Translation State

A return to the world of the Imperial Radch has been warmly welcomed by Ann Leckie fans everywhere. Personally I am particularly pleased that the new book, Translation State, focuses on the Presger, who are delightfully alien aliens.

The Presger are so violent and dangerous that direct communication with other intelligent species is beyond them. They don’t believe in talking when they can be eating instead. But, in order to avoid galactic war (which they would probably win, though at great cost), they have created a type of being called a Translator. These are humanoid, made with some human DNA, but evolved from Presger. In Translation State we get to see how Translators are raised and trained. Reader, it is not pretty. Life for young Presger is eat or be eaten.

Why do we get to know this? Well reader, there is a story, stretching back a couple of generations to before the Radchaai civil war. At this time, a Translator in Saeniss Polity, a non-Radchaai territory, escaped Presger supervision and vanished. Up until now, this renegade Translator was merely missing, presumed dead. But now, thanks to the civil war, there is a conclave going on to decide whether AIs such as Breq should be granted recognition as Significant Species and become signatories to the treaty with the Presger. Any small issue might be leveraged for diplomatic benefit, and therefore the Saeniss Office of Diplomacy has to make a show of trying to resolve the open case of the missing Translator.

Not that anyone expects the matter to be resolved, especially after so much time. The job is given to a young person called Enae Athtur, primarily because hir wealthy legal guardian wants sie out of the way. As it turns out, Enae is smart, and has a deep sense of responsibility when it comes to getting the job done. Sie is also very calm in a crisis, especially when faced by unreasonable behavior from powerful individuals, which is just what you need where Radchaai and Presger diplomats are involved.

It turns out (and this is hardly a spoiler as it becomes obvious very quickly) that the missing Translator managed to reproduce itself before dying, and that young being ended up ruling over a small ethnic group called the Hikipi. They have since been conquered by the Phen. The Translator reproduced again. The resulting child escaped the Phenish conquest and ended up being adopted and raised as a member of the Zeosen people. This person, known to us as Reet Hluid, will be our second main character.

Meanwhile among the Presger, a young potential Translator called Qven is on their way to adulthood. Among the Presger, that means merging with an existing adult. Whereas Anaander Miannaai, the Radchaai Emperor, has cloned herself to achieve longer life, the Presger Translators do something similar by merging with juveniles. Translators can thus have multiple bodies, each of which is a different person, but all of which have the same identity and share mental functions. Thanks to a childhood trauma, Qven has a deep-seated horror of merging.

Unfortunately, because of the way that Presger biology works, if a juvenile does not merge, it will die. You can probably see where this is going.

There is, therefore, a whole complicated diplomatic thing going on in which the Presger Translators want everything resolved quietly and conservatively, because if the actual Presger take notice all hell could break lose. Meanwhile the Radchaai don’t want their starships being granted personhood, and every other species is keen to see the Radchaai taken down a peg.

This is not what the book is about. It is just the plot. What the book is actually about is family. Enae has been rejected by hir family, who are deeply horrible people. Reet has loving and supportive foster parents, but he’s not remotely the same species as them. Family as such doesn’t really exist for the Presger, but they raise young all the same and are even more cruel to them than human families. There was a major trap here for Leckie, in that for a long time it seemed possible that the plot would deprive Reet and Qven of any choice as to their futures. I’m pleased to say that she managed to avoid this.

Where Leckie may run into trouble is her portrayal of the Hikipi. There are very few of them left, and many of those that remain are deeply nationalist to the point of enacting terrorist violence. The Phen react to this in a way that would make Cruella Braverman very proud. But the Hikipi don’t come out of this well either. They are caught up in a conspiracy theory which holds that the Presger don’t exist, but have been invented by the Phen as an excuse for colonialist tyranny. The irony being that the Hikipi were actually ruled over by a descendant of a Presger Translator. I think this is supposed to be poking fun at other people prone to conspiracy theories, but the determination of the Hikipi to hold on to their culture is going to cause people from marginalized groups to identify with them, and read into the narrative things that Leckie probably didn’t intend.

Fans of Leckie’s previous work may be disappointed that Breq does not appear in this book. However, there is a supporting cast role for Sphene, the ship that Breq found behind the Ghost Gate in Ancillary Mercy.

There is a fair amount about gender in the book. The Presger Translators do not have gender, but Reet thinks he’s a human male. The Radchaai continue to use she/her pronouns for everyone, whether they are Radchaai or not. This leads to some characters keeping trying to correct them, which is quite amusing.

The other fun part of the book is that Reet is addicted to a video drama called Pirate Exiles of the Death Moons. This seems to be a friendly nod to the Murderbot books. I didn’t get a chance to ask Martha Wells about it when I was in Sweden, but I suspect she’s amused.

I very much enjoyed this book, and the insights it provides to Presger society. I also note that it develops the plot lines left hanging at the end of Ancillary Mercy. Thanks to Reet, Sphene and her cousins may end up being officially recognized as a Significant Species. This would have disastrous consequences for the Imperial Radch, so there must be more stories to be told.

book cover
Title: Translation State
By: Ann Leckie
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
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Amazon US UK
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