Book Reviews

Ann Leckie’s “State of Translation” Is a Fascinating Space Opera With Strong Personal Stakes

Ten years ago this summer, I read a pre-reading copy of Ann Leckie’s stunning debut novel, Ancillary Justice. Along with its publicist’s enthusiastic reviews, I was struck by the vivid urgency of its narrative and Leckie’s approach to gender in world-building, which was a radical departure from popular science fiction at the time. I wasn’t the only one who was blown away: it swept multiple awards in a record-breaking debut.

Ancillary Justice and its sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, symbolize a special moment in modern speculative fiction when a wave of stories interested in gender, power, and imperialism erupted into a popular wave. All the old speculative fiction furniture was freshened up again from a whole new perspective, exciting readers.

A decade later, Leckie has built a reputation as a versatile writer with The Provenance and the Hamlet-inspired fantasy, The Raven Tower. The State of Translation is her first novel from 2019. It’s a return to the world of Rudge, as well as several thematic concerns in the supporting books, but it’s a novel in its own right that approaches those concerns from a very different angle.

Enae Athtur spent nearly six decades of her life as the companion of a demanding older relative. After her grandmother died, she was pried out of her day job and accepted a commission as an accredited diplomat: to track down the trail of Pregg’s translator, who had been missing for the past two hundred years. This assignment was intended to keep her occupied, out of the way, and to express the genuine goodwill of her homeland ahead of the diplomatic conclave, where humanity is protected from (very) aliens and the mighty Pressig. The treaty may need to be renegotiated. No one thought she would take it seriously. But Ena has had enough of her former life, and she’s intrigued by the puzzle. It ends up taking her to unexpected places.

Reet Hluid is a pipe maintenance worker on a space station named Zeosen. An orphan who was found alone as an infant on a spaceship, he was a beloved member of his adoptive family, even though he never felt like he fit in. As a child, he had strange impulses, and as an adult, he was often as rude and unsociable as everyone else. It was only when he was approached by a diaspora group (descendants of immigrants and refugees from neighboring regimes) that they believed his unique genetic material meant he was descended from that regime’s former rulers. Reet is happy to make friends and explore his underlying roots, but he’s a little concerned about the political implications of diaspora social groups. However, when a new job that the social group helps him get brings him into contact with Enae, the mysteries of his background and genetics begin to look like there are other explanations. Is Reet the child of a prophet-translator, and therefore biologically a prophet-translator himself?

Ena’s advice wasn’t about ruining Reet’s life. When authorities arrested Reet against his will and sent him to a treaty governing body, she joined forces with his family to try to bring him home. Or at least give him the option to choose what happens next. The biology of the translator may not tolerate many options: in order to survive to adulthood, the translator must fuse with another human being, becoming a new person in two bodies. Or they die in terrible agony.

Qven is a prague translator who grew up among others of his kind. Unlike the other two main characters in “Translation State,” their story begins in early childhood. Their perspectives are the reader’s window into the culturally and biologically disorienting and disturbing heterogeneity of Pregg’s translators. The translator’s role is to translate between the never-before-seen but still apparent Plague and humans and other important species stipulated by the treaty. They are, indeed, strange to Qven, but readers slowly realize that part of this strangeness is the natural savagery of a solipsistic, poorly supervised childhood: By our standards, teenage translators are almost feral, information is limited about their own biology and their own adult society. Qven’s approach to adulthood is fraught with apprehension: They understand that merging with older translators will result in them being essentially eaten, covered, and included. They don’t want to merge; they want to run away. But they were blamed for trying to leave when another teen merged with them almost against their will. Their only chance of surviving to adulthood is to be very obedient and blend with whoever they are told, a prospect they find less appealing than ever.

Another solution emerged when they were told to merge with Reet (which neither Reet nor Qven was keen on) and separate from him. Qven, like Reet, could challenge the Presger Translators’ legal jurisdiction over their future.

But this legal case, and the treaty that protects humans fromPresger and other alien races, is not the only concern in The State of Translation. Leckie explores themes of identity, belonging, and power dynamics in a complex and nuanced way. The characters grapple with their own sense of self and how it is shaped by their biology, culture, and upbringing. They also navigate the power dynamics between different races and social groups, and how those dynamics can shape their lives and choices.

Overall, The State of Translation is a thought-provoking and engaging novel that showcases Leckie’s skill as a writer and her ability to explore complex themes in a compelling way. If you enjoyed Ancillary Justice and Leckie’s other works, I highly recommend picking up this book.

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