A Symphony of Language and Identity: Ann Leckie’s Translation State

Books Reviews Ann Leckie
A Symphony of Language and Identity: Ann Leckie’s Translation State

Readers are not likely to pick up Ann Leckie’s new science fiction novel, Translation State, in anticipation of a legal drama, but treaties and jurisdiction and justice are most certainly at the novel’s core. What begins with the resolution of a will, in a fashion almost as dramatic as Knives Out (or, at least, Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero”), becomes a deeper, introspective look at what makes someone human, what it means to be alone in the universe, and how sometimes that loneliness has a solution in the most unexpected places.

When Enae’s Grandmaman dies, sie isn’t sure what fate will hold for hir. Enae has been Grandmaman’s caretaker for all of hir adult life, after all. No one in the family realizes, however, that Grandmaman had no fortune; in fact she sold their family name to a wealthy and ambitious person looking to gain what an older family name could allow. This new cousin (by law) has no reason for Enae to stay around, not when others might question who is the rightful heir to their name. Instead, Enae is provided with a job that will allow hir to lead a life of luxury.

Except that Enae has always done hard work, and made hirself useful. After being scolded for so long by Grandmaman over anything frivolous, Enae finds that the job sie has been given is interesting enough, and sie decides to pursue it to the best of hir abilities. Sie has been tasked with tracking down a 200 years past fugitive: a Presger Translator—aliens who look human, but who somehow speak for the very alien Presger. Why this particular Presger Translator fled or where they went, no one has yet been able to determine. Enae is told that sie should stop in at the offices in multiple planetary systems and perfunctorily check their records, not expecting to find anything. But Enae becomes more invested in the mystery, and when sie finally finds the clues sie is looking for, things go in a very different direction than Enae could ever have expected.

Enae is one of three point-of-view characters in the book. The chapters alternate between hir perspective (in third person), a second third-person perspective of Reet, an adoptee who is embraced by a cultural association looking for a lost heir of their people; and Qven, a very alien first-person narration that describes a childhood, and Qven’s growing dismay at the duties required by adulthood. At first, the three perspectives all seem quite separate. Reet’s growing understanding that the Siblings of Hikipu may not just be a cultural society. The Hikipi are an oppressed minority, whose traditions and language were, at points, forbidden by the larger, ruling Phen ethnic group. Eager to overthrow their colonizers, the Hikipi are rebelling, and the Phen push back—and the Siblings may be connected, in some way, to conspiracy theorist insurgents. Qven’s upbringing, which involves dissecting and sometimes eating fellow youth, is the most foreign, but as the chapters continue, it’s clear that Qven’s perspective provides information relevant to Reet and Enae’s journeys.

So where does the legal drama come in? Midway through the novel, the characters become involved in a trial to determine the legal humanity of a character. To say more would be to reveal far too much about how the stories braid together, but without spoilers, the courtroom drama is compelling, not only for plot reasons (and there are those, involving the bending and shaping of space time!), but for the philosophical scale of the questions the characters ask. What makes someone human? Who gets to decide whether or not a person is human, and whether they merit human rights? If those rights can be won by people previously assumed to not be human, what doors might that open for AI? What are the moral obligations people have to answer any of these questions, and how can they do so ethically?

This may sound like heady stuff, and it is, which is why Leckie focuses on characters that are grounded in more relatable questions: will my family still love me if they find out a secret I’m keeping? What do I do with my life after a loved one dies? Is it my fault that someone took advantage of my trust, and now I’m paying the price? That kind of grounding, in those realistic issues that many readers may have had to answer on their own terms, allows for the bigger questions to soar above the novel. Meanwhile, the characters find their answers in messages from friends, in calls to family members, and in binging the series Pirate Exiles of the Death Moons for the umpteenth time. Those relatable moments keep the rest of the story, with its hidden doors and its biomechs and sentient ships, from ever spinning off too far into space. These characters are like us, and even when their world isn’t…it still has those bits that really are like our world, where relatives argue with the executor of a will, and people face prejudices because of where they came from, or who their family members are. The novel is at once lofty and tangible, and the normalcy of the smaller details makes the universe feel that much larger.

Boiled down, Translation State is about three people figuring out who they are, and—without spoiling too much—discovering that they are loved. It’s also a mystery about a missing fugitive, a courtroom drama, and a science fiction novel that twists reality in a spiral. That Leckie can do all of that, braiding seamlessly three points of view, is a testament to her well-deserved reputation as a luminary of modern SFF.

Translation State is available now wherever books are sold.

Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple-choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.

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