Ann Leckie's latest novel is a standalone effort set in her award-winning Ancillary universe, though the term standalone should come with a caveat anytime it refers to a part of an already established canon. Translation State, like the previous standalone Provenance, offers an expanded understanding of the world Leckie established in her Radch trilogy, but probably shouldn't be thought of as an entry point to the universe. It is also, for me, the least successful of Leckie's novels, though seemingly still an essential one for her readers, as it delves into several aspects of the earlier novels that were left ambiguous or incomplete.
The novel begins with three separate storylines that converge as the novel progresses. It kicks of with Enae, whose Grandmaman and sole benefactor has recently died. Enae finds hirself disinherited upon learning that Grandmaman had essentially been broke, and only managed to keep herself and Enae afloat by trading her estate and the family name to a nouveau riche upstart for a sizeable personal allowance. Luckily for Enae, Grandmaman had cooked up an agreement with this interloper to provide for hir (Enae) after her passing. So Enae is secured a position at the Office of Diplomacy, and sent on a errand to find out the whereabouts of, or to learn the ultimate fate of, a long missing Presger Translator. (For the uninitiated, the treaty with the alien Presger is the only thing keeping human civilization from crumbling, and the Translators - an engineered race of people separate from the Presger themselves - are essential to the treaty's continued health.) Enae quickly learns that sie is not expected to actually complete the assignment, but simply to travel about and report back hir lack of success in doing so. Sie decides to make a go of it, anyway.
The other two threads follow Reet, an orphan who gets caught up in the machinations of a political faction of displaced people known as the Hikipi, and Qven, an adolescent Presger Translator who is considered damaged goods after suffering a terrifying sexual assault. Explaining how the plot brings these disparate individuals together would spoil to much, though it quickly becomes clear that the confluence of circumstances has far-reaching implications for the upcoming Conclave, which was aggressively teased in Provenance and given even more weight here.
Translation State has many of the attributes that won Leckie her loyal fan base: the social and political maneuverings; her tart, sometimes goofy sense of humor; the imaginative perils and pitfalls she throws in her characters' paths. We get to learn more about the the Geck and the Rrrrrr, and especially the thoroughly fascinating Presger Translators, even if the Presger themselves are still shrouded in mystery.
Where Translation State falls short for me - and it's a pretty big fall - is in the three main characters themselves. Our introduction to Enae, who seemingly spent hir life up until Grandmaman's death showing no real initiative or assertiveness (at least, not that we are made aware of) does nothing but when the plot requires sie do so, with little indication of what might have brought about this sea change. That sie fades somewhat into the background as Reet and Qven take center stage is not surprising. Those two characters, whom the main action of the novel is visited upon, are impossibly earnest, cloying in their preciousness - much in the way adults idealize adolescence, rather than being believably adolescent (a common problem in many YA novels). Not to mention (sorry if this is too spoilery) a big chunk of the novel deals with their growing bond of friendship, which consists entirely of them lying in bed and binge-watching a streaming show. This is a growing trend in science fiction - the lionizing of modern-day consumerist habits in a far-future setting - and until now I would have hoped an author of Leckie's considerable gifts would steer clear of it, but here we are.
As a harbinger of things to come, Translation State gives readers plenty to look forward to, but for this reader, at least, less to hold onto right now.
The plot of McDevitt's new Alex Benedict novel recalls his most recent Priscilla Hutchins novel, "The Long Sunset", which finds the author spinning a first contact scenario through a narrative of discovery and mystery. The book is like a comfortable old pair of shoes, for better or worse: its familiarity is beguiling and relaxing, though at some point you stop noticing it's even there.
McDevitt makes it easy to return to the far future world that Alex and his pilot Chase Kolpath inhabit. It is a largely pleasant, low-conflict future, though not entirely lacking in the typical anxieties that attend human society. Alex, now re-united with his recently recovered Uncle Gabe, is still selling antiquities and artifacts, and Chase is still getting him wherever he needs to go. The story kicks off when an exploratory vessel stumbles on a tiny alien colony in the furthest reaches of known space. Up until then the only other alien race humans had encountered were the Ashiyyur, with whom they fought a long and devastating war before achieving a peaceful resolution. So when a follow-up mission is sent to make first contact, they are even more surprised to discover that the colony has completely vanished, leaving no trace of its presence behind.
In another odd twist, a third, completely different alien race of spider-like humanoids shows up to make first contact with humans. These folks, the Ulakans, are friendly and inquisitive, and their culture is so similar to that of humanity that one of their great works of literature seems lifted from Shakespeare.
While the encounter with the Ulakans is a positive one in contrast with their previous encounter with the Ashiyyur, the question of whether to send another ship out to look for the missing alien colony becomes a political hot potato: the general consensus is, we got lucky with the Ulakans, who is to say whether these elusive alien colonists have similar goodwill and peaceful intentions or not? It is decided that no further missions to that star system will take place, and furthermore anyone who attempts to privately undergo a mission there will be subject to legal penalties.
Alex is of course having none of that. Soon he and Chase have put together a party to reach out and find where the lost colony went, and hopefully pick up a few artifacts along the way that might make up the losses they will incur for defying the law.
The novel's strengths are those typical of McDevitt's fiction. His ability to craft an engrossing and suspenseful scientific mystery has not diminished over the decades, and his characters are as likable, and likeably flawed, as ever. In this case, though, his weaknesses are magnified by design. McDevitt has always been a proponent of the idea that cultures will necessarily evolve in the general direction that European civilization has taken, hence the very Eurocentric slant of future humanity and the aliens they encounter. It bogs the story down in a conceit that isn't particularly illuminating or wonderous - that humanity ventures out to the far reaches of the galaxy to find alien races that are really kind of boring and like us. Additionally, the lack of a true antagonist, or anything but minor obstacles in Alex and company's path, keeps the stakes too low for this to be anything other than a minor entry in McDevitt's canon.