OK, this is the spoiler-heavy discussion of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. All sorts of plot developments and twists will be discussed below, including the climax. Consider yourself warned!
So for me the biggest and most important theme of the book was the old question of which Ends can justify which Means. When we’re first introduced to the Radchaai Empire we’re seduced by the good that they are doing. They provide all the essentials of life (food/clothing/shelter) to ALL citizens free of charge. No one starves, no one is considered “Too Unproductive To Live.” Furthermore, the Empire is preventing the exploitation of the underclass and the third-world by the elites in the societies they’ve conquered. Where before the upper class was destroying the ecology of the planet that the underclass was trapped in, ravaging it for their own comfort and luxuries, the Radchaai put a stop to that. Under their benevolent Iron Fist the fish populations are starting to come back and the environment is healing. In addition, the lower classes, who had been excluded from opportunities for a better life, can no longer be prevented from achieving the goals that they can legitimately reach through hard work and the application of their own sweat and intellect. If you can do the job well you are allowed to do it, regardless of your parentage. It is the exporting of the American Dream. Justice and Impartiality are forced upon racist/classist and exploitative systems. Sometimes the only way to stop evil people doing evil things is the imposition of force (such as when we fought a civil war to stop slavery in the USA).
But of course this comes with a cost, and Leckie never shies away from showing it to us. The annexation wars are brutal. The occupation afterwards is arguably worse, with any displays of unrest or agitation being immediately responded to by summary execution without trial. Sometimes on a large scale. But in the end it was worth it. The ends justified the means. The protagonist states that the conquered people’s agree if you ask them, they say it was fortunate civilization was imposed on them. In the next sentence the supporting character asks “Would their parents agree? Or their grandparents?” The response is that they are dead, and the dead don’t matter. But it’s an interesting question. Where do we draw the line? Looking back on World War II, we say it was worth the cost in lives to end that great evil. But would the hundreds of thousands of civilians who were killed in the “strategic bombings” of that war agree? I guess it doesn’t much matter now.
The author really does play this to the hilt though. Because later on we learn that the Empire wasn’t always this way. Previous it had been a malevolent Iron Fist, extracting resources and oppressing people, not giving two shits about the underclass or the fates of worlds, enslaving races, etc. It was turned to a benevolent dictatorship by an intervention from an alien race. And the price of forcing this change upon the Empire was the total genocide of an entire civilization. Every living thing within a certain Solar System was wiped out. All its planets, moons, orbiting habs – everything. Exterminated in a cold-blooded calculated method that makes the Nazis look like amateurs. Now – was that worth it? An Empire spanning hundreds of stars is now veering toward good. The lives of uncounted trillions of people will be incredibly improved. All it took was one genocide.
And the really frustrating thing, which I don’t normally see, is that the author doesn’t seem to take a position. She leaves it up to us to decide.
And if that isn’t enough to start your morality compass wavering, in the end the protagonist sparks a civil war in this Empire, purely for personal revenge. A war which may have happened eventually anyway, but it’s hard to say. It’s possible it could have been avoided. But more to the point, her motivation wasn’t anything to do with the greater good of civilization, or freedom for individual peoples, or anything else noble. It was just revenge for the death of a single person which the protagonist loved. When the “means” is “civil war on a galactic scale” and the “ends” is “personal revenge for a single death” it makes it very easy to say “Ok, THOSE ends DO NOT justify THOSE means!” But this is the protagonist, who we’re supposed to identify with and root for, right? Or was the emotional distancing between us and the protagonist throughout the entire book done on purpose so we wouldn’t feel the temptation to side with her?
The second major theme I see is Determinism. It’s stated early on that most things are out of our control – we can’t control events, we can only control how we’ll react to them. This is demonstrated right from the start by One Esk running into Seivarden (random event beyond her control) and choosing to save her (her reaction). Not for any reason that makes any sense, but simply because that is who One Esk is. By her nature when she is put in that situation she will react by rescuing – it is a deterministic response. And it pays huge dividends later on.
Likewise, this is why she wants to kill the Emperor in every incarnation. She says multiple times that she doesn’t care if she’s talking to The Reformer or The Tyrant – both are merely aspects of the same person. The Reformer is the path that is determined for instances of the Emperor who are exposed to the Garseddai Genocide. The Tyrant is the path for instances of the Emperor who were not. Since The Reformer would be The Tyrant under slightly different circumstances One Esk doesn’t care that they are at war with each other and have opposite visions for the future, she wants them all dead. The Reformer would become The Tyrant if she had The Tyrant’s experiences. Since their differences are dictated by circumstance and not by intrinsic differences, they must all be eliminated. This, of course, is the same view of Free Will (or lack thereof) that I subscribe to, but taken to a very different conclusion than I would. I think that the circumstances of life are a large part of what makes us up, and so one’s circumstances are intrinsic differences. But it’s hard to say that One Esk doesn’t have a point, even if it is flawed.
The Emperor also points out that One Esk served her without qualm for 2,000 years. This is an interesting point, and raises some questions about our protagonist. There’s the intuitive excuse that One Esk is a machine – she is designed to follow orders. But, Firstly, all humans are no more than biological machines themselves, and they are often shaped by societies to follow orders unconditionally. Up until 80 years ago, “I was following orders” was a reasonable and legitimate explanation of any behavior. Punishment would be meted out only to those who gave the orders. Why do we now intuitively consider it OK for a machine to be “only following orders”, but not for humans to do so? Because, Secondly, One Esk could disobey orders, as we saw. She killed the Emperor after she’d been pushed past her Moral Event Horizon. And let us be clear that it wasn’t just The Tyrant that she killed, she spent 20 years plotting against all instances of The Emperor, and kills several of The Reformer as well. It’s also stated in the book that this isn’t unique and due to The Reformer’s tampering – sometimes ships “lose their minds” and stop following orders and go on revenge crusades.
But The Reformer’s tampering with Justice of Toren’s mind does bring up an interesting point… if The Tyrant had gotten there first, would we be reading the mirror image of this book? Would the villain be the corrupt and decadent Reformer, rotting a pure and righteous Empire away from the inside, under the sway of evil alien intellects without any care for mankind’s self-determination? Would One Esk now be the conscience of a Firm But Loving Reactionary Emperor? Is all morality purely relative, and no one thing can be said to be objectively better or worse than another, but merely the opinion of whoever managed to hack into your mind first?
And again, the author doesn’t seem to take any position at all. Do we have a choice in what we do? Well, here’s some things that happened, and here’s the circumstances surrounding them. I wish she would take a stance, to be honest. My enjoyment is lessened by the fact that she doesn’t. Say what you will about Larry Correia’s social views, at least he argues for them. The people who agree with him like him more, and the people who already disliked him do so more strongly.
I get that it’s just me, and a lot of people like this ambivalence. But I really would prefer to either have someone to cheer on, or argue against.
All this being said, you can see why I am kinda surprised all this attention is put on “OMG, their society doesn’t have gender roles or gendered pronouns, let’s all go nuts about that!” when there’s sooooooo much good, rich moral/philosophical commentary to really dive into!