Book Rec: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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I feel like I don’t actually need to recommend Ancillary Justice, since everyone’s been gushing about it all year. It won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best novel, the Nebula for best novel, the BSFA award for best novel, and currently it’s up for a Hugo for best novel. Plus a boatload of other awards. Still, I’ll toss in my two cents and say that I thought the book was fantastic.

The protagonist of the book is the spaceship Justice of Toren, or rather, the artificial intelligence that controls it. In the world of the novel, the Radch empire has been expanding unstoppably through space, taking over planets left and right. Some ships are crewed by humans, but some are crewed by ancillaries, which are bodies controlled by an artificial intelligence. The bodies themselves are supplied by people whose original personalities have been scraped away. Justice of Toren controls twenty such bodies, with hundreds or even thousands more kept cryogenically frozen in the ship, and can also monitor the emotions and vital signs of the entire crew. At the moment, they’re stationed on a planet that has recently been taken over by the Radch empire.

Running parallel to this is the plotline of Breq, who is one of the ancillaries of Justice of Toren. It’s twenty years later, and for reasons that are initially unclear, Breq is no longer a ship or a crew, but simply one person. She (and in the language of the narrator, all people are ‘she’, even if they are known to be male) is on a solitary mission of revenge and is making her way through a world that does not consider her to be a person.

It’s a very ambitious first novel, and handles the odd narration style beautifully. The writing is spare and elegant, told from the point of view of an AI that tries very hard not to become emotionally involved in the world. Despite the fact that the protagonist is so inhuman, she becomes immensely likeable. The book itself is the first in a trilogy, which I didn’t know when I was reading it but was delighted to find out. Breq is someone I really want to read more about.

I’ll admit that the intricacies of the plot were a little hard to follow at times, and I plan to read the novel again to understand it a bit better. I think the fact that I want to read the sequel so badly speaks well for the writing. It’s a gorgeous first novel and I highly recommend it.

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Book rec: Gulp by Mary Roach

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Mary Roach is the kind of nonfiction writer who can make any topic fascinating. No, really, anything. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is a book about the digestive system, covering topics from the nutritional value of dog food to the optimal decibel level of crunchy snack foods to the stain-fighting properties of saliva. At one point she puts her hand inside of a cow’s stomach. There’s an entire chapter about smuggling drugs inside your rectum.

Roach has a history of finding the absurdity in science. Her other books, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife; Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex; and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void are all playful but by no means disrespectful looks at serious topics. She gets very in depth with her research and isn’t afraid to ask occasionally embarrassing questions of the experts.

 

This suggests that saliva—or better yet, infant drool—could be used to pretreat food stains. Laundry detergents boast about the enzymes they contain. Are these literally digestive enzymes? I sent an e-mail to the American Cleaning Institute, which sounds like a cutting edge research facility but is really just a trade group formerly and less spiffily known as the Soap and Detergent Association.

 

With no detectable appreciation for the irony of what he had written, press person Brian Sansoni referred me to a chemist named Luis Spitz. And when Dr. Spitz replied, “Sorry, I only know soap-related subjects,” Sansoni—still without a trace of glee—gave me the phone number of a detergent industry consultant named Keith Grime.

Gulp is a book that’ll give you a new understanding of your own internal workings, and if you haven’t read anything by Roach before, it’ll probably act as a gateway drug into everything else she’s ever done. I highly recommend it.

Book rec: The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

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I’ve been recommending Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles to everyone who ranges within earshot of me for the past week or so. My friend William loaned me Cinder because she thought I might be interested in a book written during Nanowrimo. It was on my ‘to be read’ pile for a month or so before I picked it up–and then was completely unable to put it down. I bought Scarlet for my Kindle before I’d finished Cinder, and then bought Cress the same afternoon.

Cinder is a YA science fiction series that retells the story of Cinderella, where Cinder is a cyborg mechanic living in plague-ridden New Beijing. The fairy tale is really only a framework; the real story is a combination thriller/mystery with a touch of romance. Scarlet and Cress add on to the story arc with retellings of Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, respectively. Meyer is an extremely competent writer who balances a diverse cast of likeable, well-written characters with an exciting plot. This is the kind of book that feels like a guilty pleasure to read. And yes, all three of the books were written during three separate Nanowrimos.

My only complaint is that I thought the series was a trilogy, and was 90% done with Cress when I realized that there was no way the story was going to end anytime soon. The next book, Winter, comes out in 2015. I’m a little disappointed that I binge read them all before I found that out, though I guess that only means I’ll have to re-read the lot of them next year in preparation. It’s not exactly a hardship.

You can find Cinder on Amazon here.