Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series is suffused with the kind of philosophical explorations typical of high-concept speculative fiction, including the nature of conflict, the desire for community and what it means to be human. But these books have also posed another question, one left tantalizingly unanswered: What are the Presger? The terrifying, technologically advanced but rarely seen aliens hover on the edges of the series, their former habit of ripping into spaceships and people alike held at bay by a long-standing treaty with humanity.
In Translation State, Leckie’s latest standalone installment in the Radch universe, three characters approach the question of the Presger from different angles. Enae is a human diplomat tasked with finding out what happened to a missing Presger emissary. Reet is an engineer who discovers he may be the scion of the long-lost leaders of an oppressed people. And Qven is a juvenile Presger Translator, one of the strange creatures that the Presger bioengineered to communicate with species they consider to be Significant, or worthy of a diplomatic relationship. Looming over it all is the approaching renegotiation of the treaty that keeps humanity safe from the Presger.
In some ways, Translation State reads like a witty, action-packed retelling of “The Measure of a Man,” a classic “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode that debates whether the android Data is legally a person or a machine. The question here is not whether the characters think of themselves as Significant, but whether the Presger will think they are. Although the explicit stakes are legal, the terms of the debate are closer to theology than anything else. The Presger are essentially gods, with their treaty of nonviolence toward Significant species a particularly abstruse gospel. It brings to mind the Tarthenal from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, who prayed to gods only to ask them to stay far away. Every party must make decisions regarding the Significance of other species based on not only what serves their own interests but also what will prevent the Presger from tearing everything apart.
Despite the existential nature of its conflict, Translation State still has an essential optimism. Every character’s motivations are understandable, even if they are not sympathetic, as each person is genuinely trying their best under challenging and potentially lethal circumstances.
Translation State also has an absolute whirlwind of a plot. An aristocratic family’s fortune vanishes at a funeral in the first chapter, and later, Qven vivisects and devours multitudes of their fellow juveniles in what is, apparently, a normal part of Presger Translator development. (This book is not for the squeamish.) As ever, under all the excitement and plot machinations, Leckie uses contact among different species and cultures to discuss complicated constructs such as gender. For example, Qven’s initial confusion over how gender works mirrors the Radchaai inability to distinguish between genders in Leckie’s original Radch trilogy.
However, if you are the kind of reader who wants all their questions answered, beware: I still don’t really know what the Presger are.