Book review: Ancillary Justice/Sword/Mercy

Another book cycle finished. Actually, a longer time ago, but I got wound up in random events and did not find the time to blog. My bad.

I have already written something about the first part, and now I would like to revise my conclusion. I told you that Ann Leckie is an heir to Banks, and I probably will stay with that opinion. But she is also an heir to Asimov, in the sense that she likes to talk about evolution of social structures in the far future, over large distances.

Ann Leckie’s concept of the Empire is a distributed personality ruling everything; the premise is that it is possible to link a human body to a distributed mind and let it act as an agent of the said mind. As the agent is semi-autonomus and may not necessarily be always in contact with her other selves, communication delays may let parts of her personality act independently; hence, the stability of the Empire may be in question.

As far as space operas go, this particular one is pretty constrained in time and space. However, this is not a bad thing, as the questions Leckie discusses are large and require attention, even in the far future. Again, in the tradition of early sci-fi, today’s questions are asked in the setting of a possible tomorrow to look at them from a different perspective.

What I liked most, however, were the characters. Not all of them are my favorites, but at least the main character, Breq, is exactly the rational and cold-blooded person I expected to see in her position. Not all of her surroundings are, sadly, but in most cases they don’t raise disbelief (which is already very good!).

Also, I liked the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, so I just say that it is not the one you’d typically expect and also the one that makes most sense. Yes, this is not a contradiction.


Let’s talk about literature. Again.

I have stumbled upon several discussions and a nice word that I cannot but translate into English. The word is “rivetism” which roughly expands to “an overwhelming desire to enforce absolute correctness in the details” and stems (as I’ve heard) from discussions about literary merits of a movie measured in the correctness of the number of rivets on a tank turret. Needless to say that “rivetism” is a pejorative.

Yet there is a point, and an arising question. Suppose you watch a movie about something you know, and know well. Take, for example, cooking. And there is this guy who takes a frying pan and loudly announces he’s going to make a soup. Ridiculous, right? Or imagine a book about school, where everyone loves the gym class. This is a slightly unrealistic scenario, doesn’t it seem so? So, when your expertise on the topic is sufficient to discern unrealistic assumptions, the hitherto suspended disbelief kicks in, and you have issues with connecting to the characters. This is the reason why people from air and space engineering are not so overwhelmed when talking about Gravity or pretty much any other space fiction movie that pretends to depict reality, as technical or scientific issues that are obvious to a professional are often overlooked by the authors. What makes this interesting is that disbelief is more readily suspended if the fiction is clearly depicted as fiction without further discussion of the technical details. That’s why Warhammer 40K works for me pretty well and Ready Player One does not.

Sadly, rivetism becomes inevitable if you get more closely acquainted with not only technical issues, but also real-life social interaction as well. Working in or at least witnessing a structure of at least 100 people gives insights about human interaction, and it is often the case that the human interaction patterns observed in real life do not match those depicted in fiction… at all. It begins with all those superhero movies that are plainly unbelievable when you know how many people work in order to make a single flight of a plane possible. It goes on with secret organizations no one has ever heard of yet with unlimited budgets and so on.

Probably, one just has to accept the inevitable truth that authors rarely have an idea about the (social and technical) mechanisms they use inn their plots, relax, and try to enjoy the narrative or the action nevertheless.

“Ancillary Justice”

Yay. I like characters that think aloud. I even more like characters that think aloud clearly, with clear goals, self-conscience, and some kind of risk assessment. Breq/Justice of Toren is such a character and is incredibly convincing. Although the part when she is distributed could be longer.

The story is set in the not totally (but soon) grim darkness of the far future, where humans are somewhere in the stars. The “social” part is sufficiently alien (although not entirely alien to the reader of today), but the questions relating to society are, as with every science fiction work, understandable and more or less acute in the society of today.

You probably should not expect epic action. Action is rare in this book, it is mostly main characters on a quest. However, dialogues and character development are convincing enough.

All in all, an heir to Banks.

Cultural observations

I’m invading the Domain of Culture.

People close to the movie industry sometimes complain the lack of original plots together with the dominance of comic adaptations (hey there, Marvel!), sequels (who said “Fast and Furious”?), and other secondary content. Book adaptations occur in this list, too, but I prefer to consider them a different case since books are, in general, original content (I said “in general”, there are some counterexamples). While this is not bad as such, this has the obvious drawback that plots become unimportant and predictable. The extreme case are horror movies, there, you just have the same scary flick with adrenaline and naked bodies. Unimportant and predictable plots are, in my opinion, a bad thing since I have a preconception that I should get out from a movie with a feeling that I have seen something interesting. Something interesting means interesting characters, however, a predictable character is not really interesting.

It is, however, an understandable tendency. From the perspective of big studios, a movie is good if it earns money, and money is easily earned with another sequel of some well-known franchise. Sometimes, it even has an interesting plot, but this does not have to be the general case. Sometimes, it works out if Disney/Pixar is bringing out another tale, but, other than that, the conservative policy seems to work well. From the perspective of the customer, it is safe to go to a movie with known qualities, especially if you liked the last installments in the same cinematic universe and would like to see the same, but in a different colour.

This has happened in human history at least once, a couple of hundred years ago. Before the Enlightenment, the art market was completely dominated by the church and the upper class. So, what we see in the art of thhe early Middle Ages, is the Bible, in different settings, but still, the Bible. A fixed number of themes, with little variation. However, at some point, art moved to different topics. Why?

I’d argue it has to do something with the new citizen class that could afford some bread and butter and there still was something left for entertainment. And since they were not church, they probably wanted to see on the paintings in their homes something that was closer and more concrete, like a scene from their (or possibly their) lives. Which, in turn, was a perfect incentive for artists to draw for profit in industrial capacities. The Netherlands were particularly famous for industrializing art.

This is probably the key to my question. Whenever a new class, with its own cultural context, and some ability to pay, appears on stage, art will react and generate something that appeals to the new audience. So, probably, the Chinese will somehow stir up the movie market. Or the Russians. Or LatAm. Someone will, eventually.

The subtle difference…

…between superiority and arrogance can be seen in the following sentences appearing as author notes of an otherwise well-written piece of fiction:

Before anyone asks, yes, we’re polyamorous – I am in long-term relationships with three women, all of whom are involved with more than one guy.  Apologies in advance to any 19th-century old fogies who are offended by our more advanced culture.

Either my version of the social protocol is too much continental or it is really not okay to establish yourself at the cost of those fellas that are wired otherwise. I fully understand that there are no rational reasons to force yourself to have exactly one partner, but in my life, there is no place for a whole social network raising my children. Before anyone asks, yes, I have the wish to reproduce somewhere in the future. Apologies in advance to any hipsters who are offended by my speciecism.

About literature…

I have been reading Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother” lately. To those who do not know it: As the name suggests, it is a dystopia that describes how much things can go wrong if the state starts spying on its own citizens for the sake of national security. The technical part of it is actually pretty realistic (except for the “video over DNS” episode); you can argue whether the law enforcement institutions will have that much bandwidth and computing power to manage all incoming data from all possible sources of interest but still, that part is rather good and explains well the most important ideas from information security. The plot is somewhat predictable, which does not really matter; more of a problem are the characters that are mostly shallow and very stereotypical. I do not want to give away any significant spoilers, but most characters will not change. Probably I am over-criticizing the book (it was good enough to force me to stay awake until 3AM), so judge for yourself. Anyway, the book is a fun read. If it appears too short for you, I can suggest “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson, which is mostly an essay on security, secrecy and basic information theory buried in 1100 pages of a good novel with several tangled plots.