“We shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed.”
Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy burst onto the scene in 2014 with Ancillary Justice, and in the decade since it’s almost become possible to forget how groundbreaking that book was, as the genre has rapidly changed in ways that made its innovations much more mainstream. Leckie followed up the trilogy with Provenance, set in the Imperial Radch universe but completely unrelated to Radchaai concerns, and then with The Raven Tower, an extremely sly fantasy take on Hamlet. With Translation State, she returns not only to the Radch universe but also to the main line of the story unfolded in the trilogy—but, as with Provenance, she approaches it not from the viewpoint of any Radchaai or AI characters, but through three distinctly non-Radchaai viewpoints that are interwoven in ingenious and complex ways.
Translation State follows three characters whose stories at first seem completely unrelated: Enae, the scion of a wealthy house who finds out after hir grandmother dies that said grandmother arranged to adopt a parvenu to clear her debts, leaving Enae in the awkward position of being provided for in her will but without a role in the house where sie has lived hir entire life. The new heir arranges a job for Enae with the Office of Diplomacy: tracking down a lost Presger fugitive who may or may not have come through their system, or nearby, nearly two hundred years ago. The issue is relevant again because a conclave is gathering to discuss potentially adding a new treaty signatory—the sentient AIs—to the Presger treaty that keeps the Presger from slaughtering the treaty parties willy-nilly, and a missing Presger fugitive is an unfortunate loose end.
Enae’s path takes hir to a station in another system, where misfit Reet Hluid is assigned as hir diplomatic liaison. Reet was raised by a loving adopted family after being found alone in a shuttle as a baby, and unlike most infants in similar circumstances genetic analysis has never turned up any link to his parent culture, let alone his actual parents. Aside from this strange background, as a child Reet had a notable problem with biting other children, and he continues to have odd intrusive fantasies about cutting people open. Recently, though, Reet has been found by a group of ethnic Hikipi, who claim that Reet must be a scion of the lost Hikipi ruling family, who controlled the area surrounding Lovehate Station a thousand years ago and were also notably into cannibalism. For a loner like Reet, the embrace of their community is welcome, even if a good chunk of their meetings does consist of singing corny songs and some of the community’s pillars may be involved in smuggling weapons to anti-Phen partisans in other systems.
Meanwhile, young Qven, the book’s third protagonist, grows up as a Presger Translator, surviving the indiscriminate acts of murder and cannibalism among the juveniles (which are perfectly normal to Qven’s mind) both due to their own high marks in the various metrics by which Translators learn to interact with humans and other non-Presger sentients, and because Qven’s clade turns out to be quite influential within the Presger Translators.
Although the Imperial Radch trilogy left the impression that the Presger Translators were fully, or nearly, human, through Qven’s first-person perspective we quickly come to understand that they are not: rather than being human or Presger, they were created by the Presger to talk to humans: “Their Translators were … put together from material taken from human ships and stations that they’d disassembled. Put together in a way that made some sense to the Presger themselves. And the Presger do not clearly understand the idea of being a person. Or, to speak more clearly, they do not understand the idea of being an individual.”
In keeping with that fundamental misunderstanding on the part of their creators, the Presger Translators undergo a process before they reach maturity that is neither sex nor cannibalism but a secret third thing, which they call “matching.” Through matching, two individuals become one individual in two bodies—which only becomes clear when Reet first meets Qven’s Teacher and is surprised to realize there are two of them. For Qven, this is completely normal, and thus there is no need to remark on it.
Once Enae figures out Reet’s actual background, he’s whisked off to the Treaty Administration Facility under the aegis of Seimet, the Radchaai ambassador to the Presger, who very much wants Reet handed over to the Presger Translators and the AIs not to be admitted as new treaty partners. Having developed a horror of matching through their own sentiments and rendered unsuitable for their planned career by an unfortunate violent incident, Qven is also shipped off to the Facility to match with Reet, fate thereafter unclear. Meanwhile, Enae manages to hook up with Reet’s family and organize a sufficiently competent legal defense that the question of Reet’s fate, and Qven’s, goes before the treaty council to adjudicate, meaning that the back half of the novel is as much a legal-political drama as it is a sci-fi novel.
This is interesting enough on its own, but a wrench is thrown into the works when the Radchaai ambassador decides to involve some of Reet’s erstwhile Hikipi radical comrades to be party to the deliberations. Awkwardly, they don’t believe the Presger really exist, insisting that they’re a charade put on by the Phen and the Radchaai to enable their conquest, somehow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their unhinged devotion to conspiracy theories causes problems for everyone.
Leckie’s books have never been much in the way of romance, which is honestly somewhat refreshing, but Translation State does have a meet-cute element that is endearing. Qven and Reet are thrown together with the intent that they should match, partly because Qven not matching (and dying) would be a failure that would besmirch their clade’s standing. Both of them are determined to make a genuine choice out of what the Translators and Seimet present as a fait accompli, but they’re also intrigued to recognize a kindred spirit in each other despite their very different backgrounds and Reet’s near-total ignorance of Presger Translators. Even as Qven and Reet are suspicious about what the Translators will allow to happen to them, if and when they do match, other elements jockeying for power with respect to the treaty offer them an alternative: the ability to match, however imperfectly, with a Geck-made mech.
The AI ship Sphene, while acting as the representative for the Republic of the Two Systems, which very much wants the AIs to be recognized as a Significant Species under the Treaty, spends a good deal of time trying to secure the use of these mechs for the AIs, since everyone else thinks the use of ancillaries (what one character derisively refers to as “corpse soldiers,” even though Sphene insists the body it’s using has never actually died) is creepy at best and morally offensive at worst. Sphene is working towards its own ends, but those ends do include trying to throw a spanner into Ambassador Seimet’s works whenever possible. If I had one complaint about the book, it was not enough Sphene, and no direct sighting of Sphene’s rogue Presger Translator friend Dlique.
The question of nature versus nurture is obviously a live one in this story—can Qven and Reet transcend their biological imperatives? Can they successfully argue that they should be counted as human rather than Presger Translators under the treaty? Qven and Reet argue that they should be able to make their own choice, which their legal advocates and the narrative insists is their birthright as sentient beings, regardless of their genetic backgrounds. Similarly, Enae winds up doing a fairly competent job at both hir actual duties and hir desperate attempts to help Reet, demonstrating to hirself that sie is a lot tougher than hir grandmother said and that sie is fit to do more with hir life than just being a stay-at-home caretaker. All three of them find independence, which is not the same thing as isolation.
At this point I don’t bet against Ann Leckie, and though Translation State doesn’t have many of the elements of space opera, it’s still a thoroughly compelling sci-fi tale: I finished it in about a day because I just wanted to know what happened that badly. Although I was hoping to encounter some actual Presger in this book, we certainly learn enough to find them pretty terrifying, and though I’m very curious to learn the future fate of the Radchaai empire and the Republic of Two Systems—at least one character predicts that admitting the AIs as treaty partners means the end of the Radch—this story is thoroughly satisfying for itself. (For those who found the Radchaai tea hegemony oppressive, I can happily report that Enae and Reet come from staunch coffee-drinking cultures.) I can only hope that Leckie returns to this setting as soon as possible with yet another excellent book.