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.