Friday, October 13, 2017

Book Review: Ancillary Justice

Book cover for Ancillary JusticeOn a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

I was initially intrigued by the concept of a ship's AI out for revenge, but hesitated when the hype machine started rolling. When something gets hyped up, I tend to keep my distance until things cool down. I won't say I regretted waiting, but I can see where the praise (and backlash) came from.

The story is told from the POV of the starship Justice of Toren. Each of these massive ship's is run by an AI that not only embodies the ship, but thousands of its cyborgs (basically mindwiped POWs), known as ancillaries. So during the flashback chapters, Justice of Toren is in multiple places at once. I thought Leckie did a great job with managing this as the narrator always specified which ancillary (they have designations) was observing which scene.

But with an AI as narrator, we're given a character that isn't human and thus doesn't make for an easy read. The AI isn't going to wax poetic about the view, nor will it pay attention to a person's physical features unless they're relevant. We get a very clinical description of other characters' behavior, and the AI's algorithms determine said behavior to mean a particular state of mind. Reading other reviews, I see that turned some people off. It can be dull and repetitive, but I appreciated it. This is how I'd expect an AI to narrate.

Then there's the whole matter of gender. The Radch Empire, or rather their language, doesn't acknowledge gender, so the default pronoun is "she" (though "it" would've been more accurate). There were scenes were Justice of Toren was required to speak in other languages and guess the proper pronoun to use. It wasn't always successful. To readers, it was such a surprise that some praised it for its radical linguistic treatment of gender. Some critics saw this as some liberal plot; others just found it confusing. I was in the latter camp until I got used to it and figured out characters' genders.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot can be boiled down to "AI seeks revenge." But revenge implies an emotional response. So while the AI won't describe the sunset, it can develop emotional attachments to certain humans. Justice of Toren mentions that some ships became attached to their captains and became catastrophically despondent upon their deaths. There's no explanation for how these AIs came into existence (the story is set at least several thousand years in the future), but I got the impression that emotion wasn't in their programming (obeying orders is though). I found this part, the AI wrestling with emotions and programming, the most enjoyable.

The other disturbing part of the Radch, besides its conversion of POWs as ancillaries, was the fact that it was a surveillance state. Cameras were everywhere, recording everything. One misspoken sentence could have dire consequences. I'll leave it at that. Saying anymore would reveal too much of the story.

One last thing I have to mention: What is up with everyone drinking tea all the time? Holy crap! There was one reference to some sailors returning from shore leave flat out drunk, but otherwise it's all about bowls of tea.

Overall, I really enjoyed the story. It wasn't an easy read, but it was an honest one. By that I mean, I really had to follow the dialogue to pick up the clues. I think that Leckie did a great job providing us with a conflicted AI (the best since 2001's HAL?), but I recognize that it won't be everyone's cup of tea (Sorry, couldn't help myself).


Friday, October 6, 2017

But it wasn't all bad

Lest I give you the wrong impression, my summer wasn't all work and no play. For instance, in July my wife and I got to see the Church perform at Darryl's House in Pawling, which is just over the border in New York.

The Church performing at Daryl's House.
While most people only remember them for their 80's hit "Under the Milky Way," they actually have twenty-five studio albums. A new one, Man Woman Life Death Infinity, has just been released. They remain one of my all-time favorite bands.

Despite the small size of the club, there was a VIP section (basically right in front of us). VIPs were treated to a meet & greet with the band. It was weird. We were separated from the VIP section by a bar rail, so we looked on as the band talked with VIP fans right next to us but we were forbidden. Kind of silly.

Tim PowlesTowards the end of meet and greet period, Tim Powles, the drummer, was oblivious to the divider and, unbidden, came over to talk to us. When we informed him that we weren't VIP, he shrugged. I don't want to misquote him, so I'll just say that he didn't really care, having had enough pre-show wine. We were unprepared and scrambling for something to talk about. We noticed was that he was barefoot. Presto! Instant conversation starter. We pointed out their naked condition and wasn't he worried about stepping on something. He knew he probably should be, but he was more relaxed. I mentioned that one couldn't go too many place barefoot in the US due to liability issues. I asked if other places were as litigious as the US. He said, "No," with conviction.

We chatted with a little while longer, then let him go before he got in trouble with management (club or band). Nice guy.

The show was great. Old favorites dominated the set, with some newer tracks mixed in.

Every July our town hosts a small brewfest. This was the first time we had a chance to go. Normally it's one of the hottest weekends of the year. When the thermometer climbs into the 90s, the last thing I want to do is drink beer. But this year it was cloudy, drizzly, and cool enough to wear jeans. In fact, it's 78°F (25.5°C) today and I'm in shorts. You know the weather's gone weird in the northern hemisphere when an October day is warmer than a day in July. Anyway, it was pretty good. A few new local startup breweries (Nod Hill, Broken Symmetry) were present, which was nice to see.

Every year, the Newtown public library hosts a large book sale in one of the schools. My daughter and I got to go this year. Here's my haul:
Newtown book sale 2017
While I've always enjoyed perusing book stores (an activity all but extinct), I think this is the first time I've had a chance to go with my daughter. Yeah, she goes to the library, but that's always seemed to be satisfying some school requirement as opposed to reading because she enjoys it. It was a nice moment to connect with her over something we both enjoy.

But the highlight of the summer was witnessing the great North American eclipse of 2017! My parents live in the path of totality down in Tennessee, so we trekked on down to watch it from their front yard. The weather was perfect.

While I knew that the internet was going to be flooded with professional pictures and video, I just had to try and take some myself (Isn't that what people do?). I cut up one of the cheap (but Discover magazine approved) solar eclipse glasses and put one of the lenses in front of my phone camera lens. It didn't work very well. Most of the pictures were fuzzy blobs. This one was probably the best:

Obviously not good at all!

I waited until totality before I brought out my Olympus. I didn't want to risk damaging it (or my eyes) during the partial phase. I had much better results.

For these next four, I cropped the pictures so that I didn't have to re-size them. I think the pictures look better from a distance as the zooms reveal the limits of my camera.

This last picture is the same as the previous one, just zoomed out.

Venus made an appearance in the west once totality began, the reflected sunlight finally visible once the sky went dark. I didn't think to take a picture of it however.

If you've never seen a total solar eclipse in person, you should put it on your list of things to do. It was a sight to behold that my pictures don't do justice (or even the professional ones). It was like a hole in the sky, something physical yet completely dark. I understand why eclipses were viewed as ominous portents and signs from God (or the gods). For those two minutes and twenty seconds, it was as though a great secret had been revealed, but we all forgot just as soon as it was over.

I can't wait for the next one.