I recently read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, a Hugo-and-Nebula-award-winning science fiction novel. I admit, while the other Dappled Things editors are busy writing compelling articles about aesthetics and successfully publish super-amazing novels, I’m over here chilling, deeply immersed in some pretty weird sci-fi and making no apologies for it. It’s just a phase. I can stop any time I want.
I don’t want to do a deep dive into Ancillary Justice itself but what interested me as I was reading it was how flexible and adaptable sci-fi can be when it comes to creatively discussing metaphysical concepts via scientific descriptions of the universe. Of course, this is what many philosophers would argue someone like Plato is doing with The Republic, which is a utopian fiction, not quite sci-fi…but maybe it is? I don’t know if I believe this but the more I thought about it, the more I really wanted to be able to irresponsibly claim that Plato is a science fiction writer. This guy, at least, agrees with me. In any case, it seems to me that Aristotle’s description of metaphysics is actually, technically, a common-sensical outgrowth of natural sciences, so the link is there between the sciences and descriptions of the human soul, but I’d need to leave that claim up to the philosophers to defend or attack, as the case may be.
Quickly moving on, here’s a brief synopsis of how it works in Ancillary Justice. The novel is about an artificial intelligence that is bonded with and runs a military spaceship called Justice of Toren. The ship is a person of sorts. She is several thousand years old and stocked full with thousands of “ancillaries.” Ancillaries are human bodies that have been taken over by the AI. They’re unified with her and think with her common mind. They are the ship.
In the novel, during a moment of stress and suffering from a glitch that causes a lack of connectivity between her parts, it turns out that the AI Justice of Toren isn’t as unified as she seems. Her ancillaries have subtle but unique personality differences, and these end up splitting under stress. Different pieces of her make different choices, even as they maintain identity with the whole.
The same phenomenon holds true for a character named Anaander Mianaai, the tyrant of the Radchai empire who has multiplied herself into thousands of bodies. Theoretically, she is a single intelligence, a unified self who happens to be present in multiple locations. It turns out, though, that she too will split under stress. After a horrible massacre based on an order from the tyrant, she begins to maneuver against herself. Part of herself is horrified by her actions and decides to reform the empire, another part of her desires to relentlessly double-down on the ruthlessness that has built the empire. Throughout the struggle, she is still herself, not two people, and yet she is divided.
It’s a physical description of a metaphysical concept – Sin. It affects all of us. Those things we do which we don’t want to do and those things we don’t do and wish we had. It’s a description of our unexamined motivations, regrets, intentions to change a behavior and then failing day after day. We are at war with ourselves. All our actions are fully ours and yet we are divided.
The ability to describe these metaphysical struggles with simple physical descriptions is a distinct advantage of the genre. Sci-fi is an odd corner of the literary world, but it really does have its merits.