Book Thoughts: The Imperial Radch Trilogy
The Imperial Radch Trilogy
Author: Ann Leckie
Year: 2013, 2014, 2015
After first reading Ancillary Justice I wasn’t particularly impressed: The time jumps were a necessary but dull affair, the songs were something to be endured while offering insight into Breq’s personality, and there was a noticeable lack of pew pew (space combat). Being a completionist at heart, I didn’t really think anything about reading the other two books in the trilogy. I mean, why wouldn’t I? The story was competent enough so of course I would finish it out. After finishing the third book, Ancillary Mercy, I still wasn’t overly impressed but then I realized that I was overlooking something. The beauty of science fiction is in the worlds constructed and the thoughts invoked.
Something just kept tickling at the back of my mind after finishing this trilogy. I kept think that they weren’t the greatest things I’d ever read, but for some reason I just couldn’t stop thinking about them. It took me a while, but I finally figured out what Ann Leckie had done. You see, like any great sci-fi work, the universe created is as much a character in the story as any of the speakers present. Three aspects stand out as particularly significant: The AI’s governing stations and ships, the cloned Lord of the Radch, and ancillaries.
Let’s start with the ancillaries because I feel that a lot of people may not understand the full implications of the ancillary program or what it means for Radch society in general. Ancillaries are created using the bodies of conquered peoples. Corpse soldiers, undead, zombies, drones or cyborgs are all terms that can be applied to ancillaries in varying degrees. When the Radchaai conquer a planet they take a number of the native population and place them in cold storage to serve as shipboard ancillaries when needed. All Radchaai military vessels have crews composed in large parts of ancillary troops. When a vessel needs more ancillaries they thaw out one of the prisoners and, once they’re conscious, install the implants that allow them functionality as military units as well as connecting them to the ship mind. Once a person becomes an ancillary their mind is wiped and they become an extension of whichever ship they belong to.
Aside from being generally faster and tougher than their purely human counterparts aboard ship, the main draw to having an ancillary crewed vessel is their total obedience. You see, in the Radchaai military there is no excuse for refusing an order. The penalty for refusing an order is execution, there are no extenuating circumstances, no appeals or reprieves. This may sound overly harsh but it makes sense when you consider that the Radchaai empire covers hundreds of planets with a military counted in the millions. With so many people involved there will always be a few who attempt to buck the status quo no matter the how harsh the penalty. To keep a mechanism of this scale functioning there is no room for dissent and the ancillaries act as de facto representatives of imperial authority both by acting as avatars for ship AI’s and through their constant unwavering duty. The use of ancillaries acts as a subtle reminder and whispered threat to all human crew that they aren’t entirely necessary and can be quickly dispatched should they step out of line.
It’s important to remember that while ancillaries are capable of acting independently they are drones acting as the eyes, ears and hands of their respective ships. Make no mistake, the artificial intelligences (AI) that govern warships and space stations are fully realized personalities with their own likes, dislikes and quirks. Their programed purpose and safe guard programing is the only this that keeps these artificial minds from doing as they please. This is especially interesting when you think of the AI’s as the gate keepers for the empire. They live longer, they have flawless memory, they are near omnipresent, and they are basically incorruptible. Imagine a government operating under a perfect memory of what its framers intended with no need to argue the finer points because you could simple ask. Crime is a fool’s gambit since the AI’s see everything that happens within their domain and one of their primary mandates includes for the well-being of their occupants. The combination of realized personalities plus the hard coded need to protect their humans makes for fiercely protective almost maternal AI’s. This just adds to the stability of the empire since, like any mother, the AI’s are willing to let the people make their own personal mistakes but won’t allow for a wholesale disruption of the proverbial household.
The final piece of our societal puzzle comes from the Lord of the Radch herself. Anaander Mianaai heads the Radchaai Empire in all manners whether they be judicial, military, religious or civil. How does one person keep an empire of hundreds of planets and billions of citizens together in relative peace for thousands of years? Well two of the methods we’ve talked about: the ancillary program and strict military discipline, and the AI personalities that govern warships and space stations. Continuity is another tool used to keep this society stable, and a great way to ensure continuity under an imperial system is to make sure of the line of succession. Anaander Mianaai solved this particular issue by cloning herself and transferring her memories from clone to clone. This ensures an almost perfect continuity of rule because, for all intents and purposes, the same person is sitting at the reins of power century after century back to the first founding of the empire. A clone program also solves the problem of managing such a large empire as the Lord of the Radch is not confined to any one location so doesn’t have to wait for news from the furthest reaches of the empire. If she had been confined to one body Anaander Mianaai would necessarily have to dilute her power by appointing people to strategically important positions. These people may be good, bad, competent or fools. That’s the risk a single body ruler would have to take, but the Lord of the Radch has other options. If you’re making clones of yourself anyway, why not dispatch them to important parts of the empires. In this way you have a local center of power under the control of someone trustworthy. What could be a more perfect system?