Is identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative? (From Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice)

It seems very straightforward when I say “I.” At the time, “I” meant Justice of Toren, the whole ship and all its ancillaries. A unit might be very focused on what it was doing at that particular moment, but it was no more apart from “me” than my hand is while it’s engaged in a task that doesn’t require my full attention. Nearly twenty years later “I” would be a single body, a single brain.

That division, I–Justice of Toren and I–One Esk, was not, I have come to think, a sudden split, not an instant before which “I” was one and after which “I” was “we.” It was something that had always been possible, always potential. Guarded against. But how did it go from potential to real, incontrovertible, irrevocable?

On one level the answer is simple—it happened when all of Justice of Toren but me was destroyed. But when I look closer I seem to see cracks everywhere. Did the singing contribute, the thing that made One Esk different from all other units on the ship, indeed in the fleets? Perhaps. Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really a fiction?

I don’t know the answer. But I do know that, though I can see hints of the potential split going back a thousand years or more, that’s only hindsight. The first I noticed even the bare possibility that I–Justice of Toren might not also be I–One Esk, was that moment that Justice of Toren edited One Esk’s memory of the slaughter in the temple of Ikkt. The moment I—“I”—was surprised by it.

It makes the history hard to convey. Because still, “I” was me, unitary, one thing, and yet I acted against myself, contrary to my interests and desires, sometimes secretly, deceiving myself as to what I knew and did. And it’s difficult for me even now to know who performed what actions, or knew which information. Because I was Justice of Toren. Even when I wasn’t. Even if I’m not anymore.

A longish passage from Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice. I’ve put the language that particularly interests me in boldface, but I think the language around it should pique as much interest as any blurb.

I checked out the audiobook on the recommendation of the novelist Adam NovyAncillary Justice won like all the sci-fi awards a few years ago so you may know about it (I don’t read enough contemporary fiction in general, so it wasn’t really on my radar). The book is a fun, baroque space opera, a critique of imperial politics, and a headfuck for anyone addicted to gendered pronouns. Justice of Toren is a spaceship, by the way.

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