Oh gosh, where to start? Ancillary Mercy is the last in the trilogy, and as such it was both exhilarating and painful. I worried that I wouldn’t have much to say on this one, as I’ve been so effusive in my thoughts on the last two, but Leckie wasn’t finished her exploring yet.
This time, we got to play with free will and sentience.
You’d think that a trilogy dealing with AI would be all about the Are They People question, but not only is it not the main focus, I didn’t even notice its absence until it appeared. That’s what comes of good worldbuilding (universebuilding?). It felt so natural – and Breq herself inhabited her place/world/self so completely – that it never occurred to me to question the social order.
So, the plot of the Imperial Radch trilogy is pretty consistently gripping, but there’s a very definite progression in the state of the world through the books. Justice sets it up, Sword shines a light through the cracks and Mercy knocks it down. It’s a really cool effect – in Justice, the reader, like Breq, is quite comfortable with the status quo. It seems like such a… humane sort of colonialism. By the end of Justice and throughout Sword you realise it’s not that simple, and in Mercy it’s obviously (and urgently) an unsustainable system.
The stakes ramp up quite impressively – a feud between Breq and Anaander Mianaai becomes a civil war, takes on overtones of a diplomatic incident between humans and aliens. Once the Presger start getting involved, the helplessness of your species being judged and affected by the actions of a few or even just one who’s out of your control really presses in. Dare I say it, somewhat topically. Well, you know, some things are so delicate that the actions of one human idiot miles away from you can bring consequences crashing down on your head. Inter-country relations. Delicate political situations. The environment. You know. A lot of society is fragile.
Anyway, back to the AI. Leckie writes the best AI. I love them all. They all behave according to the rules of the universe, but they’re still all unique entities. And when Breq starts spreading her seditious plan of AI autonomy and the humans start asking questions… How can you know if you can trust them? Can we afford to let them go uncontrolled? All their problems are the same problems everyone experiences every day when interacting with other humans, and it really drives home how miraculous it is that we all live together in relative harmony. Every time we meet another human entity we trust it with our lives. And sometimes we go out of our way to interact with them! We play all kinds of games to get close to them and put our lives in their hands. Sometimes we even live with them voluntarily, these unknowable creatures that are not us.
But of course, they are – we all are – still human. It’s easy to see things from Breq’s point of view when everything you see is through her eyes. If I was one of the other humans in the story I might well have had the same reservations they did. You might be tempted to draw parallels between the colonisation aspect and the tendency of the colonisers to dehumanise the colonised and resist their emancipation and rights, but I don’t think it matches up. Leckie does absolutely deal with that, visible in the way the last to be annexed are kept at the bottom of the heap to maintain the social order, as there won’t be any new stream of bottom-class citizens, but the AIs are something different and without parallel, I think.
Something else that was really cool was the mission sequence. Leckie isn’t afraid to play with camera playbacks and the time lag of space travel, so when she sends characters off on their dangerous missions it really could go any way, even though Breq is still telling the story. I was convinced it was going to go very badly. No one felt safe.
I really want to see this in a visual medium. Just to see.
I suppose I should talk about the mental health aspects as well, seeing as they played a larger role in Mercy than they had in the others. Honestly it was just interesting to see it dealt with at all, and especially to see from Breq’s perspective what it looked like, Tisarwat’s self-loathing depression and Seivarden’s addictive dependency issues. You know. You wonder what you’d look like and what it would be like to have someone perfectly objective to tell you when you should give yourself some slack, and yeah. What would that be like? Would it be easier to hear from them?
The ending I thought was great. I was nervy about how she could possibly end it when the rot went so deep, when the whole Radch showed itself to be a sort of sword of Damocles waiting to come crashing down, and it’s so big, and our ragtag band of heroes is so small. The ending was perfect. That’s all I’ll say. I didn’t want to say goodbye.
Miscellaneous things I enjoyed:
- Translator Zeiat. I just love the weird unhuman Presger humans. They’re so weird! So amusing until they’re not.
- Seivarden and Ekalu. OTP. And Mercy of Kalr would agree with me. That ship is the biggest shipper of us all.
- The idea that limbs can be grown back. How efficient!
- Station being a badass.
- Daughter of Fishes under its new workers’ collective ownership.