A deadly weapon has but a few moments to make defining choices.
A short story about what it’s like to be newborn, lethal and self-aware.
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Exploring Speculative Fiction
The Imperial Radch series is funnel-like. It starts with an eye-opening vision of a civilization ruled by an all-powerful distributed leader, and shows us this through the eyes of the final fragment of a destroyed ship, the last ancillary of the Justice of Toren, betrayed by her ruler in a civil war of a monumental and complex nature, dealing with loss and a crisis of identity on a tragic scale. What vistas, what scope!
As we follow Breq and discover her predicament, her self-imposed mission and the universe in which it all takes place, we are given vast horizons to contemplate. Her mission takes her all the way to Anaander Mianaai, ruler of the Radchaai (or at least one part of her), and there we discover the details of the civil war, the split within Mianaai herself.
In the second book, the funnel narrows. We are taken to Athoek Station, where Breq, now wearing the Mianaai surname, takes control of a politically complex situation, but compared to the war raging in the universe at large, we know that what happens here is a storm in a teacup. Athoek is not critical to the ongoing civil war. Important perhaps, a staging point for future conflict, perhaps, but not the turning point. This gives us an opportunity to examine more closely the social and political consequences of the civilization Ann Leckie has invented for us. This is well done in the second book, which explores the social mores, complex emotional states and intricate rules of conduct of the Radchaai in great detail.
I was hoping that the third book would broaden the scope again, giving us the vistas glimpsed in the first tome once more, and showing us the conclusion of the war into which Breq, her ship and her crew have been entrained.
In fact, we are still at Athoek, and the narrative takes a philosophical turn. Leckie has always liked exploring the societal consequences and complex mannerisms engendered by the culture she has imagined, but here we go into full-on obsessive mode with deep analyses of the internal emotional states and moral convictions of various individuals, all witnessed through the all-seeing connected awareness of our main protagonist. This is a universe in which making tea in the wrong china set can cause such offense that it leads to a depression that needs medication from a professional doctor, and I’m barely exaggerating.
Breq looks very tough in large part because everyone around her is either visibly falling apart or hiding their emotional fragmentation behind vast reserves of stoicism. Every sentence spoken is a minefield, every politeness is a potential insult to a third party, every act a move on a moral and emotional chessboard of ever-increasing complexity, but often of little real consequence. The absence of a supporting influence is enough to cause characters to fall apart emotionally to the point where they must be sedated. This went a little far for me.
Unfortunately, most of this matters little to the physical reality of Athoek system. Athoek, in turn, matters little in the overall scheme of the civil war. Either the very real, very military strategies at play will work in Breq’s favour, or they will not, and Breq rolls the dice on her military decisions with far more recklessness than (s)he manifests in her/his delicate management of interpersonal relations.
So much of the book is internal dialogue explaining the consequences of this or that on someone’s emotional state that it implies the individuals in the story are more important than the civilization tearing itself apart in the background. The civil war unfortunately only serves as a backdrop to the narrative. Don’t misunderstand me, it is interesting to explore how such convoluted social rules lead to extremes of emotion in individuals upon whom entire star systems depend, but I would have preferred it if these emotions were not the dominant thread in the narrative.
I very much enjoyed the first and second books, and was hoping that the third would veer away from introspection and towards Breq’s role in the greater events at work in the universe around her. How does one resist or fight or outwit a schizophrenic, megalomaniacal, near-omniscient multi-bodied ruler who doesn’t know her own mind? I was hoping an answer would be forthcoming. Unfortunately for me, that’s not where this book was going.
Much of what happens here is critically important to the individuals concerned, but in the grand scheme of things, with which we were teased in the first novel, it is a storm in a teacup. Although you’ll soon find out it’s a 3000-year-old teacup that belonged to an extinct dynasty from a conquered world.
Conclusion: Well written, well worth the read, and I did enjoy it, but if the first book set you up with expectations that you were going to see, first hand, the evolution of the Imperial Radch at this turning point in the civilization’s history, reset those expectations before you jump in. Then you’ll be fine.
Addendum: I suppose it would be odd not to comment on the deliberate use of the pronoun “she” to describe every character in the book. This has been commented on to death elsewhere, favourably and unfavourably. It didn’t do much for me, and I would personally have preferred a normal use of pronouns, but it neither makes nor unmakes the book. As you read, you quickly learn to ignore it and it fades into the background apart from occasional moments where it can cause a little gender confusion. It is, however, a relevant brick in the edifice Ann Leckie constructs, and it is relevant to the societal norms and cultural eccentricities that are very much at the heart of the novel, so it has its place here and is more than a gimmick or a political statement.
John Geary is very very cold. The psychological effects of having spent a hundred years in hibernation, frozen in a capsule after a battle in which he was presumed killed. That battle was the opening salvo in a war that has since continued unabated, losses on both sides mounting relentlessly.
John Geary is very famous. His actions and sacrifices during the battle resulted in many lives saved. Posthumously, he has become the poster child for generations of ever younger warriors and ship captains. As war casualties have killed the senior officers, the skills, strategies and tactics necessary to plan and execute a fleet engagement have been lost before they could be handed down. The fleet fights bravely, valiantly, but bluntly, with little in the way of intelligent battle planning.
John Geary is thrust by circumstance into the role of Fleet Admiral shortly after he awakens. For him four weeks have passed. For the fleet a hundred years, and to them, he is either a legend returned from the dead, or an outdated relic from the past. Faced with inexperienced crew, untrained ship captains, a philosophy of war in which bravery outranks tactics and a navy at odds with the values he was taught to respect as an officer, can Captain “Black Jack” Geary take the Alliance Fleet back to the safety of Alliance Space, or will the many challenges facing him overcome the advantage of his ancient, and yet vastly superior knowledge of engagement strategy, battle tactics and fleet management?
The concept of this story is exceptional. Geary is a perfect hero – the one who is thrust into the position of leader not just because he is famous, but also because he can see that everyone around him is completely lacking in the skills necessary to do more than charge at the enemy en masse. He reluctantly recognizes that, even if his seniority is based on an accident of history, he really is the only person in the fleet with the knowledge and skills to run an engagement intelligently. The only one with a chance of getting these sailors home.
Much is made of his legendary status, with ship captains under his command predictably splitting into groups that support or even idolize him, and groups who cannot accept the idea that a controlled engagement and long-term view of the conflict is better than the virtue of direct confrontation and the courage and self-sacrifice this represents. To some, he appears cowardly and at odds with the way history has depicted him.
Perhaps too much is made of it, in fact, because after several chapters, even though we understand that Geary is conflicted, even though we understand that some of the ship captains are against him, even though we know he is embarrassed by the way people idolize him, we still get long passages during which he walks the ship, agonizes over the way he is perceived, or has long disclosure sessions with the only civilian representative on board, a woman who makes much of the threat he poses as a living god who could seek to rule the Alliance as easily as serve it. She unfortunately seems to lack the finesse to understand that sometimes you deal with what’s in front of you before tacking the very theoretical and unproven problems of many months hence. She gets quite annoying, actually.
If the story’s emphasis lies elsewhere than character development, this is likely because Jack Campbell, a.k.a. John G. Henry, is a retired US Navy officer, and combat is what he knows. This is apparent in the battle scenes which are long, elaborate, and well thought through. The great strengths of this novel and the series as a whole rests in two things – the original idea of a world in which war has waged for so long that the art of war itself has been mostly lost, and both sides are reduced to flailing at each other with little in the way of tactics; and the well drawn military engagements that demonstrate the effectiveness of a military mind at the head of a fleet, especially when faced with an enemy that is not used to an opponent that does more than merely bludgeon.
But a story requires characters to bring it to life, and while Geary is very solidly depicted and rendered, few of the other characters benefit from that degree of complexity, appearing more as foils to bring contrast to Geary’s character than individuals in their own right. Each character has his or her place – The Co-President is Geary’s conscience (although she does more to confuse than to settle him), Captain Desjani is his day-to-day mirror, Duellos is his encouragement, remaining at the end of almost every single captain’s conference to advise and encourage him, Numos represents his opposition within the fleet, blindly hating and resenting anything that he says or does, and who can always be relied upon to disobey orders in the most damaging way. In the end, their behaviour is so predictable that they’re useful more for exposition than as true story elements in their own right. The only character truly in focus is Geary.
But military science fiction can get away with this, because we don’t necessarily read it for the characters – we want the battles. It’s a shame we can’t have both, but a novelist with a strong grasp of character would find it difficult – without major effort on their part – to describe battles in as convincing a manner as Campbell. So it’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept in a novel that is unashamedly military in its ambitions.
This is a good story, I hope that as I make my way through the series the characterisation becomes more complex. I’ve already read the second novel and not to pre-empt my review, it hasn’t really improved all that much in this particular area, but my hopes remain. There are further elements that are only hinted at that could become very interesting as the story develops – nobody seems to understand why these two groups are at war in the first place, for example, and that is something else that someone from the past can have an influence over.
I enjoyed this first look at Geary’s adventures, it’s a bit pulpy in the sense that I raced through it extremely fast, but it was satisfying nonetheless (if a little expensive in a dollars-per-hour-of-reading calculation).