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Literature / Provenance

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Provenance is a 2017 science fiction/political thriller novel by Ann Leckie, set in the same 'Verse as her Imperial Radch trilogy.

When last we left, several AIs from the Radch were petitioning for Significance, admission to a treaty that would force all other signatories (including their human creators) to recognize their rights as an independent sentient species. However, this is distant news to Ingray Aughskold, living outside of Radch space, who's currently more focused on her family drama. She and her brother Danach are jockeying to become the successor to the name of their powerful and prestigious mother Netano—and it's looking like Danach has the edge in that contest, unless Ingray can pull off something drastic to impress their mother. To that end, she sets out to find an exiled thief and recover invaluable stolen relics for her people.

That is, of course, if the thief is willing to help her. And if Ingray can avoid getting swept up in the unrest surrounding the recently arrived delegation from the alien Geck, or the increasingly deadly political turmoil around her home planet.

Provenance provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Ambiguous Gender Identity: The Hwae recognize at least three genders mentioned in the book: "Man", "Woman", and "Neman", with the latter having its own set of pronouns. The book does not give any details on the meaning, cultural significance, sexual identity or gender/biological roles associated with nemen, though to be fair it doesn't do that for "he" or "she" either. Additionally, children are referred to with the singular "they" and choose a gender and a name in order to become adults. Usually they do this in their late teens. Taucris delayed until her midtwenties, when she realized she had to be an adult to hold her dream job, and wasn't totally happy with having a gender after choosing.
    • Ingray, meeting the Radchaai ambassador, is confused by her gender; all Radchaai are properly she/her, but the ambassador doesn't resemble a man, a woman, or a neman.
  • Ambiguous Robots: Geck mechs are noted for moving in an unsettlingly fluid way compared to clunkier human mechs and "bleed" something like blue blood when damaged. They do have biological components.
  • "Ass" in Ambassador: The Radchaai ambassador spends most of her screentime complaining about the lack of decent tea and insulting the species she's supposed to be doing diplomacy with. Mostly because her job is a useless dead-end position and she knows it. Asked why she hasn't put in for a transfer if she hates it so, she says she has, many times.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: The Geck are insular to the point of being agoraphobic, and don't understand how other species can stand living outside of "the world" (i.e. their home planet's ocean). Due to the way their reproduction cycle works, they have no emotional bond between parents and children but very strong ones between siblings (or "clutchmates" as they call them).
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: In-universe, Ingray's emergency translation software is fairly lacking and often leaves her puzzling over what the Omkem soldiers are saying.
    "Specified several captive offer a turnip ship."
  • Consummate Liar: Garal is a very good liar and able to keep quite a lot of characters in the dark about quite a lot of things. Especially that e is Pahlad Budrakim after all.
  • Contrasting Sequel Main Character: Ingray is an idealistic young adult administrator by trade, doubts herself strongly, and is completely unfamiliar with violence and skullduggery. She is thus about as far away from the milennia-old and vengeance-driven Super-Soldier Breq as you can get. About the only thing they have in common is that they start their respective novels gambling it all on a long-shot scheme that put them out of their depth. And that they both prove able to think fast when things go wrong, even if Ingray needs time to stop and freak out before her brain kicks into a higher gear.
  • Exact Words: At one point, Ingray's nuncle asks her if Tic really did steal his ship from the Geck. Ingray (who is well aware that he did) very carefully responds that he has documentation proving that he owns it. Unlike most examples, her nuncle notices the implication right away.
  • Evil Brit: An in-universe variant that gets invoked; Ingray has trouble taking the Radchaai ambassador seriously because her accent makes her sound like the villain in an entertainment. (Hardly surprising, given the Radch's reputation.)
  • Evil Plan: The main conflict in the novel turns out to be caused by the Omkem Federacy attempting to have a troublesome academic murdered on Hwae to cause a diplomatic incident, complete with a raid to take Hwae's first assembly and some valuable Vestiges hostage in order to gain access to the Hwae gate. Thanks to the unfortunate one-two punch of Pahlad and Tic (and thus the Geck) being present at Hwae at the time of implementation the whole thing falls apart, and the main challenge for the protagonists becomes limiting the damage.
  • Feminist Fantasy: Being a woman doesn't appear to limit someone's social or career roles in Hwae. Taucris clearly was ambivalent about choosing a gender but needed to have one to get her dream job in the police - and picked female. This also suggests that male is not 'default' in this culture.
  • Fish People: The humans who were adopted by the Geck develop piscine traits, most notably gills. Occasionally, it doesn't take, such as in the case of Tic.
  • Frame-Up: Poor Pahlad/Garal gets hit with this twice: first in the backstory when e is framed for stealing eir family's "priceless vestiges" to cover up the fact that they were fake all along, and then in the main story when Zat's murder is pinned on em.
  • Gender Bender: According to Tic, the (currently female) Geck ambassador has previously been male, "and a few other pronouns this language doesn't have." It's implied that this is normal for the Geck.
  • Humanity Is Infectious: The Geck ambassador notes that adopting humans into their species has introduced them to ideas that would have been entirely alien to them before.
  • Humanoid Aliens: Like the Presger from the preceding trilogy, the Geck number biologically-altered human beings among them. Unlike the Presger, who purpose-designed their Translators as diplomats, the Geck's human members were apparently "adopted" after attempting to colonize the Geck's home planet.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: One of the first indicators that Garal isn't Pahlad Budrakim is when e doesn't know that the Omkem gate has been blown up, as this only happened after e was put into Compassionate Removal (but before Pahlad was). Subverted in that Garal is Pahlad, and faked ignorance to fool Ingray.
  • Insistent Terminology: Ingray ends up having to be very careful to keep Garal Ket and Pahlad Budrakim separate, as the two have entirely different legal status, and instinctually begins correcting the Omkem about it.
  • Jerkass:
    • Danach is described as "still a malicious little shit" by someone who knew him as a child.
    • The Geck ambassador is similarly very loud, obnoxious and demanding, though much of it is chalked down to differences between Geck and human psychology and the difficulty the ambassador has with understanding human concepts. The ambassador turns out to be much more thoughtful and introspective after they've calmed down a bit.
  • Kicked Upstairs: The Radchaai ambassador to the Geck describes her posting in this way. Given the cultural differences between Geck and Radchaai, she basically got sentenced to a long-term posting in what amounts to Radchaai hell: the Geck don't boil water (meaning no tea), they eat with their fingers (Radchaai taboos regarding the gloves are really important), they're sublimely uninterested in the entire rest of the universe (so there's not much for an ambassador to actually do), and since it was essentially a punishment posting, the Ambassador can't even resign; the Radch keeps rejecting her attempts to do so.
  • Like a Son to Me: It turns out the Geck ambassador feels this way about Tic. Particularly interesting given that the Geck don't normally have an emotional bond with their children (see Humanity Is Infectious above).
  • Loophole Abuse: Used rather epically to get Garal out of the above-mentioned Frame-Up. As e was sent to Compassionate Removal, e is Legally Dead within Hwaean jurisdiction. When this is pointed out, e promptly claims Geck citizenship in order to gain the protection they get under the treaty.
  • Master Forger: Garal Ket was declared legally dead for forging precious vestiges and gives several examples of how easily e was able to engineer history for items e forged. Subverted in that Garal Ket turns out to be Pahlad Budrakim, formerly the heir to a wealthy and important family, but Pahlad did enough research into the Budrakim family's faked vestiges that e was able to pass eirself off as a master forger.
    "I specialized in invitation sheets— you find stacks of them in storage units, or just thrown away when someone dies with no heirs, so it's easy to find paper the right age. The rest is just altering them, and choosing your subject carefully. I was good at it. I sold hundreds of the things, to dozens of hopeful collectors like your brother. So when I was caught I was a repeat offender quiet a few times over, and quite a few wealthy citizens wanted me gone."
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The Radch's ambassador to the Geck has been so demoralized by her long-term posting that she shrugs off a space-sick Ingray vomiting on her jacket, and is heartened to discover serbat. The Geck don't use any water warmer than human body temperature, which is far too cool to brew tea with, but a flavorful powder that dissolves into liquid will make a beverage at a wider range of temperatures. Why this is OOC - Radchaai with power are frequently touchy and particular and would at minimum be distressed to be spattered by a non-Citizen's sick, and are incredibly particular about A Spot Of Tea being the only thing worth drinking.
  • Parents as People
    • Netano does care about Ingray, in her own way, but has to balance it with her duties and image as a politician.
    • The Geck ambassador turns out to truly want what's best for Tic; unfortunately her alien psychology makes it difficult for her to understand what that is.
    • Taucris's mother didn't understand eir child's reluctance to declare a gender and become an adult, and was apparently disappointed in them, but loved Taucris because they were eir child, without the threat of being disowned and left with nothing that Ingray felt with Netano.
  • Penal Colony: Basically what "Compassionate Removal" amounts to; it's only "compassionate" compared to outright execution, and from what Garal says about it, it's pretty thoroughly unpleasant.
  • Planet of Hats: Hwaeans are extremely into their 'vestiges' or historical artifacts, believing strongly in the symbolic power of items that had been present for important events. Outside of their system it's commonly known that many of their most important vestiges are obvious fakes.
    • Tyr is appears to have capitalism as its Hat: citizenship there is for sale, as is everything else.
    • The Radchaai retain their prissiness and obsession with tea, although the Ambassador has sort of gotten inured to things being different as a result of spending so long with the Geck.
  • Robot War: Discussed as a potential reason to allow the AIs to join the treaty. If they join, they'd be bound to respect the lives and rights of the other signatories just as the other signatories are bound to respect theirs. If they don't, however...
  • Speculative Fiction LGBT: As mentioned in Ambiguous Gender Identity above, Hwaen children have no gender and declare one in their teens or later to become adults. Gender does not appear to limit their career paths or who they can hook up with. However, picking one of the three officially recognized genders (male, female, neman) is basically mandatory and does make some people uncomfortable, like Taucris, meaning this can be restrictive in a different way.
  • Starfish Aliens: As usual for the series, the Geck are bizarre both physiologically and psychologically—aquatic color-shifting blobs that are extremely isolationist and view existing outside "the world" (their term for the ocean they call home) as unspeakable torment.
  • Transforming Mecha: Geck mechs are apparently able to take a variety of forms. One of Tic's mechs disguises itself as an ordinary handbag for an extended period of time.
  • The Un-Favourite: Ingray, who is convinced the main reason Netano even keeps the 'competition' between her and Danach going is to keep Danach on his best behaviour because the outcome is pretty much a given. Danach turns it on its head at the end by claiming that Ingray was always the favourite of nuncle Lak, whose support is invaluable to Netano, and eventually the only reason Ingray doesn't win the competition is that she turns it down.