Your Genes Aren’t Your Destiny: On Ann Leckie’s “Translation State”
By David M. HigginsJune 28, 2023
Translation State by Ann Leckie
In her latest novel Translation State (2023), for example, two of the main characters bond while watching a trashy pulp adventure series called Pirate Exiles of the Death Moons. At first, this seems like a minor background element. One of the characters, Reet, is a fan of the show and watches it regularly; however, Reet also introduces Pirate Exiles to Qven, a character recovering from a traumatic assault, and in the course of watching it, Qven goes through a profound shift in their sense of gender identity: they decide they want to be an “e” rather than a “they” (Leckie uses both sie/hir/hirs and e/em/eir as pronouns for nonbinary genders in this setting, in contrast to they/them pronouns, which designate agendered or genderless identities). Qven is especially inspired by one of the characters in Pirate Exiles, Kekubo, who is “a princex in disguise” (a princex is neither prince nor princess, but a third, nonbinary gender).
Ultimately, Qven’s determination to have eir pronouns recognized is fundamental to the entire story: whether you can be recognized on your own terms, or whether you must have categories of identity (such as gender, ethnicity, species, and legal citizenship) inflicted upon you or withheld from you by others, is the central problem the book addresses. But for Qven, everything comes down at key moments to the way Pirate Exiles inspires em to joyfully envision emself as “a princex in disguise,” like Kekubo. “What would a princex in disguise do?” Qven asks emself multiple times as the novel builds toward its climax, and eir most important decisions are consistently influenced by the inspiration they draw from identifying with Kekubo.
This thematic emphasis—the way that small details (like a character’s obsession with trashy adventure serials) can ultimately shape and influence the largest possible events (such as the fall of an empire)—is one of the hallmarks of Leckie’s work. Her recurring argument is that minor details, events, actions, and influences are never truly minor: everything has consequence, even if it is not immediately visible.
Indeed, Translation State—which is set in Leckie’s Imperial Radch universe—invites readers to enjoy tracing how the outcomes of actions taken by characters from her earlier novels bear extraordinary and unexpected fruit over time. Although Breq, the main character from 2013’s Ancillary Justice (and its sequels) does not appear in Translation State, the effects of her efforts to oppose Anaander Mianaai (the emperor of the star-spanning Radch imperium) are still unfolding 10 years later, as the conclave to determine the terms of the treaty with the alien Presger—and specifically whether AI ships and stations will be recognized as “significant” species under it—now moves toward an outcome that will likely prove devastating to Anaander Mianaai’s imperial sovereignty.
Further, Translation State reveals that the legal battle over Pahlad Budrakim’s right to determine his own species (human or Geck?), which occurred at the end of Leckie’s stand-alone novel Provenance (2017), was no small matter: the Budrakim decision has set a legal precedent that now powerfully shapes the events in Translation State, as both Reet and Qven seek to win legal recognition as “humans” under the terms of the Presger treaty, despite their unusual genetics. Translation State is thus a particularly enjoyable experience if you’re already familiar with Leckie’s other novels from the Imperial Radch trilogy—Ancillary Justice (2013), Ancillary Sword (2014), and Ancillary Mercy (2015)—as well as Provenance. Leckie has also written two stand-alone short stories set in this universe: “Night’s Slow Poison” (2012) and “She Commands Me and I Obey” (2014).
Significantly, Translation State also represents an extraordinary leap forward in Leckie’s approach to representations of gender identity and her use of nontraditional pronouns. In Ancillary Justice and its sequels, Leckie thoughtfully explores an agender society (the Imperial Radch) where reproductive biology has no bearing on categories of social identity. As I have argued elsewhere, however, the Radchaai agender norm is often imposed on other cultures with staggering imperial arrogance: Leckie uses “she” as the default Radchaai agender pronoun for everyone (rather than a neutral pronoun like “they”) in order to draw attention to the baggage-laden way that “he” has served as the only grammatically correct universal pronoun in English for centuries, and even well-intentioned Radchaai characters like Breq consistently misgender people from other cultures, secure in their comfort that such errors will be largely inconsequential.
Translation State, by contrast, clarifies Leckie’s argument that misgendering others—refusing to honor their pronouns and gender identities—is always an act of violence. The novel drives home how Radchaai characters’ disregard of others’ pronouns embodies what Maria Lugones calls “the coloniality of gender,” or the way that imperial societies impose their own gender norms on other cultures in service of hierarchical domination. This insight was already present in Ancillary Justice and its sequels but can be difficult to observe, because the original trilogy was narrated from the point of view of a Radchaai character (Breq), and the primary emphasis in these earlier novels was exploring what a normative agender social context might look and feel like from the inside.
Provenance and Translation State, however, occur primarily outside the Radch, and these narratives instead focus on non-Radchaai viewpoints and perspectives. In Provenance, we learn that societies outside the Radch frequently have multiple normative gender categories. As Glyn Morgan notes, for example,
Although the [culture of the] Hwaeans [in Provenance] 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, [with] three equally valid options to choose between.
Leckie explores the multiplicity of nonbinary gender possibilities even more deeply in Translation State, which focuses on three non-Radchaai characters: Enae, from Saeniss Polity, who uses sie/hir/hirs pronouns; Reet, from the Sovereign Territory of Zeosen, who identifies as masculine and uses he/him/his pronouns; and Qven, who grows up among Presger Translators and thinks of themself as a genderless “they” until choosing to become an “e” after watching Pirate Exiles with Reet. Reet himself has three parents, two of whom are female (Mom and Maman) and one who is nonbinary and uses e/em/eir pronouns (Nana).
In Provenance and Translation State, then, Leckie shows how a rich multiplicity of gender identities, sexual preferences, and familial relations is often quite normal outside the Radch, and this helps to highlight how jarring it can be when Radchaai characters thoughtlessly refer to everyone as “she,” regardless of their gender identities and pronouns.
Translation State, however, dramatically raises the stakes of this issue by putting the question of an individual’s right to self-identification—both in terms of gender and species—at the heart of the narrative. To summarize the story briefly, the three main characters’ lives become entangled when Enae (who cares about doing things well and pays close attention to small details) takes seriously an investigation that no one expects hir to solve and discovers that Reet may be the offspring of a rogue Presger Translator. Reet, an orphan who has grown up believing he is human, possesses a number of unusual genetic anomalies (and a strange craving to vivisect and devour others). These anomalies initially draw the attention of an ethnic group called the Siblings of Hikipu, who believe Reet may be a member of the lost Hikipi sovereign line; they therefore hope to use him to unite the Hikipi against their ethnic enemies, the Phen.
When Reet is taken into custody (because juvenile Presger Translators have that dangerous inherent drive to vivisect and devour people), he is expected to match—or to biologically and psychically merge—with Qven, who has grown up as a Presger Translator, but who has become “unsuitable” for eir intended role as a Translator after being lured into a nonconsensual near-match with a juvenile Presger from a rival bloodline. Since all juvenile Presger Translators must match in order to become adults (their biology depends on it), the Presger hope to use Reet and Qven’s match to gain a unique asset in their diplomatic relations with humans.
Enae, Reet, and Qven, however, disrupt this plan by legally insisting that both Reet and Qven have the right to self-identify as humans (rather than as Presger Translators) under the terms of the Presger treaty. The action of the novel’s second half takes place at the Treaty Administration Facility, where the conclave to determine the legal personhood of Radchaai artificial intelligences is also occurring. (This conclave is the consequence of Breq’s rebellion against Anaander Mianaai in the Imperial Radch trilogy, and for this reason, one of the main characters from Ancillary Mercy—the rogue ship Sphene—is also present at the Treaty Facility, and she becomes involved in Reet and Qven’s case.) Ultimately, the Siblings of Hikipu violently disrupt the council meeting assembled to determine whether Reet and Qven have the right to declare themselves humans, and a mind-bending multidimensional puzzle-adventure subsequently unfolds.
What’s ultimately most important in the story, however, is that Leckie uses the entire scenario to draw attention to the fact that individuals should have indisputable rights to self-determination and legal recognition around key categories of identity—such as species, ethnicity, and gender—but that these categories are very often imposed by others. Reet and Qven wish to be regarded as humans, but others want to categorize them as Presger Translators; similarly, both the Radchaai and the Presger Translators inhabit genderless social contexts, so they refer to people as “she” (which functions as a universal agender pronoun for the Radchaai) and “they” respectively, but Reet and Qven demand to have their genders recognized.
Leckie brilliantly juxtaposes these simultaneous demands for recognition and acknowledgment at several points throughout the novel. “I’m he,” Reet insists during a council meeting after Translator Dlar refers to him as “they.” “Gender,” Dlar responds, “is a thing humans have,” to which Reet smartly responds, “Some humans […] And I’m one of them.” Similar moments—when characters misgender Reet or Qven, and their resistance to such misgendering is a demand to have both their genders and basic humanity acknowledged—occur repeatedly. Radchaai Ambassador Seimet, for example, refers to Reet as “she” during a council meeting, and Qven quickly interjects, “He […] Reet’s he. And I’m e.” The Radchaai Ambassador entirely ignores Qven’s outburst: “Seimet didn’t even look in eir direction.”
What Leckie shows in these moments is that, although pronouns might seem like a small affair to some (such as Seimet and Dlar—or, say, Ron DeSantis), there are actually few considerations more deeply consequential than taking the care to use someone’s pronouns correctly, because acknowledging pronouns is fundamentally connected to recognizing a person’s right to determine their own identity. Further, the refusal to acknowledge someone’s gender identity is always a deeper disavowal of their personhood. Qven’s teacher at one point summarizes this perfectly: “[W]hat one will not acknowledge,” they tell Qven, “is what one cannot properly control.”
Acknowledging or refusing to acknowledge others on their own terms, then, is fundamentally a question of power and social control. In this light, it’s clear that Translation State offers vital critical commentary on our contemporary cultural moment in the United States, one heavy with anti-trans legislation and backlash. Reet’s mom, Istver Hluid, sums up one of the novel’s messages astutely: “You know, your genes aren’t your destiny,” she tells Reet when he’s struggling to understand whether his genetic anomalies mean that he is ethnically Hikipi. “You have what you have, whatever you were born with, but you get to decide what to do with that. There’s nobody telling you what those genes mean, what they’re supposed to make you.”
The problem, of course, is that almost everyone—especially groups with political and military power—feels entitled to tell Reet what his genes should mean: the Siblings of Hikipu believe those genes mean he is ethnically Hikipi, while the Presger Translators think they signify he is part Presger. Similarly, some powerful groups also entirely disregard the meaning of other aspects of Reet’s genetics—the ones that cause him to identify as male—because they believe these genetic differences are inconsequential. Who gets to decide which genes carry social meaning (and why) is thus a question of power and social control: dominant groups answer these questions in ways that suit their own advantages and use myriad forms of violence to police and enforce the social realities they wish to create and sustain.
Leckie, by contrast, asks us to imagine another possibility: what if we all truly had the freedom to decide who we are, without anyone else telling us what kind or category of person we’re supposed to be? Reet’s mom is right: our genetics are not our destiny. We are all complex, material beings—and yes, there are (debatably) limits around the degree to which we can alter our basic materiality—but what that materiality ultimately means should be up to us, individually. It’s not something that should be decided by anyone else.
Perhaps I look like one clearly recognizable thing to you, because of all the categories of identity that have been enshrined as norms in our shared social context, but one never knows: I might be a princex in disguise. On some level, we are all princexes in disguise. Why? Because a princex is something that lies outside our taken-for-granted social categories of recognizability, and in the end, none of us perfectly matches the tidy categories that are supposed to define us, according to society. Sometimes we just aren’t aware that other more wonderful possibilities exist until something daringly imaginative comes along—like a trashy pulp adventure serial, or a breathtaking work of science-fictional space opera—that shows us other inhabitable ways of being, other meanings we might make from our complex inherent materiality.
To my delight, I recently discovered that Leckie herself might be one such example of a princex in disguise. In personal correspondence with her, I asked if the process of writing the Imperial Radch novels had shifted her own sense of gender identity. “I think that if I were growing up now,” she replied,
I would probably identify as nonbinary. It wasn’t an option when I was a kid! But I’ve been “woman” and “she/her” for so long that I’ve broken it in and gotten comfy in it. It’s true that thinking about gender for the books has led me to ponder the issue and reach that conclusion—I wouldn’t even have thought to articulate that otherwise.
Leckie’s own experience shows that how we think of ourselves is very often a function of the categories of social identity that society makes available to us or withholds from us. Very small details, then—like the pronouns we use (or don’t use) every day—have profound consequences. And daring, thoughtful novels like Translation State perform vital cultural work to open up new spaces so that we can all remove our disguises and shine like the princexes we were always meant to be.
David M. Higgins (he/they) is associate professor of English at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide, and he is a senior editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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