Review: Provenance

While Ann Leckie’s Provenance is technically a standalone novel, it’s set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary series, which obviously invites comparisons – and not necessarily favourable ones.

More about that in a minute. The planet on which Provenance is set, Hwae, lies far away from Radch space, where the Ancillary trilogy is set; it’s a human culture that recognises three genders, and which lies very close to the planet of the Geck, one of the three sentient alien races in Leckie’s universe, incomprehensible and thus terrifying. Our Heroine is Ingray Aughskold, a young woman adopted into a high-ranking family, who frees a high-security prisoner convicted of forging valuable historical artefacts as part of a plan to outmanoeuvre her brother in a bid to be named her mother’s heir.

(Yes. It’s one of those novels.)

Of course, things go horribly wrong, and instead of playing an admittedly fairly high-stakes game of family power politics, Ingray finds herself at the centre of a murder case: an ambassador from a nearby planet with an interest in controlling trade access to Hwae is found stabbed in a public park, killed while Ingray was feet away.

And, for a good half of the novel, it feels like that’s what Leckie’s serving us: a murder mystery wreathed in complex alien politics. But Provenance has an odd double structure: the murder mystery winds itself up sooner than we think it will, and we find once more that there’s something a lot more serious going on, something that threatens the delicate treaty that prevents the Geck and, more importantly, the infinitely violent and infinitely alien race the Presger, from waging war on humanity, and vice versa.

That double structure is key to what the novel’s doing, I think. Provenance pares away almost all of the action and adventure of the Ancillary trilogy, to leave only Leckie’s interest in politics and etiquette and how people navigate the power structures they find themselves enmeshed in. In other words, to me Provenance is essentially concerned with identity politics: how people construct and perform themselves. There is a focus on things that SFF readers might be used to thinking of as trivial: on clothes, on interior space (parts of the novel take place on a spaceship, and Leckie is meticulous in describing how the characters move around each other in the narrow corridors), on food. Hwae society places great stock in “vestiges”, historical artefacts related to family history – the authenticity or otherwise of these drives the plot at several key moments. There’s a moment when a character calls out the press for refusing to use the name ey’ve chosen for emself:

you all flew here from the capital this morning so you could shout questions at me in person, but you can’t bring yourself to use the name I want to go by

There’s a whole storyline about a character identifying himself as Geck (though he looks human, the Geck do have hangers-on who are genetically altered humans) and what that means legally. And so on. Identity politics: not just how we create identities for ourselves, but specifically how we perform and negotiate them with others, and how the choices we make when we’re with other people are always loaded, always political. Provenance dramatises that slogan of second-wave feminism, “the personal is political”.

And so, that double structure is asking us to look twice at everything we see. A murder that looks personal is deeply political. Choices that look personal – how we dress, how we name ourselves, what we eat – are deeply political.

It’s always worth asking: why this genre? In this instance, why does Provenance need to be SF? What would it lose by not being SF?

It’s important, I think, that the culture(s?) we encounter in Provenance is (are?) an alien one; not alien in the SFnal sense but in the sense that it runs on different rules, and that, crucially, those are rules we have to figure out as we go along. That work of, essentially, reverse engineering the rules of a culture from how people act within it is work that estranges our own culture from us; like the novel’s double structure, Provenance teaches us to re-read the world, to pay attention to the myriad lines of power and influence that underlie even our most mundane interactions.

This is all brilliant and fascinating and (that overused word) timely, of course, and I really enjoyed Provenance (although I can’t honestly say I grasped all the intricacies of the interplanetary politics). But: it does just feel a little less urgent than the Ancillary trilogy, which dealt with issues like slavery and bodily autonomy and imperialism – grappling with the idea of power in a much more direct way. Provenance feels like a step back into provincialism. It’s very far from bad. But neither is it mind-blowing.

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