Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie Rothdas book review RSS
3.0 Stars
9-4-2015

A decently written but rather silly space opera. The basic (and neat) idea is that there is space emperor, who has used cloning and brain implant technology to create countless duplicates of herself. Each duplicate is linked via brain-implant to the others, so that theoretically they all have the same identity. Each one is put in charge of a different sector or system of the empire. However, as the empire has grown to thousands of worlds, propagation delays have caused the versions of herself to drift apart, to the point where after centuries of plotting the two factions of herself are now openly in conflict. So! This second book in the series starts off with the galactic civil war just getting underway. The fate of thousands of planets are at stake! Our hero has been given command of an FTL warship, and sent to a vital system with orders to protect the system. At which point our hero starts doing fetch quests. Her first order of business is to improve the plumbing and health-services for the ~100 or so people in the poor-person's block of the system space station. Not to, say, figure out the loyalties of the other warship captains, or to get her hands on the AI overrides for their ships. After her first bold move, she progresses on to similarly important tasks like making sure this one space station cadet gets out of a mildly abusive relationship, or improving working conditions for a small portion of the tea-growers on planet. Oh my lord lady. It is like in a JRPG, where there is this world-threatening evil, and you ignore addressing it in favor of doing fetch quests or finding a lost cat for townsfolk. Here is an idea; if the tea-harvesters have a crappy life, have some fricken' robots do the job instead. Now that that issue is taken care of, you can turn to the more important issues like making sure the whole place isn't nuked in the incipient interstellar war. The author does make some small nods to automation as a solution, by saying that most tea is made by automated factories, and only the prestige brands are made by hand. But that just leads to the question of why given the means of production available (mass automation and robotics, advanced AI, thousands of FTL ships, plenty of pleasant and sparsely inhabited planets, centuries of peace and reasonably competent rule), everyone is so incredibly, incredibly poor. The space ship crew can barely afford tea, a new officer can barely afford rum. Even the elites of the society are terribly poor; the grand oligarch of the planet only has a few McMansions and a few hundred indentured workers. I think the source of this problem is that the author wants to write a very social-justicy novel, and to do that you need injustices to highlight and fix. This doesn't really work though since A) the injustices the author comes up with are basically from our world and don't fit with the technology/sci-fi situation presented, and B) it often felt like pandering; e.g. have a laundry list of current social justice issues (colonialism, racism, income inequality, spousal abuse, etc. etc.), and then have our physically deadly and morally righteous protagonist slice through them. [Editors note: Someone on GoodReads described the novel as the one-sided continuation of an argument the author had on the internet; that seemed apt.] And in the end, I have to ask to what purpose? Even if the hero fixes all the inequalities in their system, she has only delivered its people into something moderately worse than a middle-class American existence. Why not have some imagination instead? You have AIs and anti-gravity and cloning and brain CRUD! Go to town! Create an actual positive vision of a humane future like Iain M Banks did, where people aren't wasting their lives as soldiers, or butlers, or manual labors. Let them flourish to the limits of baseline human potential, or let them go far beyond that if they wish. Oh! Or here is an idea, just fully accept that you don't care about the science in your science fiction, and instead write space romances, about the love between the AI ships and their captains. Make it the full focus of the novels like Termeraire did, and happily ignore the sillyness of the world you have built up.

Anyway! When the book can be bothered to turn back to the main quest line, it can be good. There are the seeds of interesting stuff in trying to suss out the loyalties of the other captains and governors and AIs in the system, especially since brain-implants and AI overrides can come into play. The main plot wasn't all that well developed, but I liked the parts that were there. And like in the first book, the protagonist is unobtrusively gender blind, which as in the first book I liked but was generally blind to. I believe this blindness is because I am similarly enlightened myself, and failed to notice the abscence of something I don't pay much attention to. Either that or I am an unobservant and lazy reader. :)