EARLY IN Ann Leckie’s Provenance, a character offers the protagonist, Ingray Aughskold, a brief précis of the galaxy-spanning political upheaval that followed the events of Leckie’s earlier novels. Ingray’s response to the wide-reaching turmoil? “It’s not our problem, I guess.”

At first glance, this attitude seems to perfectly encompass Provenance’s relationship with its trilogy of predecessors. The Imperial Radch trilogy followed the remnant of an artificial intelligence, Breq, who previously operated as the networked consciousness of the interstellar warship “Justice of Toren.” The first book in this series, Ancillary Justice (2013), is also the first novel to win the major science fiction awards on both sides of the Atlantic: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke (it also won the British Science Fiction Association award, the Locus Award for Best First Novel, the Kitschies award for best debut, and the Japanese Seiun Award for best translated novel). [1] The critical success of Ancillary Justice, and the positive reaction to its two sequels, Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015), has established Leckie as a creative power in contemporary science fiction.

Vast political games and economic intrigue unspool over the course of the Radch trilogy, causing the dominant human presence in the galaxy, the titular Radchaai Empire, to be plunged into a civil war; Breq is quickly swept up in these events. The war forces the Radchaai Empire to acknowledge the sentience of the artificial intelligences that control its starships and space stations; doing so entitles AIs to the same rights and responsibilities as other sentient life. The importance of this is underscored when other strange and enigmatic alien races are brought into the dispute, and the conflict threatens a fragile balance between the galaxy’s various sentient races — one of whom (the mysterious and dangerous Presger) is only prevented from going on a human-killing spree of cosmic proportions by its obsessive adherence to binding treaties. Thus, by the conclusion of Ancillary Mercy, the status quo is irrevocably changed, and a bold new chapter in the lives of Breq and other artificial intelligences in the Empire is about to begin.

Having completed such world-building, Leckie could easily have continued the Radch trilogy narrative and explored opportunities to discuss what it means to be human, the nature of sentience, and the differences between artificial and biological life. Those who expected such a continuation of the high-stakes themes of the earlier novels may be somewhat disheartened by the beginning of Provenance, which opens on a relatively mundane space station before relocating to Hwae, a planet that is regarded even by senior figures in its administration as a galactic backwater. The far-reaching repercussions of the Radch trilogy provide a rich background details in the novel, but these details are often blithely ignored by Ingray. After spotting a news headline that says “CONSCIOUS AI MAKES ITS MOVE AT LAST — IS THIS THE BEGINNING OF THE END FOR HUMANITY?” Ingray’s attention is drawn more urgently to an alert that “a noodle shop she’d eaten at six times since she’d arrived here was open and nearby, with a relatively short queue […] suddenly noodles sounded very good.” The fate of humanity is not, after all, her problem. From the powerful figures who held the galaxy’s fate in their hands in the Radch trilogy, Provenance shifts our attention to local politicians who squabble over status, family heirlooms, and selfishly aspirational paths to power.

This shift in focus may be disorientating for fans of Leckie’s work, but it means new readers can jump in and enjoy Provenance on its own merits without detailed knowledge of the previous books. It also performs a trick she has pulled off before to dazzling effect: at the end of Ancillary Justice, Breq discovers a secret cold war within the Radchaai Empire that is about to spill over into a full and open civil war, aligns herself with one side of the conflict, receives a ship of her own, and deploys to an identified hotspot in the coming action. Leckie sets the stage for her space opera to turn up the dial, expand in scale and scope, and immerse itself in the type of galaxy-spanning conflict so familiar to space opera. Instead, the follow-up Ancillary Sword offers an intimate, introspective novel more focused on tea ceremonies and diplomatic conflabs than stellar battles or high-velocity action sequences. Additionally, the setting is restricted to just two locations: a planet and its orbiting space station. Despite this, Ancillary Sword may be the most successful of the original trilogy, a quietly insistent book which, as Graham J. Murphy writes, “emerges as a powerful treatise about today’s global socioeconomic conditions.” For all the sleek space ships on their covers, Leckie’s books have never been conventional action-driven space opera.

In Provenance, too, Leckie diverts us toward quieter, more introspective fare, expanding the size and complexity of her universe while retaining the character-driven focus that has become her trademark. Indeed, much of the novel’s success or failure rests on how the reader warms to its protagonist, Ingray Aughskold. At the opening of the novel, Ingray hatches a plot to rescue convicted thief Pahlad Budrakin from the prison planet euphemistically known as “Compassionate Removal” in order to identify the location of the priceless Budrakin vestiges, historical artifacts prized by Ingray’s Hwaean people for their connection to the past. Recovering these vestiges, Ingray hopes, will give her the edge on her brother Danach in the siblings’ lifelong competition to succeed their adoptive mother, the aristocratic Netano, as heir.

The Budrakin vestiges are particularly valuable because they date back to the ancient arrival of the Budrakin ancestors on Hwae. Vestiges of lesser value include party invitations, event tickets, and myriad souvenirs and mementos whose values increase with connection to important figures. It quickly becomes apparent that the Hwaean people’s obsession with vestiges goes far beyond a reverence for momentous artifacts like the Magna Carta or The Declaration of Independence: instead, it resembles a mania for collectibles and memorabilia. This mindset knowingly evokes an environment familiar to science fiction fans and attendees at conventions, some of whom pay significant sums for autographs and photographs of even minor actors from their favorite shows.

Though the non-Hwaean characters (and some of the Hwaeans themselves) look on the vestiges with a mixture of disdain and bafflement, there is nothing mean-spirited about Leckie’s representation of this cultural phenomenon. In fact, a scene toward the novel’s end supports the idea that some of the artifacts hold historical value (or can grow to) because of their social significance. Reading about the vestiges in Provenance reminded me of an iconic scene from Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in which the artifact dealer Wyndam-Matson compares the relative value of two antique cigarette lighters:

One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn’t. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. […] You can’t tell which is which. There’s no “mystical plasmic presence,” no “aura” around it. […] It’s all a big racket […] I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it’s the same as if it hadn’t, unless you know. It’s […] [i]n the mind, not the gun.

“Historicity,” Wyndam-Matson proposes, is a social construct assigned to an item by consensus between a seller and a buyer. Dick uses this concept to problematize history, a theme that is emphasized later when many of Wyndam-Matson’s objects are revealed as fakes, their historicity based on a lie. Similarly, Leckie uses the Hwaean obsession with vestiges to raise questions about history, power, and, most persistently, identity — and she foregrounds Historicity under another name: Provenance.

The entire Hwaean democratic process is centered on vestiges, to the extent that Ingray cannot fathom how the government would continue to operate if key items were lost. If original copies of The Declaration of Independence were destroyed, no one would expect the United States to revert back to being a British colony, but when the Hwaean equivalent (the “Rejection of Obligations”) is called a forgery, there is mass panic. When the Assembly Bell, a ritual symbol of the First Assembly’s right-to-govern, is threatened with destruction or theft, Ingray isn’t sure if her government will be able to function:

But the Assembly Bell was important. It was part of the history of Hwae. It was what set official First Assembly sessions apart from other sorts of meetings. Without it, the First Assembly wasn’t really the First Assembly. But then, would some other group of people using it legally claim to be the real First Assembly? No, Ingray was sure it didn’t work that way. But it was part of how it worked.

Vestiges act as externalizations of history, power, and identity. They define the Hwaean people: their independence, their authority, and, in the case of the family vestiges, their importance relative to other families and individuals. Vestiges are fully folded into the national and global identity of the Hwaeans, and they therefore prominently represent the book’s major thematic concern with identity. And yet, as the quote from Dick demonstrates, the worth of these vestiges is based on their provenance, their historicity, and if that is shown to be fabricated, then what does that mean for Hwaean identity?

The most fascinating aspect of Provenance is the manner in which Leckie uses Hwaean society to present issues of identity writ large. Historicity is a social construct based on agreed-upon narratives of identity, and it is this agreement, rather than the physical object itself, which imbues something with meaning. In Provenance gender works in exactly the same way, as shown through the character Pahlad Budrakin. The estrangement and deconstruction of gender is a commonly discussed element of Leckie’s previous novels; as in the Radchaai Empire, the default gender pronoun is “she,” and the empire’s citizens make no distinctions between biological genders, dressing and styling themselves in a suitably androgynous fashion. Outsiders struggle to identify the biological gender of the Radchaai, often mixing up pronouns if they try. Although the Hwaeans have both “he” and “she” pronouns, they also have a neutral set for individuals who identify as “neman,” referring to “e,” “em,” and “eir,” as well as familial relations who are “nuncle” and “nother.” Children are considered to inhabit a genderless state; they select not only their adult name but their adult gender, and that they have three equally valid options to choose between. Several characters identify as neman with Pahlad, as the principal supporting character, by far the most significant.

The Hwaeans are human, not a gender-fluid alien race like the famous Gethenians of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), therefore the only barrier between their acceptance of three gender-states is a social one. Like historicity, gender roles are a narrative we construct. In Provenance, as in the Imperial Radch trilogy, Leckie’s presentation of societal norms toward gender that differ from our own marks the constructedness of our own systems, undermining conservative binary arguments — an act that feels more vital now than ever before.

Personal identity becomes more complicated (and problematized) in the novel when it focuses not on gender, or even race, but on species. One subplot, for example, features an alien species called the Geck, an aquatic mollusk-like race who almost never leave their home planet. A Geck envoy finds itself visiting the Hwaean star system, and because the Geck cannot inhabit dry land, the envoy spends most of the novel interacting through bio-technological spider-drones. This leads many Hwaeans to assume the drones are the Geck’s true form — another case of mistaken identity. The small number of humans who dwell on the surface of the Geck’s homeworld are considered to be members of the Geck species themselves, but one character born as a human-Geck does not accept this classification and runs away to become the citizen of a human system. The Geck ambassador refuses to accept this, and the runaway’s right to choose is a key emotional note in the novel’s final third.

As with the gender of characters, this conflict of identities foregrounds the way in which characters accept identity choices in Leckie’s novels at large, underlining the primacy of individual choice and the importance of staying true to one’s individual needs and feelings. Leckie handles these themes so skillfully that their emphasis, though subtle, becomes unmistakably clear. Returning to the notion of historicity, Leckie reveals race (or species), gender, and national identity as stories we tell ourselves.

Finally, Ingray’s status within society offers Leckie a last avenue to address issues of identity construction. The protagonist of the Imperial Radch trilogy, Breq, had to discover who she was and assemble her identity as the novels progressed. One of the issues which grew to form a key part of that identity was the realization that as an AI she was a member of an oppressed group of sentient beings. In contrast, Ingray comes from an aristocratic family of elite Hwaeans, and although the Hwaean people are not the most prestigious humans on a galactic level, she is nonetheless a person of aristocratic privilege. Although Ingray’s mother, Netano, is not from the highest caste of the upper elites, she is still a politician and dignitary who has “not infrequently demanded (and received) such priority” in daily life, avoiding delayed travel departures and similar inconveniences of the lower classes. It is, however, worth noting that Ingray herself is an adopted child, taken — we are frequently reminded — from a public crèche. Ingray is always conscious of her underprivileged beginnings and perceives herself as innately inferior to her brother Danache who, though also adopted, did not come from so lowly a beginning. Her sense of inferiority drives Ingray to pursue the reckless and illegal scheme dependent on rescuing Pahlad Budrakin, a decision that defines Ingray at the beginning of the novel: reckless, naïve, and in over her head.

Again, Leckie is happy to demonstrate that these markers of identity are as fragile and prone to bias as those of history, nationhood, gender, and race. If anything, because Hwaean elites are so dependent upon their vestiges as symbols of their power and heritage, the foundations of their class system is even less stable. Being brought up by Netano, and alongside Danache, Ingray internalizes the aristocratic philosophy that the pursuit of power serves as its own justification. When Ingray’s schemes crumble, a series of humbling experiences bring her to the realization that her Aughskold identity isn’t as important as she had believed. Her class awakening comes slowly though and, given the forcefulness of this message in Leckie’s other work, the exploration of class never really reaches its full potential. As an example, Netano Aughskold serves as a “Representative” aiming to enter an upcoming election for the position of “Prolocutor of the Third Assembly,” yet there is little sense in the novel of who the electorate is, or what Hwaean society looks like outside of the comfortable affluence of the Aughskold household. Nonetheless, Provenance once again affirms that the markers of identity we are born with are not necessarily those we are forced to carry with us through our lifetime, and that self-discovery can be a disruptive but ultimately rewarding process.

Leckie explores issues of identity in all her works, but in Provenance the topic seems particularly emphasized. Perhaps this is the thematic culmination of four books set in this fascinating universe, or perhaps this urgent focus comes as a consequence of the character development being restricted to a single book (this is apparently a stand-alone title). It could even be that the novel’s themes arise out of a reflection of the real-world questions and struggles for identity gripping so many in the contemporary environment. Regardless of the reason for its thematic attention to identity, it’s ironic that the book itself seems to struggle for an identity of its own. Provenance is at once a stand-alone novel and a spin-off to a highly popular series. It’s a cozy murder mystery as well as a political thriller. It widens Leckie’s universe, expanding our knowledge of non-Radchaai human civilizations as well as alien races, but at the same time it contributes nothing to the mega-plot of the universe, and offers no advancement to the events that conclude Ancillary Mercy. Yet, given that the novel’s central theme seems to be a dismantling of markers of identity, in all their guises and forms, perhaps this is fitting. Just as she subverted the received wisdom of how a space opera trilogy should develop, Leckie uses Provenance to question the debts fiction owes to its predecessors. How much of this book’s identity is its own, and how much does it owe to the sequence that preceded it?

If this is the beginning of a new phase in Leckie’s storytelling — loosely connected stand-alone novels that build toward the epoch-defining signing of a new sentient-species treaty — then it’s not an unwelcome one, and it breathes a new kind of life into her fictional universe. Leckie’s refreshing decision not to build on previous plots, by simply creating predictably larger scales and action scenes, opens up fascinating new avenues in which she can develop stories. It may be that resisting the urge to follow one tightly woven trilogy with another will prove a similarly wise decision. Thematically, this decision resonates throughout Provenance. If, on the other hand, this is to be the last book set in this universe then it’s a strange note to end on — and an unsatisfying one. Although the novel itself provides an entertaining, thoughtful, and clever entry that both Leckie’s new and returning readers can delve into and enjoy, some of its greatest strengths lie in the creative and original potential it creates for more stories to come. In short, the stand-alone Provenance is like returning to a favorite restaurant and enjoying a tantalizing appetizer that leaves readers hungry for a main course.

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Glyn Morgan obtained his PhD from the University of Liverpool studying the Holocaust in Non-Mimetic Anglo-American Fiction.

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[1] The 2014 British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel was actually a tie and the award was bestowed equally upon Leckie’s debut and Gareth Powell’s Ack-Ack Macaque.