Embassytown by China Mieville
Science fiction has a reputation—sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly—of being little more than space opera. But it’s also true that all science fact must begin as science fiction, and thus the genre is a prime vehicle for exploring ideas and concepts. China Mieville has previously confined himself mostly to fantasy novels, but with Embassytown, he makes his first foray into true science fiction. And what a debut!
In the city known as Embassytown, humans live in an uneasy alliance with the Hosts, aliens who speak with two mouths. Thus, they can only understand paired human ambassadors who have been raised to think and speak as one. These aliens also have an inability to lie, and an inability to talk about concepts that they haven’t already experienced. As a result, they need humans to help with their similes, carefully staged scenarios that, once acted out, allow the Hosts to incorporate the concept into their Language.
Avice was turned into a simile while she was a child. She spends years off planet but returns with her husband, a man intrigued by the nature of Language. But two events—one taking place at the annual Festival of Lies, and one taking place when an extraordinary new Ambassador arrives—will change the shape of alien/human relations and Language itself forever.
I’ll say up front that I am fascinated with language and how it works. It’s been an interest of mine since I was in college and took a course in the history of the English language. Thus, this novel is right up my alley, as it deals in large part with the questions of how language impacts thought and action, and vice versa.
A good chunk of those questions revolve around lies and lying. I find it amusing that aliens with two mouths represent unwavering truth, as “doublespeak” is a traditional symbol of falsehood. But with them, a lie produces a kind of cognitive disconnect that they simply can’t handle. This may sound like a wonderful and innocent way to exist, but Mieville takes it a step further and begins to play with the notion that similes and metaphors are also forms of lying. Because of this, they’re more difficult for the Hosts to deal with, unless they’ve actually witnessed a scenario that they then use as a linguistic trick.
But this novel has more layers than just this. Readers are presented with questions about what it means to speak with intent, how far a species can progress without a true symbolic language, and what the consequences of falsehood can lead to. And what I liked the most was that Mieville doesn’t shove these concepts in your face. Instead, he just tells his story and weaves in all manner of intriguing ideas and thoughts. It’s up to readers to ferret them out and take away as much or as little as they can. While this does make the novel challenging at times, it’s a good kind of challenge.
I’m put in mind of an idea that I read a long time ago. I don’t remember exactly where it came from, but I think it was in an essay by Jane Yolen. In it, she asserts that a novel is a dialogue between the reader and the author. Each will put something into the experience of the words and take away something at the same time. I think that this concept is gloriously illustrated by this book. I’m sure there are things that I missed on first reading, and I hope to find some time soon to re-read it and possibly discover more that the author and I can communicate about.
As a science fiction story, the author excels at worldbuilding, and he manages to include little details that are never explored but nevertheless enhance the tale. On this world, the aliens live in a landscape that is alive—literally. The buildings, the vehicles, the everyday objects—all are of bio-material and, to a certain degree, alive. Little animals and insects move through the background. The Host/human relations are fraught with mystery and uncertainty. And it’s all wonderful. You don’t need to know all the answers about these things. While some novels can’t pull off having unexplained phenomena, Mieville makes it work in this book. Some of it may just be that the story is compelling enough to make such details negligible, but that’s probably a matter of personal opinion.
My only complaint about Embassytown, and it’s a small one, is that the story takes a little while to really get moving. I don’t have any idea how Mieville would have moved things along, because what he’s included in the opening chapters is needed for later sections. I just know that the action takes a bit to get moving and really draw readers into the tale. My recommendation is to stick with this novel, because the payoff is well worth it.
This novel was recommended to me by the publisher rep at Random House, and his praise was not overstated. Embassytown is a multilayered work of art. It challenges readers, pushing them to really think about the language that we as readers find so fascinating. If a book really is a dialogue between writer and reader, then this conversation is one of the best ones that you’ll have the privilege of participating in.
Also by this author: Railsea, Un Lun Dun
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on May 23, 2011.