Emotions and Machines in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice


Term Final paper written for Intro to Literary Studies ENGL 2391 at Texas Tech University, December 2017. This in-depth paper highlights Ann Leckie’s use of emotion to connect the reader with the characters.


Emotions Used as the Driving Force Behind Making Breq a Human and Anaander Mianaai Machine-like in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie’s 2014 novel Ancillary Justice is a stunning science fiction work that opens many questions about humanity, artificial intelligence, and emotion, not just in the novel, but also in the real world we live in. In the story of Breq’s journey, both to kill the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, and becoming an independent individual being, Leckie touches on real-world concerns about advances in artificial intelligence. From the moment that I connected Breq with the ship, Justice of Toren, my mind was haunted with questions about artificial intelligence in our current world, especially in autonomous vehicles and the implications of individuality that will be necessary to fully achieve the safety ideals being projected for autonomous vehicles and other computer operated equipment. Breq’s metamorphosis from the mind of a warship with multi-faceted bodies to a singular individual being is a compelling story. This metamorphosis is mirrored by the thousand bodies of Anaander Mianaai, who is becoming a multi-faceted being with different opinions, rather than a single-minded creature with multiple bodies. In this essay, I examine Ann Leckie’s use of emotion to transform Breq from an intelligent machine to an individual and compare this to the cold, emotionless presentation of Anaander Mianaai’s behavior. I will explore and compare the individual metamorphosis of Breq and Anaander Mianaai, and discuss the effects of emotions in Breq’s programming affecting this change, as well as look at Mianaai’s split selves as dilutions of emotion, causing opposing personalities. I will argue that emotion is a vital aspect of both character’s changes, and examine some explanation on the theory of how the inclusion of emotion could influence real-world artificial intelligence. The value of emotion to the characters is outlined early in Ancillary Justice and gives weight to the importance of emotion throughout the plot.

The value standard of emotions to the story are set first in a conversation between Breq and Seivarden, and then when Breq explains the need for emotion in the ship’s artificial intelligence when recalling an interaction with a human soldier, Seven Issa. These two moments also help to explain One Esk’s behavior toward favorite Lieutenants, and even suggests an explanation for Breq saving Seivarden. The clarity of understanding that Breq has for the value of emotion is shown when Breq is questioning Seivarden about her use of the drug kef.

“‘She said,’ Seivarden said finally, lifting her face from her hands, ‘that emotions clouded perception. That the clearest sight was pure reason, undistorted by feeling.’
‘That’s not true.’”

(Leckie 73)

Breq’s response, shooting down the idea that emotion clouds perception, indicates that Breq is aware of the vital role emotion plays in sentience. To debunk Seivarden’s comment even further, and shore up the idea of emotion being vital to autonomous function of an artificial intelligence Leckie again addresses the value of emotions a few pages later. Seven Issa feels she may have insulted One Esk, and their conversation leads to Breq explaining the reason for emotion in a ship: “Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions” (Leckie 88). This fact that Breq uses to explain the value of emotions to a ship and its ancillaries is similar to many of the theories and philosophy that tie emotions to cognitive abilities. Jason Megill, in his article “Emotion, Cognition and Artificial Intelligence”, explains the views of emotional vitality to thinking. One point that seems vital to the function of any autonomous function is that of selective attention – the ability to choose which part of the surrounding environment to pay attention too – which is something that Justice of Toren, One Esk refers to often when talking about the multi-faceted viewpoints of the ancillary segments. “If not for this ability, coping with our environment would be a near Herculean task; while neglecting important objects or events, we would become lost in minutia” explains Megill. The idea is that the things that get our attention are chosen by the emotion they evoke, which helps the mind choose what is most important in the moment (Megill 191). However, this is not the only part of the tie between the function of artificial intelligence and emotions. Megill also explains the “frame problem” for designing artificial intelligence.

Consider the following cognitive ability: when placed in a specific, real world situation, human agents, with a presumably vast network of prior beliefs and knowledge, are able, in a reasonably efficient (e.g., quick) fashion, to access their specific beliefs and knowledge that are relevant to cope with the situation at hand. The constructions of Artificial Intelligence, however, generally lack this ability; that is, they suffer from the frame problem.

(Megill 191)

The “frame problem” explains the necessity for emotions in artificial intelligence even further. I think this is very vital information for the reader to see the value of emotions to the story. Otherwise I do not think that Breq could be convincing as an independent, evolving individual once separated from Justice of Toren, One Esk. In light of this, the importance of the emotions felt by the ship raises the question of what has happened to Anaander Mianaai’s emotions over the thousands of years and thousands of bodies that have hosted Mianaai’s mind?

When the feared Lord of the Radch first appears in Ancillary Justice, Breq gives a little history lesson on Anaander Mianaai. Described as ruling the Radch “absolutely” for “three thousand years,” Mianaai is a single being that lives in multiple bodies: “…she possessed thousands of bodies, all of them genetically identical, all of them linked to each other” (Leckie 95). I think there are several things here that are vital to understanding Mianaai’s becoming two different people, despite the claims made in Breq’s description. First, Mianaai is like Justice of Toren, acting as the main host of the personality, with thousands of bodies at her disposal to act with, an existence similar to an ancillary, but a Radch, not a machine, to start with. How many times can Mianaai copy, or share, her mind with different physical bodies before there is a rift in the original consciousness? There is a limit, or Mianaai would not be at war with herself. Second, the bodies are identical genetic clones, an idea itself that can have issues with the quality of the resulting clones. Comparatively the ancillary soldiers are the mind of a machine in bodies of real people, all different genetically, suggesting more stable hosts for the artificial intelligence than is offered to Mianaai’s consciousness. The technology in Radch is far above and beyond the technology that we have in the real world, but there is the persistent question in science fiction of how many times can a copy be copied before it starts to lose its quality? I think this is an important factor in Mianaai becoming two opposing personalities, rather than one. Also, Mianaai’s split existence seems to be a creation developed after the ships with artificial intelligence, as Mianaai explains the ship’s behavior to Seivarden:

“That’s how they were made from the start, but their minds are complex, and it’s a tricky proposition. The original designers did that by giving them and overwhelming reason to want to obey. Which had advantages, and rather spectacular disadvantages. I couldn’t completely change what they were, I just… adjusted it to suit me. I made obeying me an overriding priority for them.”

(Leckie 339)

This suggests that Mianaai may have overthrown the previous leadership by influencing the programming of the ship artificial intelligences, and that she modeled her multiple-body existence after the ancillaries. Another interesting point to look at with Mianaai’s split personality is that Mianaai lives a more seclusive nature as a feared leader and a priest of Amaat, while Justice of Toren lives in close, extremely intimate interaction with the human officers, giving the ship many more opportunities for emotional interactions that Mianaai would have. Considering the similarities between the two, I consider this when questioning the reasons that Mianaai has started to develop fragmented personalities. Mianaai’s different bodies are spread all over Radch space, exposing each part of the Lord of Radch to different influences from cultures, religions, and other people. The intimate interactions of the ships, compared to Mianaai’s interactions as a leader, certainly have influences on Justice of Toren, One Esk.

Breq admits openly that ships have favorite officers, as does Mianaai, and that there are those that the ships, especially their decades, do not like. This affection is a driving force behind Breq’s character, and I think it is important to examine Breq’s affection for Lieutenant Awn. While One Esk has had favorites like it’s first lieutenant that encouraged One Esk to sing, which developed into a habit that carried over to Breq. One Esk has also had lieutenants that it did not like, namely Seivarden, who is the reoccurring theme of dislike for Breq in the story, with reasons that seem very emotionally charged. One Esk is tolerant of Seivarden in their interactions, sometimes disrespectful, failing to mend a uniform out of spite (Leckie 70) In contrast, One Esk is downright affectionate to Awn, and their interactions have the feeling of some maternal behaviors from One Esk, like when it corrects Awn for swearing: “Silently I messaged her. ‘Language, Lieutenant’” (Leckie 92). This is not a one-sided relationship though, because Awn shows both the respect of speaking to One Esk as a person and empathy for the feelings of One Esk, notably when One Esk receives a replacement segment. The event is described by Breq as unpleasant, and Awn is aware of the situation, showing empathy for both One Esk and the human becoming a segment: “Lieutenant Awn shifted her grip, put her arms around the new segment, pulled me in closer. It was shivering, still cold from suspension and from terror. ‘It’s all right. It’ll be all right’” (Leckie 171). The emotional connection between Awn and One Esk is strong, and I think that Awn’s actions encouraged the change in One Esk that resulted in Breq. Breq’s description of Awn’s actions when a replacement segment is added shows Awn’s concern for One Esk, which I think is a vital factor in Breq’s obsession with avenging Awn. When Awn shows some of the respect for One Esk, we see her cut down by Lieutenant Issaaia:

“I’ve been busy, Lieutenant,” I answered. “And I haven’t wanted to disturb Lieutenant Awn.”
“Your singing doesn’t disturb me, One,” said Lieutenant Awn. “I am sorry you thought it did. Please, sing if you want.”
Lieutenant Issaaia raised an eyebrow. “An apology? And a please? That’s a bit much.”

(Leckie 181)

The disdain for showing any kindness to the ancillaries is both aimed at Awn’s perceived failures and her appearing weak. The view of the ancillaries is low overall, and they are considered nothing more than tools; however, they are tools with emotions because One Esk, and Justice of Toren require emotions to function and be successful. Awn is not from the wealthy, arrogant families of her peers and she treats the ancillaries differently, responding to those emotions, and treating One Esk’s segments like people. This is very different from how Justice of Toren, One Esk is usually treated. This plays a huge factor in One Esk’s actions, and I think it created the strong feeling of affection for Awn that drives Breq. I think that Breq is compelled to rescue Seivarden because of the emotional grief of not being able to save Awn from dying at Mianaai’s order to One Var (Leckie 8, 224-227). I think this indicates that Breq is still evolving and not just responding to integrated programming. If she was, I think that she would understand that about saving Seivarden, rather than questioning the motivation for it.

Ancillary Justice effectively uses emotion to build the metamorphosis of Breq’s character, as well as Mianaai’s. The implications of programming emotions into artificial intelligence to create an effective cognitive function raises questions about the outcome of current programming for autonomous vehicles. Are the machines we see now the progenitors of autonomous, emotional machines? Does our future hold a war that will be defined by whom the machines feel compelled to obey? The future is unknown, but I think that Leckie artfully incorporated aspects that bring these ideas up as questions for our modern world. I think that Leckie also raises questions about long-life and cloning with Mianaai’s fracturing personality. Is that something that could become an issue in humanity’s search for immortality? The questions about our modern-day advancements that science fiction can raise are unending, yet I also think important philosophical points to consider. The irony of Breq’s existence and evolution from machine to human is that the warring versions of Mianaai are responsible for the events leading up to Breq’s separation from Justice of Toren. Although, without the built-in emotions and its interactions with Awn, Breq – One Esk Nineteen – would not have been able to function as a separate entity from Justice of Toren. I think that Leckie successfully shows the metamorphosis of Breq from a machine to a human and Mianaai from a human to a more machine-like personality with supporting emphasis on emotions. The interactions that One Esk experiences with its lieutenants builds a self-image for One Esk and creates emotional ties that give the artificial intelligence the chance to become a person, rather than a tool. In contrast, Mianaai’s isolation as a leader, and extensive splitting of her mind between thousands of clone bodies creates the opportunity for a mental glitch that creates opposing personalities and seems to take the emotional depth out of Mianaai. Ancillary Justice raises some interesting questions about the current development of autonomous vehicles, programmed with artificial intelligence, how designers will create dynamic learning protocols in the programming, and the possible future results. Arguably, as Megill points out in his essay, “there is a massive (and growing) amount of empirical evidence from neuroscience and cognitive psychology that shows that emotion plays an important role in certain cognitive abilities … and so in cognition in general” (193), giving a lot of weight to Leckie’s use of emotion in Ancillary Justice. To conclude, I think that Ann Leckie artfully and accurately depicted the metamorphosis of Breq from a machine to a human, and Mianaai from a human to a machine, with emotions as a driving force behind those changes.

Works Cited

Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Justice. New York: Orbit, 2013.

Megill, Jason. “Emotion, Cognition and Artificial Intelligence.” Mind and Machines 24.2 (2014): 189-199. PDF.