“Imperial Radch” asks uncomfortable questions, but in space

Even artificial intelligences need to feel to make logical decisions. In Ann Leckie’s award-winning “Imperial Radch” series, a hive mind-like AI is forced into a single body and made to do the unthinkable. Furious, the AI swears to take revenge. The only problem is that its most hated enemy is one of the most powerful rulers in space, spread across hundreds of bodies. To make matters worse, the Presger, an alien species technologically superior to humanity, had just figured out that humanity was something Significant, placing them off limits for mass extinction whenever found. But any wrong move of wanton cruelty by humans could change that, bringing technology beyond comprehension and an unwinnable war down on their heads.

Though the series’ world-building is worthy of a space opera, its main appeal lies in the
commentary the author makes using an AI as the main character. The AI views interactions with others as tedious, but centuries of human observation have left it a master at reading cues, and the AI’s wry observations are alternatingly sobering and humourous.

What really sets the book apart from other titles is the conversation of personhood that changes throughout the series. The AI is, of course, an individual capable of making its own decisions. Right? Or maybe not. What makes an individual a person capable of self-guidance, decisions and autonomy is a complicated question with a complicated answer, but Leckie’s take is an interesting and refreshing view into the intricacies of the uncanny valley.

Being an AI created to serve humans allows it to stand apart from some of the thoughtless decisions humans make, while still understanding them at the core. Like the title suggests, the Radch are a race of humans distributed across the system, spreading civilization and their rule wherever they go. The AI understands why the Radch would spread and subjugate so, but is also able to sympathize with the conquered.

It serves the Radch with no recourse and with no personal feelings to cloud judgement. The AI is often ruthless in its simple observations, exposing the truth underlying the pretty assumptions we make as humans, not only of conquered and conquering relations, but of interpersonal ones as well. Without the fog of sex and strong emotions to cloud the mind, the humans in the series are often silly and petty, but they are still starkly realistic characters driven by motivations we can see reflected in ourselves.

Leckie’s “Imperial Radch” series not only entertains but also shines a light on our society to ruthlessly scrutinize and observe.


Book: “Imperial Radch” series

Author: Ann Leckie

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars