Ann Leckie’s Raadch Universe is one of the most useful conceits in recent science fiction. Not that there aren’t plenty of background templates to choose from—Iain M. Banks’ Culture, C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance//Union, Martha Wells’ Murderbot universe—but Leckie’s stands out in the way the separate polities interpenetrate and shift and establish themselves based on the intrinsic diversities each entity exhibits. There are nonhumans—the Geck, the Rrrrrr, the Presger—and human and parahuman, and they all, even among themselves, have distinct modes of expression and subsequently unique interests.
Translation State is her fifth entry in what has been thus far a consistently fascinating foray into interstellar…well, it’s all there: war, politics, philosophy, sociology. But for me the stand-out interest has been from the beginning personal identity. In this new novel, it is everything. Leckie is exploring what it means to express autonomy and possess agency.
Enae is facing life outside the home she has always known. Maman has died, the family is gathering to sort out who gets what, and Enae learns that there is nothing to inherit. Maman had spent it all. Another family has purchased the home and, for all intents and purposes, the family name to use as a resource in their rise to prominence. Enae has been cut loose.
She has been in thrall to maman, the one kept home to perpetually care for the elder of the house. Constantly criticized and yet provided for, she has lived in a kind of purgatorial condition, without much of a life of her own. Now, seemingly overnight, she must leave the only house she has ever known and find her way to a new life.
She is not tossed out. The new “owners” see to her material resources, but eventually Enae must leave. A new cousin talks with her about options and suggests he can procure her a position in a diplomatic capacity. She accepts. The first task she is given is to try to find a missing person—missing for decades, almost two centuries. No one realistically expects her to find this person or even find out what happened, and Enae is told as much and that as long as she shows an effort, she will retain this new position and be able to do pretty much as she likes.
That is not who she is, though, and she takes the task seriously. Much to everyone’s surprise, Enae makes headway. But the clues she follows embroil her in a political situation involving the Imperial Raadch, the Rrrrrr and Geck, a refugee group, a local polity with a stake in controlling the refugees, and the very mysterious and dangerous Presger.
The Presger have been a presence throughout the Ancillary stories. The only direct contact between them and any other group has always ended in brutal destruction. The Presger eviscerate—ships, beings, systems—for no comprehensible reason. Over time, a hard-established treaty has come about setting precarious boundaries. On the Presser’s part, an entire cadre of Translators was created just for the purpose of communicating with non-Presger entities, and it is the Translators that are the only direct contact anyone has ever had (and survived) with the Presger. The Translators themselves are not Presger.
It was one of them that went missing. During those missing years, it reproduced. And it is the result of that reproduction—Reet—who now is at the center of the diplomatic chaos Enae has precipitated by being thorough in actually trying to solve the mystery.
The Translators insist on recovering Reet, claiming him to be a Translator juvenile who must be brought back into their fold lest others suffer. Reet, however, has been raised as a human by his foster family and that is what he feels he is.
A petition is filed with the Treaty Administration, things become locked for the time being while matters are sorted out, and in that setting Leckie gives us a look into the manifold interpretations of human, nonhuman, AI, and the balancing act between communal necessity and individual choice. Along the way, the lineaments of her rich universe are revealed in ever more intriguing detail.
Leckie deftly raises the stakes as simple situations unfold into more complexity until we are embroiled in an interstellar thriller with terrorists, political brinksmanship, interspecies conflict, and potential war. And yet it remains throughout focused on family.
The central motivation of each character in this is about family. The boundary between that and the body politic is blurred almost to the point of erasure. Which is, of course, the point.
Within this is the question: can you be what you want to be, no matter what? In Reet’s case, genetics (biology) dictates he is not what he has always felt himself to be. The ambiguities of that are well-explored in the course of the novel, whether what he has always felt/believed is defensible in the face of apparently unalterable factors. Secondarily, given the validity of those Other Factors, does he have the right to reject the claims of others on his choices?
This is set against the vagaries and challenges of a treaty intended to keep wildly disparate civilizations out of each other’s way, and however the decision comes down will impact everything going forward.
But the vital interests here are focused down hard on what constitutes family, either biologically or circumstantially, and everyone involved must deal with the ramifications. In their separate ways, each group portrayed is trying to establish the grounds and the methods for familial inclusion and care.
The fey element thrown in is the one group that adamantly disbelieves another one involved actually exists, believing it is a fiction for political leverage.
Science fiction has been shoving alien species up against each other practically since its inception, but of late the emphases on how and the bases of interaction have shifted to examine the place we all live. Leckie has produced a work that explores those possibilities in ways no other genre can.
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