Thursday, August 3, 2023

Review: Translation State, by Ann Leckie

 A thoughtful but plodding reflection on self-determination

 For readers of Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy, or the standalone follow-up Provenance, the setting of Translation State, the new entry in her Imperial Radch universe, is familiar, as, indeed, are some side characters. But this book also stands alone well, so readers looking for a single-book sized entrance into the world of the Radch could do worse than to start here.

The focus of this book is the Presger, a mysterious alien race that commands the power to take apart any ship they encounter, and held in check only by a treaty they’ve struck with humans and other species in their portion of the galaxy. Why they agreed to uphold the treaty in the first place is something of a mystery: clearly the Presger do not require or benefit from its non-aggression provisions, since they are in no danger from anyone. But this treaty is all that keeps non-Presgers safe from Presgers, so everyone is extremely keen to make sure that things go well and no one causes trouble. Now that a new sentient species has demanded recognition under the treaty, a massive Conclave is in progress to renegotiate the terms, and everyone is nervous and keener than ever to keep the Presger happy.

Dominant among humans are the Imperial Radch, a huge empire whose influence and power affect everything that happens in other human polities. Yet the main characters in this book are not Radchaai, but inhabitants of smaller polities and territories, each with their own priorities that do not necessarily align with the Radch. Three intertwining plot threads structure this narrative. First, we have Enae, from Saeness Polity, who upon the death of hir family’s matriarch is kicked out of hir family home and shunted off to a government job where sie is assigned make-work non-tasks. That non-task turns out to be to track down a Presger fugitive who disappeared 200 years ago. No one expects Enae to find anything — the trail went cold centuries ago — but the Presger have requested it, and everyone wants to keep the Presger happy. And Enae—finally free of hir family obligations — is keen to do the job properly. 

Enae's investigation leads hir to Reet, a young man living in the Sovereign Territory of Zeosen. Reet has struggled with strong and perplexing urges since childhood, namely a burning desire to rip people's skin off and see what's underneath. So far, he has not acted on it, but he (understandably) struggles to fit in, and so has spent his life drifting without purpose. This directionlessness finds direction when Reet is adopted by the Siblings of Hikipu, a splinter ethnic group who insist on seeing him as the descendent of a lost leader who disappeared when their ancestral home of Lovehate Station was destroyed and the Hikipu had to flee. 

Finally, we have Qven, a young Presger Translator-in-training. Translators are a population of altered humans, engineered by the Presger to serve as intermediaries between the utterly incomprehensible Presger and everyone else. One alteration is an overpowering instinct toward cannibalism, which leads Translator children to eat each other with distressing casualness. (The urge dissipates with adulthood.)  Qven's problem is the opposite of Reet's: Instead of lacking direction and seeking it out, Qven chafes against their imposed future that they cannot find a way to escape.

The eventual conjunction between these three plot lines was not, in the end, terribly surprising, but it did a lovely job of developing the politics of the Raadchai sphere at both macro and micro levels. This was accomplished most effectively with Reet’s storyline. As he learns, the Hikipu fret against the dominance of another group, the Phen, in Zeosen, and their fretfulness sometimes turns violent. Moreover, the more radical among their number claim that the Presger do not actually exist, that they are a hoax, a bogeyman invented to keep other polities subservient to the Radchaai. This political and ethnic strife is set in counterpart against Reet’s adoptive family, who belong to another minority group, the Chirra, and are perpetually striving to show that they are the ‘good ones’. They counsel all their children to avoid taking too much interest in political causes, because when minority groups start getting political — as the Hikipu do — the response is much harsher than when majority groups start causing trouble. When the Presger and the Radchaai start taking an interest in Reet, his association with the Hikipu naturally becomes problematic. This entire conversation was rich and chewy and well-constructed, showcasing the kind of political world-building that Leckie excels at.

Qven’s storyline offers an eerie look into the upbringing of Presger Translators that I’m sure readers of the Ancillary books have been craving. For all that Translators started out as biological humans, Presger intervention has changed their biology dramatically: beyond the childhood cannibalism thing, adult Translators are impelled to Match with others, a process that creates a single mind spread across multiple bodies. These properties are hinted at in the original Ancillary trilogy with Translators Dlique and Zeiat, and I had to stop at one point and go back to read those bits to remind myself how it worked. But where Dlique's glimpses into this part of Presgerdom were played as a humourous weirdness to highlight the alienness of everything related to the Presger, Qven’s deeper exploration of that part of this universe was grim and sad. 

In particular, the process of Matching is invoked rather awkwardly as a rape metaphor. I can’t quite put my finger on why this parallel bothered me so much. Possibly it was that its treatment seemed too uncomfortably human to fit in to this studiedly inhuman Presger world. Yet, given the later discussion about self-determination and humanness in opposition to Presger alien-ness, that objection seems less a bug than a feature. Possibly the problem was that it was that it was more heavy-handed that Leckie's usually deft touch. Or possibly it was that I’m so sick of sexual assault as a plot element in my fiction that, no matter how disguised and metaphorized it is, I itch when I encounter it. Anyway: content warning there.

This theme of self-determination characterizes much of the book from various angles. Reet looks for a purpose in his life, choosing to align himself with the Hikipu when they offer him a place, even though he doesn't really believe he is what want him to be. Qven has a brief arc in which e chooses a pronoun that is not the typical they used by most Presger Translators (although, to be sure, the use of they might be less about gender identity and more about the fact that adult Translators have Matched with others and so form a single mind composed of multiple sentient beings. For Presgers, it seems, they is not the singular they, but a truly plural one. Pronoun pedants, rejoice!). These small choices are then reflected in a much larger conflict in the second half of the book, revolving around how much freedom Reet and Qven have to declare their own species alignment. Officially, the Presger treaty grants this choice to all sentient beings, but which in practice gets complicated where Presger Translators are involved. (Remember, no one wants to make the Presger angry, and the Translators are very anxious not to let Qven go.) 

If these questions of self-determination had been an undercurrent theme against some other primary plot conflict, it would have worked brilliantly. The Ancillary books accomplished this so, so well, with their intertwining threads that blended together the personal arc of the narrator, the primary conflict with the many-splintered selves of the ruler of the Radch, and the brilliantly envisioned discussion of imperialism and its political and cultural consequences. 

But Translation State did nothing so complex. The focus on self-determination wasn't an undercurrent theme that served as a foundation to enrich an intertwined plot. Rather, it was the entire plot of the second half of the book, and just in case the reader missed its importance, we were treated to an enormous amount of speechifying. When the speechifying paused, we got instead long stretches of soul-searching and hesitation and even a bit of that tiresome trope of two people who want the same thing but don't allow themselves to act on that desire because each thinks the other doesn't want it and why can't they just talk to each other?! I found myself highlighting paragraphs of navel-gazing that re-trod the same ground as previous pages of navel-gazing, writing peevish annotations: ‘Get on with it already!’

This book needed something else. Some other plot element to bulk up the second half. And the potential was there to do that brilliantly. For example: Lovehate station, the ancestral origin of the Hikipu, was destroyed a few hundred years ago under mysterious circumstances. But that's roughly the same time that Presger translator fled. What happened? Is there a connection? (Surely there must be a connection.) Then, the Siblings of Hikipu are particularly eager to find the descendants of the ruling family, the Schans, who had a reputation for being brutal and bloodthirsty. Are the Schans related to the rogue Translator? Is this Schan bloodthirstiness in fact the Presger predilections for cannibalism making its way into the historical record? And why did that 200-years-ago Presger Translator flee, anyway? And why are the Presger so keen to find out what happened to this runaway only now, 200 years later? I also would have liked to know quite a bit more about the workings of Presger Translator politics, which are built around clades and family lines that are claimed to not be important, but which are in fact vitally fundamental in Translator society. Leckie does politics so well; I'm sure she could have done something fascinating with that, rather than leave us with these tantalizing hints.

All of these plot threads could not only have been explored in substantially more detail, but also linked up with the treaty renegotiations in such a way as to lend more urgency and resonance to Qven and Reet’s quest for self-determination. But they're not. They're dropped, and the gaps are filled up with introspection and tedium.



Nerd coefficient: 6, enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore

Brilliant political world-building

Plodding reliance on introspection

       Properly alien aliens

Cannibalism and vivisection in scads

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at

Reference: Leckie, Ann. Translation State, [Orbit, 2023].