her growing resolve to learn to do better, and her willingness to try her best with what she’s got—but in many ways in Seivarden we see someone who once had all the power that Breq is given in Ancillary Mercy: had it, and considered it hers by right, with the kind of thoughtless arrogance that saw the way things were as the way the universe was supposed to be.

Through the gradual abrading-away of Seivarden’s arrogance (slowly replaced with slightly better understanding), the narrative gives us an argument about how taking power for granted imposes a narrowness of vision, an empathy that only ever goes one way. Seivarden-as-she-was and Seivarden-as-she-becomes are mirrored in the two competing factions of Anander Mianaai—though I think Breq’s influence has made Seivarden more open to seeing other points of view than even the less imperialist version of the tyrant, by the end of Ancillary Mercy.

I may also identify just a little too much with Seivarden—for any number of reasons.

Mercy of Kalr was crewed by humans. But its last captain had demanded those humans behave as much like ancillaries as possible. Even when her own Kalrs had addressed her, they had done so in the way Ship might have. As though they had no personal concerns or desires. [Leckie Ancillary Sword: 57]

I can bring you back. I’m sure I can.”

“You can kill me, you mean. You can destroy my sense of self and replace it with one you approve of.”

[Leckie Ancillary Justice: 135]

Captain Vel didn’t want her crew to be people, but tools: wanted to see them as part of the ship—even as Mercy of Kalr missed its ancillary bodies, now lost to it forever. The doctor Strigan sees Breq’s ancillary body as a victim, rejects its identity as Justice of Toren, as Breq, even as Breq insists on the integrity of her identity as an AI.

“I wanted to ask you, Fleet Captain. Back at Omaugh, you said I could be my own captain. Did you mean that?”

[…]

“…I’ve concluded I don’t want to be a captain. But I find I like the thought that I could be.”

[Leckie Ancillary Mercy: 6]

And Breq finds herself unexpectedly startled by what she herself had taken for granted, in the case of Mercy of Kalr: the realisation that she too has been thinking of the ship more as a tool than as a being with will and desires of its own. She, Justice of Toren, who should know better.

From a certain angle, the Ancillary trilogy—and certainly Ancillary Mercy—is about the permeability of categories taken to be separate, and about the mutability, and yes the permeability too, of identities. Mercy of Kalr has no ancillaries anymore, but it (she) begins to use her human crew to speak through as though they were ancillaries—but not against their will. Breq is both AI and Fleet Captain, Radchaai and not, simultaneously a colonised body and a colonising one. Tisarwat—whose identity was literally remade during Ancillary Sword, both times without her consent—uses what that remaking has done to her to give Athoek Station and a number of ships a choice in what orders they follow: she allows them to be more than tools with feelings. Seivarden—learning how to live with who she is now—is wrestling with her own demons; Lieutenant Ekalu—a soldier promoted from the ranks to officer, a previously-uncrossable barrier crossed—with hers. Athoek Station and Mercy of Kalr and Sphene make laughable the Radchaai linguistic distinction between it-the-AI and she-the-person. (And numerous characters draw attention to the Radchaai linguistic quirk that makes the word Radch the same as the word for civilisation, while quite thoroughly demonstrating that Radchaai and civilised are only the same thing from a certain point of view.)

And there is a whole other essay to be written on the arguments about category and identity and Anander Mianaai. To say nothing of Translator Zeiat and her predecessor Translator Dlique.

It is Translator Zeiat, in fact, whose words draw explicit attention to the permeability of categories, and of the arbitrary nature of the lines that divide them—the arbitrary nature of civilised Radchaai set theory. Zeiat, as a Presger Translator, is deeply peculiar: the Presger are quite literally unknowably alien. And Zeiat also frequently adds much absurdist humour to Ancillary Mercy, so it’s easy at first to dismiss her contribution as more wackiness that serves only to demonstrate just how alien the Presger are. But look:

[Translator Zeiat] took the tray of cakes off the counter, set it in the middle of the table. “These are cakes.”

[…]

…”All of them! All cakes!” Completely delighted at the thought. She swept the cakes off the tray and onto the table, and made two piles of them. “Now these,” she said, indicating the slightly larger stack of cinnamon date cakes, “have fruit in them. And these”—she indicated the others—”do not. Do you see? They were the same before, but now they’re different. And look. You might think to yourself—I know I thought it to myself—that they’re different because of the fruit. Or the not-fruit, you know, as the case may be. But watch this!” She took the stacks apart, set the cakes in haphazard ranks. “Now I make a line. I just imagine one!” She leaned over, put her arm in the middle of the rows of cakes, and swept some of them to one side. “Now these,” she pointed at one side, “are different from these.” She pointed to the others. “But some of them have fruit and some don’t. They were different before, but now they’re the same. And the other side of the line, likewise. And now.” She reached over and took a counter from the game board.

“No cheating, Translator,” said Sphene. Calm and pleasant.

“I’ll put it back,” Translator Zeiat protested, and then set the counter down among the cakes. “They were different—you accept, don’t you, that they were different before?—but now they’re the same.”

“I suspect the counter doesn’t taste quite as good as the cakes,” said Sphene.

“That would be a matter of opinion,” Translator Zeiat said, just the smallest bit primly. “Besides, it is a cake now.” She frowned. “Or are the cakes counters now?”

“I don’t think so, Translator,” I said. “Not either way.” Carefully I stood up from my chair.

“Ah, Fleet Captain, that’s because you can’t see my imaginary line. But it’s real.” She tapped her forehead. “It exists.” She took one of the date cakes, and set it on the game board where the counter had been. “See, I told you I’d put it back.”

[Leckie Ancillary Mercy: 207-208]

Now that’s a fantastically pointed piece of writing, in any number of ways. Once you take it out and examine it, it almost feels a little too on the nose. But here, I think, we have an explicit formulation of (one of) Leckie’s thematic arguments: that the line between person and tool, civilised and uncivilised, is simultaneously imaginary and real. That where that line falls is a social agreement, which can be enforced through both subtle and brutal kinds of violence.

Arbitrary lines are never just. And I find it significant that Breq is Justice of Toren: that amidst its thematic discussions of identity and power, there’s an underlying if unstated argument about justice.

And benefit, and propriety. But mostly justice.

It’s a satisfying narrative irony, though, that Ancillary Mercy’s conclusion—the liberation of Athoek system from the Radch of Anander Mianaai and its semantic reconstitution as part of the “Republic of the Two Systems”—is made possible only by appeal to the arbitrary-in-human-terms and unknowable Presger. Breq might be trying in her own way to disentangle Athoek system from imperialist modes of discourse and operation, but her gambit can only succeed because the Presger have a much bigger stick than Anander Mianaai.

Is it just and fair, what Breq does? Not exactly. But imperfect justice in an imperfect world is, in the sum of things, better than no justice at all.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. She has recently completed a doctoral dissertation in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She would like to acknowledge the debt this essay owes to numerous conversations on the Radch with Fade Manley.

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