New York, NY: Orbit Books, 2014
It is not surprising that this book is a multiple award winner (e.g. the 2014 Hugo and Nebula novel prizes, among others) because it is an astonishing vision of a distant human future. The central figure, Breq, was once the artificial intelligence powering a giant spaceship. The complexity of operations that giant spaceships are obliged to manage requires numerous semi-autonomous mobile units and, for these, it is convenient to use the dead or, at least, the permanently sequestered. Humanity is engaged with a colonial project involves invading and conquering planets that are vexatiously rebellious. To crush the morale of the rebels, prisoners are taken and imprisoned in the holds of ships and then used as meat puppets by fractions of the ship’s mind for face-to-face conversations. This is both horrifying and apparently successful as a policy.
However, where such power is available, inevitably there will be conflict and Breq has suffered as a result. Where once she was thousands of individuals all directly linked to the central intelligence, now she is just one body and somewhat frustrated as a result. However, she is not without resources and her superior intellect has provided her with the means to obtain as much money as she needs to accomplish her goals of investigation and revenge. Still she must face the problems that all individuals face in going from place to pace and organizing transport and logistics. Along the way, she takes company with a drug-addled space cadet named Seivander who may have played a role in the central event of her life – the moment when she changed from being the Justice of Taen to becoming One-Esk – that is, the destruction of the greater part of her existence and the integrity of her memory of that event. The unlikely couple pursue the quest of understanding that is going to occupy several novels.
In addition to the science fiction background of aliens, space travel and surviving in harsh environments, this book is concerned with identity and reality. To what extent can we, as people, be assured that our existence is as we perceive it to be or do we edit and re-edit the narrative of our life to account for changes that we did not predict (which is slightly reminiscent of the guy who lives with the cat called The Lord)? What is the relationship between mind, body and consciousness? The development of these ideas is not very sophisticated so far but this may change in future episodes. However, it is quite enjoyable to find a science fiction novel in which not only does the dialogue convince but the characters have a means of development. One of the recommendations on the back cover likens the author to Iain M. Banks and this is a useful comparison. Like Banks, she can bring the almost inconceivable into fictional reality and combines humanity with acts of extraordinary wickedness. All in all, then, a terrific book and I look forward to the next episode.