Embassytown by China Miéville
My only real experience with Miéville is within his fantasy Bas-Lag setting, and a few short stories set within parallel versions of London, so this was my first encounter with Miéville as a sci-fi writer. Embassytown strongly reminded me of Iain M. Banks at his best; complex and confusing, but not pointlessly obtuse (as Banks can sometimes be), with real philosophical depth and interest underlying a compelling tale. Embassytown is a novel fundamentally concerned with language, deconstructing a fictional alien tongue to allow us to examine our own. In most science fiction, no matter how bizarre the aliens are on the surface, or how difficult their language may be for humans to understand, there is still the possibility for translation and communication; no matter how bizarre these creatures are, we can still understand them by Earth methods of communication. Embassytown presents creatures who communicate in a method utterly alien to our own, something absolutely fascinating to read about.
The eponymous city of Embassytown is where most of the novel is set. In Miéville’s universe, long distance space travel is best achieved by sailing in the ‘immer’, a sort of parallel dimension which constricts distances which would otherwise make travel between the stars impossibly long. Embassytown is upon the planet Arieka, home to a race of creatures named by the humans as Ariekei, although they are generally respectfully known as ‘Hosts.’ The language of the Hosts differs fundamentally from that of humans to the point that communication between the species requires extraordinary effort. Ariekei can make two sounds at once, and so each Ariekene word is comprised of two parts, the ‘cut’ and the ‘turn.’ When said separately they are simply meaningless sounds to the Hosts, and other workarounds such as having the sounds spoken by a machine or by two humans at once failed as the language is fundamentally based upon conscious thought behind it, and without a unified mind expressing the language it is simply noise to them. To communicate, the human settlers bred clones, who are linked with a sort of quasi-telepathy, known as ‘Ambassadors’, who can make themselves understood to the Hosts. There are plenty of other fascinating elements to the Ariekene language as it is deconstructed throughout the novel, allowing us to gain a parallel understanding of human speech. This novel helped me understand linguistic concepts such as that of the connection between the signifier/sign better than the oblique writings of Saussure or Bahktin ever did during my university course. Embassytown itself is a wonderful setting, and steers admirably clear of sci-fi clichés. The Hosts specialise in a science known as ‘bio-rigging’, the growth of organic buildings and machines, and so much of the planet is covered with living structures. Although this is immediately grotesque, as the novel goes on a strange sort of beauty to this science becomes apparent.
Embassytown follows Avice Benner Cho, an ‘immerser’, one who has been trained to travel the ‘immer’ outside of stasis, a profession which bears a swashbuckling and romantic reputation. The story is initially told in a nonlinear fashion, but about half way through it catches up with itself and we are given a faster paced single narrative. We are told of her childhood in Embassytown and her involvement in a bizarre Host ritual as well as her travels in the ‘out’, away from Ariekene, and of her return to her birth town and involvement in the local politics and ‘powers that be’ in the city. The arrival of EzRa, a new Ambassador subtly different to the others, trained outside of Embassytown by Bremen, the human civilisation of which Embassytown is a colony, triggers a catastrophic upheaval in Ariekene and human society.
The actual narrative isn’t necessarily as impressive as the way in which it is told and the comments the book makes upon language. Not to say that the story isn’t great, it really is, but this is one of those rare novels in genre fiction in which plot does not rule. This is not something I tend to enjoy, and this tendency is one of the main reasons I tend to prefer genre fiction, but it works wonderfully in Embassytown. The story is told in Avice’s first person, and she has an interesting character arc, based upon subtle change and growth rather than vast revelations. Avice gradually shifts during the novel from simply an observer, someone who consorts with those of power and influence without necessarily wielding any herself, to one of vital importance to the entire planet. This is accomplished with such subtlety that it is difficult to appreciate how well plotted Avice’s arc is while reading, with the revelation of just how well Miéville has done only coming out when finished and the novel can be viewed as a whole. The gradual revelation of what is going on and the slow growing understanding of this universe is very reminiscent of Iain M. Banks, most particularly The Algebraist, although I must say that I feel that Miéville has pulled this off better than Banks often does. Although it’s unlikely that I’ll remember all of the details of the plot a year from now, what will certainly stick with me are a few incredibly powerful and revelatory scenes, scenes which managed to be both erudite and pack a real emotional punch, a difficult balancing act.
Miéville is just such a wonderful writer that it can sometimes take my breath away. Although I probably prefer Perdido Street Station and The Scar overall, this novel is probably the best written which I’ve read so far. Miéville’s talent doesn’t lie somewhere obvious; it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is which makes his work such a pleasure to read. Miéville is perhaps the only writer in the genre to allow his books to be confusing, but to not do so unnecessarily. Iain Banks at his worst feels as if he is being deliberately difficult, without it serving any real literary purpose. Miéville seems to know exactly what he’s doing, if the reader is confused that’s because Miéville wants them to be, and there is always a payoff as the reader comes to understand what’s going on, something which cannot always be said for Banks.
However, if I were to identify a singular flaw in this novel it is that the secondary characters are not quite as well established as they were in Miéville’s Bas-Lag books. There are no characters which appealed to me quite so much as Yagharek and Derkhan in Perdido Street Station, or Uther Doul and the Brucolac in The Scar. Perhaps this is down to the novel’s length, and a shift in focus from character and world building. By far the most interesting characters in the novel are the Hosts themselves, but by their very alien nature they are difficult to understand. Avice herself is an excellent protagonist, I just wish that those around her received as good characterisation.
Embassytown is a simply wonderful novel, which, in a way, returns to ‘big idea’ sci-fi rather than playing with clichés. Miéville uses science fiction for its most vital purpose, to offer a mirror to our own world and to allow us to consider ourselves a different way. I do not believe that Miéville has written any other straight sci-fi, but after this I would be delighted if he returned to it at some point, as he clearly has as much a flair for it as he showed he did for fantasy with the ‘Bag-Lag’ novels.