The AI who sings: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Cover of Ancillary Justice by Ann LeckieOf the many fascinating details that Ann Leckie uses to build the world of her debut science fiction novel Ancillary Justice, the one that was the most unexpected (partially because I had already read an excerpt about and commentary on Leckie’s brilliant approach to gender pronouns) was the use of music in relation to artificial intelligence. Ancillary Justice tells the story of the space vessel Justice of Toren, a tool of the Radch empire which is used to conquer and then occupy planets. Justice of Toren is the starship and the AI that manages it, but she is also her ancillaries–humans (bodies taken from those who have been conquered) who have had their minds erased and filled with the AI. The ancillaries are also all networked together and can communicate with the ship (assuming all the connections are working). The ancillaries are organized into military units and ranked (or at least numbered) starting with One and then followed by the name of the deck to which they are assigned. These ancillaries do not speak with or show emotion. They simply act as, well, ancillary units of the ship, which is why they have proven quite useful as occupying forces: obedient, equanimous, untiring, almost omni-present. They are without the quirks and passions that human soldiers possess. Except that is for One Esk, one of Justice of Toren‘s anicillaries–the lead one assigned to the lead deck, in fact–who has this one quirk: she sings.

I–that is, I-One Esk–first sang to amuse one of my lieutenants, when Justice of Toren had hardly been commissioned a hundred years. She enjoyed music, and had brought an instrument with her as part of her luggage allowance. She could never interest the other officers in her hobby and so she taught me the parts to the songs she played. I filed those away and went looking for more, to please her. By the time she was captain of her own ship I had collected a large library of vocal music–no one was going to give me an instrument, but I could sing anytime–and it was a matter of rumor and some indulgent smiles that Justice of Toren had an interested in singing. Which it didn’t–I–I-Justice of Toren–tolerated the habit because it was harmless, and because it was quite possible that one of my captains would appreciate it. Otherwise it would have been prevented. (23)

This quirk is important to the novel for many reasons. I won’t detail (spoil) them here: go read the book–it’s very good. I will, however, share the effect it had on me: It reinforced for me the realization that we shape the technologies we use and that, in turn, they shape us, and in that back and forth, because of the human element involved, there is quirkiness, creativity, individual-ness. We adjust things to adjust to us and the effects are not always the intended ones. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in science fiction about robots and other artificial or alien intelligences. It may simply be wishful thinking on our part–we have yet to create or encounter intelligences that can operate at the level they do in science fiction. But I hope not. I’d like to think, along with Leckie, that some of our AIs will sing.

2 thoughts on “The AI who sings: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice”

  1. A correction: One Esk isn’t simply One Esk — she is One Esk Nineteen. One Esk refers to her ancillary cadre.

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