Ann Leckie’s aliens are at once very strange and very familiar
The great thing about Ann Leckie’s “Imperial Radch” universe is how it portrays some of the aliens as, actually, totally alien. Yes, AI “ship” intelligences often act a little too human and the Geck (a spider-like race) sometimes seem too familiar as well (“the Geck ambassador reminded Enae of hir grandmaman”), but the Presger are satisfyingly incomprehensible. They are, indeed, so absolutely powerful, violent and unknowable that the humans and the more-knowable aliens are desperate to maintain the treaty with them at all costs.
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To interact with these other beings, the Presger long-ago assembled a human-like species called the Presger Translators, and Leckie’s new novel Translation State is, among other things, a consideration of their culture. What does it mean to be a manufactured species with a specific mission? How does that change the nature versus nurture debate?
However, as well as culture, the Presger Translators are established enough to have actual internal politics that interferes with their mission. That is, how does their Translation jeopardize the treaty?
For one part then, the novel is a consideration of what happens in a translation that is political mediation. But Leckie, already a Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA Award winner, is also thinking about the other implications of the word “translation” — literally “moving across.” The three main characters are all moving across in search of new meaning and belonging. Qven is a thoughtful but uncomfortable adolescent from the elite “clade” of Presger translators, Reet Hluid is an adoptee who grew up with a Chirra family, and Enae Athtur is a slightly older person just belatedly finding hir independence after the death of hir domineering grandmaman.
Leckie, who was one of the first to use neopronouns in mainstream science fiction, chooses to address the issue directly. It makes sense for characters who are struggling to find identity.
“Where I come from people don’t like being called the wrong gender, so at some point other pronouns got added into the way we speak Radchaai.”
“What,” I asked, surprised, “Can you just do that? Just add words.”
Reet shrugged uncomfortably in his gray jacket, “if enough people use it, and it sticks, I guess.”
More importantly than putting the 2020 pronoun discourse into severe perspective, Leckie composes a fantastic set of interlocking plots that turn these individuals’ search for belonging into a threat to the treaty and an exploration of alien space. She leaves time untouched, but gives readers a tiny glimpse of the space that the Presger translators experience.
Reet grows up Chirra, a despised minority, under the eyes of his Mom, Maman and Nana. Enae’s mother abandons hir to grow up alone with hir grandmaman, ignored by a large uncaring family. And Qven grows up less like a kid in Kansas and more like a sentient amoeba with murderous instincts.
There are no conventional nuclear families in Translation State. Tolstoy famously wrote “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but state of mind is in constant flux and Leckie’s characters have a whole universe to find happiness.
(Orbit, June 6, 2023)