So I know this is a shock to everyone, but I really, really hate spoilers. So I’ll put this beneath a spoiler cut for the first two books of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, in case anyone was planning on reading it. It’s fantastic; you should. I’m currently about to leap into the third and final book.
Remember any of the number of times I’ve waxed poetic on the portrayal of camaraderie, either in fictional worlds or in the production of them (case in point: the LOTR commentary tracks where the cast is all goofing around with each other), and fixated on how that seems to be gaining popularity in the last decade or so?
Breq, aka Justice of Toren, is a fantastically different take on that.
She used to be a ship. Or rather, she used to be the AI behind a ship. All those ancillaries–robot soldiers in human bodies–but also the systems, the cameras, the logs. Everything. She was all of it, and then the whole thing got destroyed except for one ancillary that escaped. One measly human body. And while it was a political act that caused the destruction of the rest of her, and while the politics of the books are themselves fascinating, what’s more fascinating still is the consistent, doomed-to-fail effort of Breq to reconcile herself to the singularity of one body, one set of senses, one life.
I don’t deal in space stories that often — those authors I ran off the top of my head shortly after the New Year pretty much encompass every space author I’ve read — so I’m assuming, but not speaking from a place of great knowledge when I assume it, that this kind of thing comes up a lot in space fiction. Especially nowadays as people consider legislation to protect the personhood of advance AIs and things like that. But in the treatments of AIs you see in movies (where I, willingly or not, encounter space stories more often than in books), they tend to take the same shape: colorless, all-powerful entities who may or may not be moved by a spark of humanity into an act of compassion, somewhere along the line. I’m sure plenty of people have told that story really well, but it’s somewhat predictable by this point.
What makes Breq interesting is how lonely she is. The physical limitations of being stuck in one body with one set of eyes, ears etc. she has largely resigned herself to by the time the books start. But the loneliness of it — her inability to feel, for example, a part of herself being clasped against another part of herself (an ancillary hugging another ancillary, for example) — is different in tone than the usual robot-with-a-heart-of-gold take on things. There’s the opportunity of course for that to get weird but — as the book club I’ve been lax in contributing to discusses at length — the focus in these books isn’t on sexuality or its lack. Breq isn’t missing the ability to be simultaneously present in a multi-faceted orgy or something. She’s missing the camaraderie that came from being, at the same time, the individuals in the group and the group itself.
I’m not explaining it as well as I’d like (I’m tired), but the book puts it very eloquently, and it serves as an unintentional example, maybe, of the kind of longing you see a lot of these days, in a variety of mediums and from all kinds of people. You can see it anywhere from Mrs. Dalloway’s dinner party to Morgan Llywellyn’s bard Amergin to a session of the Sims gameplay: that persistent, nagging desire to be both a part of the group and apart from it; awash in its feelings and also outside, able to encircle it and protect it from anything that would threaten the conviviality within. (Able, too, to write about it, from the vantage point of distance.)
And of course, these desires are counterproductive. You’re either in or you’re out. Unless, like Breq, you weren’t always human, and held fast to those limitations. The loss of that kind of togetherness — the awareness of it from a step above individuality; to have felt each individual’s sense of connectedness and togetherness as part of the whole — would have to be more brutal than the loss of any limb. And not from a mere quantitative perspective, either. It’s not just that “once I was many and now I am one.” It’s that once, the feelings of the many added up to a whole that she could comprehend. And now she can’t. She can’t ever get it back.
And that has to suck so hard.