Ann Leckie’s new novel, following the triumphant success of her multiple award-winning novels Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, is Provenance, and it is not at the same level. Her invention and world-building are still top quality, but the plot of Provenance sags, and the characters feel like marionettes, moving without feeling. Yet I read to the end, because I wanted to gobble up all the details about this new extra-Radch civilisation.
The novel is about provenance: the origins and authenticity of family and state memorabilia and artefacts, and also people and their relationships to each other. People, relationships and things may, or may not be forged, and so the novel asks, in illuminatingly different ways, what is the real thing, and why does this matter?
The principal element in the novel that makes it science fiction are the mechs, mechanised AIs that can be piloted remotely, and alter their shape and function as needed. Leckie is extending her exploration of artificial intelligence from the Ancillary novels by moving away from the humanoid and military to the practical, personal and industrial use of mechs as an extension of the person, in almost all its capabilities. From a story-telling perspective, as we saw in Ancillary Justice et al, the mechs and other AI-extensions compress space: they can enable a character to be in two places at once, which is extraordinarily useful for the plot, and for communication and exposition. Thus the mechs in Provenance operate as speakers on legs, dirt diggers, ambulatory storage chests, proxies for journalists and personal assistants. They are hugely satisfying, in concept and execution.
The mechs populate a murder mystery and a political thriller. Provenance is a space opera, following rather too closely Elizabeth Moon’s Esmay Suiza novels in the lead character’s personality, motivations and adventures. Ingray Aughskold is an adopted daughter very anxious about not making her influential politician mother angry, and nervous about how she will make her own way in their world when her repellent and aggressive adopted brother is named as their mother’s heir. Her plans and decisions seem bizarre to me: if I were trying to impress a cold parent I wouldn’t borrow vast sums of money to release a condemned prisoner from an inescapable jail and expect him to fall in with a bonkers plan to second-guess another influential politician about the authenticity of the family heirlooms. I may have conflated two plots in one: it’s a bit confusing. As I said, the strengths of this novel lie in the world and its peoples, not this plot, and not this particular story.
There is a peculiar disjunction between the heights and persuasiveness of Leckie’s invention, and the disappointingly derivative elements with and by which she tells the story. There is very little showing of relationships, and far too much telling us about them. Leckie’s outstanding experimentation with the social construction of gender and a corresponding linguistic inventiveness to express this, is less assured, less original in Provenance, than in the Ancillary novels. In those novels she perfected a formalised inter-species discourse because the character through whose eyes the action is seen is genderless, and cannot conceive of such a concept. In Provenance the society of Hwae has gender, but it’s assumed, chosen at the end of adolescence, so the pronouns in use depend on one’s age, situation in life, and the species you’re speaking to. Thus the ways of speaking are more diverse and also messier, less persuasive. As an example, ‘Mx’ is used towards the end as an alternative to ‘Miss’, and it crashed through my suspension of disbelief. Surely civilisations millennia in the future would have refined and developed a term we have only just invented ourselves? For most of Provenance Leckie’s characters calmly refer to each other as ‘Excellency’, which works absolutely right: respect, neutral, commonly applied. The outbreak of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mx’ as terms to indicate a society based on servants and masters, familiarity with respect, feels like a failure of nerve rather than of invention.
The unevenness of Provenance is a disappointment, because there is so much good stuff here to explore, and Leckie’s earlier novels were superb. I hope very much that Provenance’s sequels will reach the complete assurance and balance of Leckie’s earlier trilogy.