Embassytown by China Miéville
Embassytown, China Miéville’s latest, is a sharply honed science fiction tale of linguistics. Yes, linguistics. And skeptical as one may be, it more than works. Despite its science fiction trappings, I would place Embassytown very close to The City & The City rather than Perdido Street Station and its sequels or Kraken in terms of style. I say that because while the strange alien race, futuristic bioengineering, etc. add a genre patina, the novel really is driven by a pretty narrowly focused philosophical premise regarding language, much as The City & The City was driven by the singular concept at its core.
The eponymous Embassytown is on a rarely visited backwater planet called Areika at the edge of the “immer,” the medium via which interstellar traffic is conducted. The planet is home to the Arekei, called Hosts by the human populace, which is small, limited to the town, and almost entirely dependent upon the Arekei for “biorigging” — extremely advanced bioengineering that provides power, food, etc. The Arekei have what seems to be an entirely unique language (called, simply, Language): they are unable to tell lies in it and it can only be understood if spoken by a person (“person” is defined loosely, as there are non-human species) with “thought behind the utterance.” To communicate with the Arekei, though really that is an exaggeration for what actually happens, humans employ specialized Ambassadors. There are other important aspects of Language, as well as Ambassadorship, but to reveal more would ruin some of the slow unfolding of revelation that takes place.
The novel is told from the point of view of Avice, who grew up in Embassytown and then was lucky enough to get out by becoming an “immerser” — one who can easily handle the rigors of immer space. Before she leaves the planet, though, she becomes a simile in Language: “the girl who ate what was given her.” This gives her a bit of cache among the human population as well as with the Hosts, a fact that will allow her to fully take part in the later action of the novel. In the “out,” she meets her husband Scile, a linguist who, enthralled with the idea of Language, convinces her to return to Embassytown and take him with her. Shortly afterward, two major events occur which cause dramatic upheaval first in Embassytown and then planet-wide. One is a movement among the Arekei which grows out of their Festival of Lies (kind of like an open-mic night where individual Arekei try to tell a lie) and the other is the arrival of a new Ambassador from Bremen — the colonial power in this region of space to which Areika owes allegiance.
Structurally, Embassytown early on shifts between contemporary time roughly starting with the arrival of the new Ambassador and flashbacks to Avice’s childhood, her movement into the immer, her meeting Scile and getting married, and their early life together back in Embassytown. The characterization is effective; it does what it needs to do for the purposes of the novel, but nobody — including, unfortunately, Avice — truly pulled me in, save, surprisingly enough, one of the Hosts. It isn’t that the characters don’t feel “real;” Miéville concisely conveys differences even among characters where that is challenging. I think it was perhaps difficult to engage with them partly due to that concision, partly because we don’t spend a lot of time with very many characters, and partly because Avice’s perspective is somewhat distancing.
The alien race here feels truly alien throughout most of the book, thanks to the issues of communication. And their biotechnology is handled with the sort of creative brio one expects from Miéville by now. We don’t spend a lot of time dealing with the “out” or the “immer,” but we get enough to give us a sense of things as well as to tease us with wanting more — not because we need more for the book itself, but because what we’re told is so interesting. It’s a nice balance whereby we have just enough to make us feel grounded in an alternate reality, but I also absolutely would love to see more, a possibility Embassytown leaves quite open with its ending.
Embassytown starts off a little slow, Avice, as mentioned, isn’t easy to engage with, and Miéville throws in a lot of unfamiliar terms, which on the one hand creates a more richly full sense of futurity and difference, but also adds to the distancing effect. However, once we start getting a fuller sense of Language and how the humans and Hosts communicate, the book becomes simply fascinating. In more mundane fashion, it builds interest by ratcheting up the action as it progresses; we get colonial politics, possible rebellions, shooting battles, end-of-the-world scenarios, life-and-death choices, possible inter-species war, and a whole lot of other things that would be telling too much.
But to be honest, the “action” part of the novel was secondary to me. What was truly compelling and thought provoking were the linguistic aspects that drove all of the more typically dramatic events. And Miéville does a great job of slowly revealing those aspects little by little — first simply what they are (how exactly do Hosts talk and listen, what exactly is an Ambassador), then what follows from those revelations (what does it mean to…, what sort of society forms if…), and finally, the repercussions when change enters the system. The nature of communication, of language, of truth, the uses of metaphor and simile: these may seem some pretty dry and abstract points upon which to build a story — and perhaps Miéville’s concern over that is what gets us those more typically dramatic scenes. Or perhaps those dramatic scenes are meant to drive home just how important those allegedly dry and abstract points are to our daily lives.In any case, what we get is a book that melds action with deep thought, something I thought The City & The City did as well. The City & The City ended up as one of my top ten novels for 2009, and while Embassytown isn’t quite that good, it is sitting pretty in my Top Ten for 2011 almost halfway through the year. It’s hard to see something coming along to knock it out. Highly recommended.
Embassytown: Miéville’s most mature and refined writing to date
Avice is a returned outgoer, an immerser, a floaker, and a simile. Unfortunately, she also lives on the one planet in the universe where the Universal Translator fails to communicate, so readers will have to catch up while reading China Miéville’s new novel Embassytown.
Avice is from Embassytown, home to a minority population of humans on a remote planet. She leaves her home to travel the galaxy, a decision that Avice explains rather elegantly: “I was born in a place that I thought for thousands of hours was enough of a universe. Then I knew quite suddenly that it was not.” She only returns after her fourth marriage, this time to a linguist named Scile.
Scile is determined to crack the alien language of the Ariekei, a group of aliens that Avice and others from Embassytown refer to as the Hosts. The Hosts have a unique language (called “Language”), one that relies on the simultaneous expression of two contrasting sounds that “cut” and “turn.” For the Hosts to hear, the speaker must also communicate the originating thought. In “Language,” it is impossible for the Hosts to lie, and a lesser author might have decided it was impossible for humans, with their monovoice, to communicate with these aliens. Not so for Miéville, who always seems to delight in answering his impossible riddles with ingenious solutions that in turn lead to daunting problems.
Readers will enjoy learning how Ambassadors communicate with the Areikei, but the Hosts will remain a mysterious, truly “alien” culture. So it is no surprise that they are often exalted: Language, which contains no lies, seems pure, and the Hosts also have “biorigging” technologies that other races would swear are scientifically impossible. Still, their planet has been colonized by Bremen, and when Bremen sends a new ambassador to destabilize the local politics of Embassytown, the plot takes an unexpected turn, one that transforms this science fiction novel into a Western’s last stand.
Embassytown devotes a great deal of time to language, and it seems fitting that China Miéville showcases his most mature and refined (least pugnacious?) writing to date. The writing suggests and evokes, trusting our imagination to fill in the details. I particularly enjoyed our introduction to the Hosts:
The Host came forward with its swaying grace, in complicated articulations. It looked at me, I think: I think the constellation of forking skin that was its lusterless eyes regarded me. It extended and reclenched a limb. I thought it was reaching for me.
There is a challenge in imagining descriptions like these, but Miéville allows his readers the liberty to imagine interstellar species and worlds as they see fit.
The early plot of Embassytown is decidedly slow, and readers will need to be prepared to revel in this unusual universe, its strange aliens, and the Hosts’ unique Language. Miéville’s heroine, Avice, is often insightful but rarely engaging, which gives the narrative voice a detached feeling, as though we are reading an aristocrat’s history of the Host’s revolution rather than a daring adventure about Avice’s personal journey through the revolution. This distance allows Miéville to outline just how cool his latest setting is, but it just as often mutes the novel’s tension. Consequently, Embassytown may not be the easiest introduction to China Miéville’s writing.
However, it is remarkable that Miéville has produced such a consistently strong and thoughtful body of work. His fans, as per usual, will have little to complain about. Indeed, Embassytown is yet another piece of evidence suggesting that Miéville’s unusual career path — which defies genres, series, and the sense that there is a limit to anyone’s imagination — has arguably led to the most exciting body of work of our time.
Embassytown by China Miéville
And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” ~Genesis, 3:4
“…You don’t need to… to link incommensurables. Unlike if you claim: ‘This is that.’ When it patently is not. That’s what we do. That what we call ‘reason,’ that exchange, that metaphor. That lying. The world becomes a lie. That’s what Surl Tesh-escher wants. To bring in a lie.” He spoke very calmly. “It wants to usher in evil.” ~Embassytown
In the third, or adult, stage of their development, the Ariekene wake knowing Language, innately. There is no less-than-perfect feedback system. They don’t have to learn language in a complex social context. There is no need to struggle to decipher phonetics, facial expressions, tonal changes or physical non-verbal cues. Furthermore, the Ariekene can only speak things that are true. For these and other reasons humans consider the Ariekene Language unique in the galaxy.
It’s tempting to say that China Miéville’s Embassytown is about linguistics, because so much of it focuses on that topic. It’s about so much more, though; politics and art, power, addiction, innocence and wisdom, colonialism and what happens when different cultures engage.
Miéville gives us another interstitial first person narrator, not unlike Tyador in The City and The City, for Embassytown. Avice Benner Cho was born in Embassytown, the one bubble of human colonization on Arieka. Avice is an “immerser,” someone who helps shepherd the galactic ships through the disorienting space called the “immer.” As a child, before she ever left her home planet, Avice ran with a group of kids who tried to push the envelope of the aeoli, the literal bubble of breathable air around Embassytown, to cross the border into the Ariekene city, into the toxic atmosphere of the Hosts. Avice has gone off-world, but now returns with her husband, Scile, a linguist. As she did when she was a child, Avice shuttles across borders and between factions, an in-between person at a crucial moment in her planet’s history.
On Arieka, Avice has a modest measure of fame. When she was a child she was chosen by the Hosts to act out certain behavior. She is a simile. Avice is not the author of the simile, she is the thing itself — not Pablo Picasso, but a Picasso, not Beethoven, one of his sonatas.
The Ariekene have two mouths, and speak a dual-voiced language. Human settlers were quickly able to understand the Ariekene, but the Hosts could not understand humans. It takes a particular kind of human to manage the tonal and vocal needs of Language, and once the colonists in Embassytown realized this, they set about creating that kind of human. The only people who can speak to the Hosts are the genetically engineered Ambassadors.
Miéville takes his time unfolding the story. Scile, Avice’s husband, is particularly fascinated by the Festivals of Lies the Hosts hold, to which they invite the Ambassadors. Ambassadors, being human, can lie effortlessly. “I’m flying,” they’ll say, and the Ariekene, even knowing this is not true, will look skyward. They hold lying contests among themselves, and the contestants strain to lie. One contestant wins a round by calling a yellow object “yellow-beige.” It receives an ovation from its fellows.
Although they can apparently think of things that are not here-and-now true, the Hosts cannot articulate them, and this is why they must create similes like Avice in the material world, so that they can use that simile to talk about things in different ways.
Across the immer, the imperial government (never actually seen) is not happy that the power on Arieka rests solely with the Ambassadors, and they create an Ambassador of their own. The readers, who have observed the Festivals of Lies, understand immediately what happens when the Ariekene meet this new Ambassador, but it takes the citizens of Embassytown longer. As Avice puts it, “The sun came out, and the shops still sold things, and people went to work. It was a slow catastrophe.”
As things collapse, Avice, somewhat surprisingly, stays with the Ambassadors, while Scile leaves, disappearing into a hostile countryside. Because of Scile’s scholarship, the books he left, and Avice’s access, as an article of Language, to the Ariekene, Avice actually understands more about Language than the Ambassadors do. In one way, it’s an outsider’s understanding; in another, as a simile, she is immersed in Language.
I was afraid that Scile had been written into the book just to give Avice access to scholarly knowledge, but Scile is a player with his own motives and his own philosophy. He projects innocence onto the Ariekene, and wants to keep their Language uncorrupted, as he defines that, whatever the cost.
The final quarter of the book is a swirl of warfare, strategy, and language — many kinds of language. In the midst of one desperate attempt to control things, Bren, a former Ambassador, reminds Avice, “We aren’t training a new Ambassador. We’re distilling a drug.”
Miéville pitches this book — I’m using that term tonally — at literary readers, with a first person narrator who seems to be someone who is not powering the story, merely present and reporting on the events that happen around her. At the end, though, Avice’s understanding midwifes the cataclysmic change in Ariekene consciousness.
There is so much at work here that some nuance of character gets lost. While I can imagine why Avice falls out of love with Scile, I never see the moment where she falls in love with him, and that would have added poignancy to the ending.
I think the pacing is a little off in Embassytown, and there is a lot of talking, but, after all, it’s a book about language. Miéville wanted to write about how the mind changes language and language changes the mind. He succeeded. He also wrote a good book about power and respect, about colonialism and self-determination. This is a book I will read again, knowing that each read will uncover something new to think about.
This sounds so much up my alley as to *be* my alley. I can’t wait to get my hands on it!
Love China Mieville! He’s one of the few authors whose books I’d buy right off the “New Releases” rack. Such creative, complex writing. I feel like I learn a dozen new words every time I read a novel of his.
I thinkChina Mieville can do anything.
I am books behind on my Mieville reading. How did I let this happen?!
Another one I’m planning to read on audio.
Stefan–how did you? You must read THE CITY AND THE CITY, and KRAKEN is a thrill ride.
I’m trying to figure out how they will do Embassytown on audio. It will either fail, or be very inventive. Strange
It’s already published by Random House Audio. I will get a copy and let you know!