Ann Leckie has written a strange and compelling story in Translation State that is set in a part of her Imperial Radch universe different from what we know from the Ancillary novels. For all its trappings of space opera and bizarre species, it’s very much a captivating story about family, loneliness, friendship, and the need to feel a sense of purpose and belonging. The writing deftly probes the emotions of its characters, and no matter how far from human they may be, what they feel always rings true.
I realized as I got into it that the feeling of strangeness I had reminded me of Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn from the Xenogenesis trilogy in which aliens want to merge with humans to produce a new race to repopulate the Earth. Leckie shows us several species on the fringes of the Radchaai system but focuses mostly on the mysterious Presger. Humans and other species never actually see the Presger, only their Translators who have a human shape. And these Presger are raised from a young age to imitate human behavior in carefully scripted and very stilted ways to discipline their behavior so they can be trusted not to do anything wild. As they get close to adulthood, they have to “match” with a carefully selected partner. And though we never see a full matching process, it involves a merging of flesh, to some extent, but the result is a single Translator with more than one body. Definitely strange.
But let me back up. We are introduced to this universe through the perspectives of three characters. A middle-aged woman, Mx Enae Athtur, who has devoted hir whole life to meeting the needs of hir Grandmaman and who finds hirself suddenly turned out on hir own, though with support, after the elder’s death. Sie is assigned a job with the Diplomatic Service to try to track down a Presger Translator who disappeared some two hundred years ago. To prepare for her assignment, sie learns about a crucial treaty with the Presger that is the only thing preventing that alien species from tearing the human world apart.
Second is Reet Hluid, apparently a human who works in the pipeways of the Rurusk Station. He is an orphan from a foster family who has never felt quite right in the world. His foster family supports him, but his sense of his own strangeness stems from his fantasies of biting into people’s flesh, though he keeps that strictly under control. He loves nothing so much as to retire to his small room to eat dumplings and watch installments of his favorite series, Pirate Exiles of the Death Moons. He too finds his life abruptly changed when he meets representatives of a club of descendants of the Hikipi, a human ethnic group who had fled persecution by the Phen and whose original world was destroyed. They claim Reet as one of their own, in fact, a descendant of the once ruling family named Schan.
Third is Qven, who is an “Edge”, one of the Presger Translators-in-training undergoing his lessons in human deportment, but who harbors longings to escape the rigid confines of his upbringing. He also dreads the day when he will have to match with someone, having witnessed, he thinks, a match in progress which looked, well, pretty grim and made him feel sick, though his classmates seemed to want to chow down on the anomalous thing they observed. Qven seems destined to match with an important Translator until one day he is attacked and, in the eyes of the adults of his world, damaged. It’s no longer clear if he’ll ever be able to match, and if that is not possible, then he will simply be disposed of.
Even though Translation State is space opera, with its multiple star systems and species and rapid travel among stations and planets, it is one that takes place mostly in very narrow spaces. There are the confined rooms where Enae, Reet and Qven spend much of their time, corridors and pipeways in space stations, small meeting rooms and, above all, the room where much of the culminating action takes place and that undergoes a spectacular reality shift. And the action is not about saving the universe, although preservation of the Presger Treaty seems to be a life-and-death matter for the Imperial Radch.
The action turns instead on the choices that the three main characters have to make in order to survive. They need to believe that they are fully human, even though two of them may not be in biological terms. There is a great deal about gender fluidity, people trying new combinations of pronouns, and a major element of the story turns on who can legally be regarded as human. Each of three main characters has been convinced throughout their lives to date that they aren’t worth much, that there is no place for them in the wider world outside the narrow confines they have mostly known. Yet in this story they are tested by circumstances they would never have imagined they would be in and have to find an inner strength to do things that will turn around a disastrous situation. Much comes down to belief in self and finding the support of family and close relationships to avoid a terrible fate.
Leckie is always sensitive to the emotions of her characters and gets all of them right, even the minor ones. There is Ambassador Seimet, the arrogant representative of the Imperial Radch, the Geck representative, whom we only see as a broad mech with a couple of legs and waving eye stalks, the Presger Teacher who tries to protect Qven, and a Sphene representative. The Sphene are the AIs familiar from the Imperial Radch trilogy, who are the ships and stations and crews (by inhabiting human bodies) of the Radch universe. In this story they are pushing to be recognized as parties to the Presger Treaty, an outcome deeply opposed by the Radch as an existential threat to their continued dominance.
A further test of what it means to be human comes from the Presger, who have created a set of beings to be Translators based on genetic material they have gathered from humans, but it is clear they have no understanding of what humans are like, especially the idea of an individual able to make choices. Qven tries to follow all the rules of his training while understanding on an instinctual level that he doesn’t fit in and wants to find a way to escape the stilted formulas the Presger think prepare one to relate to humans so that they can play the role of Translators.
This is a novel without a wasted word and reads quickly as the characters get drawn more and more deeply into the politics of their worlds. Translation State also has the excitement of a mystery thriller as it moves rapidly toward a remarkable climax. There are a few scenes of body horror, but they never overwhelm the main story. It’s a fine reading experience.
My thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for an advance review copy of Translation State on which to base this review, consisting solely of my own opinions.
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