Review: Embassytown, by China Miéville

>>Published: May 2011

>>Finally got around to it: November 2011

Our everyday pantheon gone needy, desperate for hits of Ez and Ra speaking together, fermenting Language into some indispensable brew of contradiction, insinuation and untethered meaning. We were quartered in an addict city. That procession I’d seen had been craving.

“What happens now? I said. It was very quiet in the room. There were hundreds of thousands of Ariekei in the city. Maybe millions. I didn’t know. We knew hardly anything at all. Their heads were all made of Language. EzRa spoke it and changed it. Every Host, everywhere, would become hardwired with need, do anything, for the blatherings of a newly trained bureaucrat.

“Sweet Jesus Pharotekton Christ light our way,” I said.

“It is,” said Bren, “the end of the world.”

***

Avice Benner Cho is a simile: she is the girl who ate what was given her. For the Ariekei, the Host species of Embassytown, language is spoken by two voices in one breath—one is the Cut, the other the Turn. Before humans came to their world, dialogue was minimal, if it existed at all. Language was a means to a simplistic end for the Ariekei, lacking imagery—lacking flexibility. Through humans they were able to expand conversationally by the proclamation of similes. Certain linguistic traits of humans, however, such as lying, remained beyond the grasp of the Ariekei’s very binary culture. To coexist in the cultural outpost of Embassytown, Ambassadors—human doppelgangers, or doppels—have been genetically bred to gift two voices, two tongues, with a linked mind for successfully constructing the language of the Ariekei. For Avice, a figure of speech for the Ariekei and an Immerser who has spent time a significant amount of time away from Embassytown, her return coincides with the introduction of a unique and dangerous new Ambassador, EzRa, who has the ability to manipulate the Ariekei’s language in unexpected ways, threatening the lives of both the Embassytown natives and the Ariekei.

China Miéville’s ninth novel is a new genre unto itself: Hard-Lit Science Fiction. Embassytown is an analogy for colonial hegemony via interstellar expansion by way of a severe literary mind fucking. Miéville goes beyond simply crafting an alphabet and rules for language use, as might be done in other works of science fiction. This isn’t Elvish, or Klingon, or anything so… simplistic. In Embassytown, Miéville introduces several difficult key components that build off of one another in natural succession: he theorizes the introduction of language elements, such as similes, to a species incapable of visual analogy; he develops a dual-voiced alien race and conceives an entire sub-sect of interstellar, political, religious, socio-economic, colonial, educational, and genetic factors contextualized within the parameters of the given Host culture; and he examines the human influence of metaphor and lying as necessary for the growth of the Ariekei’s restrictive dialect, as well as the cultural implications (and ramifications) for such growth.

Nothing in Embassytown is given with ease. This novel begs its readers to take their time, to drink in the nearly overwhelming detail on each page in faith that, at some point, context and detail will come together to produce understanding. The details of Avice’s life—from when she is made into a simile to her time as an Immerser—are confusing at first, as Miéville lays the impressive groundwork for his universe. But as details are revealed in a slow, organic manner, her purpose becomes clear: to evolve language for the Ariekei. To educate them, to show them the manner in which they have been unfairly manipulated by exposure to an unknown use of their own dialect.

Embassytown is about language, first and foremost. Every character, every action and reaction, is a function of language—the usage and manipulation of. Miéville’s work skirts the crosshatch between science fiction, high literature, and a loosely defined genre that has come to be known as New Weird. This is science fiction for editors—for language nerds, obsessives who see the magic, the danger, and the possibility inherent in all freely spoken language. As previously mentioned, it is also high literature for cultural fetishists—the god-drug affliction of malleable, colourful, dishonest language to a linguistically naïve society, and the resulting threat of dominion by the “dealer” species, reeks of First World colonial expansion.

Personality is an unfortunate victim of Miéville’s incredible attention to detail. Though we learn a great deal of Avice’s past and present intentions, her emotional range is less than ideal. She feels more like an educational tool, a means of non-linearly introducing the elements of the Ariekei’s world and language to the reader, than she does an actual character with motivations of her own. The same can be said for her husband, Scile, whose arc felt like that of a born-again searching for his purpose, with little thought given to the “why” of his actions. The primary entry point for emotional reader investment is through the various Ambassadors—specifically those like Bren, who have been separated, usually by death, from their doppels; through Bren and others like him, the development of the manipulated god-drug language illustrates their tenuous connection to the world, that their purpose is defined by an advanced yet juvenile use of language and dialogue that becomes obsolete as the Ariekei become educated to their own ability to manipulate their means of communication—with one another and with the humans of Embassytown.

Even with its slight deficit of personal attachment, the accomplishments of Embassytown are many. Miéville’s deconstruction of science fiction and colonialism by way of language is not an easy book to read. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t until I had reached part four of nine that I felt I had a strong enough grasp of the overarching narrative to see the motivations of the various factions and how they were playing off one another. However, Embassytown is worth it. This is a daunting, captivating, one-of-a-kind work that deserves the same high amount of attention from both science fiction and literary fiction readers.

Review: The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

>>Published: May 2011

>>Finally got around to it: November 2011

I looked. And it was as though there was nothing in the world wrong with him, his manner was perfectly at ease. I imagined what he in turn was seeing in me, hair wild, rubbery belly pushing against an unclean undershirt, eyes red and filled with hurt and mistrust. It came over me all at once, then: I was not an efficient killer. I was not and had never been and would never be. Charlie had been able to make use of my temper was all; he had manipulated me, exploited my personality, just as a man prods a rooster before a cockfight. I thought, How many times have I pulled my pistol on a stranger and fired a bullet into his body, my heart a mad drum of outrage, for the lone reason that he was firing at Charlie, and my very soul demanded I protect my own flesh and blood? And I had said Rex was a dog? Charlie and the Commodore, the two of them together, putting me to work that would see me in hell. I had a vision of them in the great man’s parlor, their heads enshrouded in smoke, laughing at me as I sat on my comical horse in the ice and rain outside. This had actually taken place; I knew it to be the truth. It had happened and would happen again, just as long as I allowed it.

I said, ‘This is the last job for me, Charlie.’

He answered without so much as a flinch: ‘Just as you say, brother.’

And the rest of the morning in that room, packing and washing and preparing for our travels—not another word exchanged between us.

***

Eli and Charlie Sisters are brothers, guns for hire based out of Oregon City. The pair have built themselves a reputation back when a name was all it took to scare some poor fool halfway to pissing his pants. The Sisters brothers. Should they have reason to cross your path, your life may be forfeit.

Hired by a mysterious and powerful man known only as the Commodore, Eli and Charlie embark on a journey from Oregon City to a gold-mining claim near Sacramento to find and assassinate one Hermann Kermit Warm. How Warm harmed the Commodore is the source of much rumination amongst the brothers—because The Sisters Brothers is not at all a typical Western. For this, I am grateful.

It bears mentioning that the Western as a genre has never worked for me. Short of a strange affinity for Blazing Saddles, the drab, kill-or-be-killed Western aesthetic has always left me feeling cold and uninterested, regardless of the story being told. Had it not been for the quartet of literary awards The Brothers Sisters has been nominated for, I likely would have passed it by based solely on this prejudice. Thankfully, I was convinced to take another stab at the genre.

The Sisters Brothers works as well as it does because it is recognizable as a Western in base aesthetics only. Sure, there are horses, saloons, gunfights, whores, and plenty of gold fever to go around; but beyond the checklist trappings of the genre is a decidedly un-Western story. This is popcorn existentialism wrapped up in a saddle.

Narrated in the first person, The Sisters Brothers charts Eli’s dismay over their chosen profession. Charlie, the more sociopathic and whiskey guzzling of the two, is in deeper than Eli with the Commodore—a detail that adds to Eli’s dissatisfaction. He wants out—of service to the Commodore, of killing for hire, of their entire lifestyle. He has a romantic side he seeks to explore. He yearns for simplicity, safety, and a life without murder. Eli is the gunslinger’s antithesis.

As the brothers track Warm, their musings reveal a wider than expected gap between them. Indeed, the gulf between Eli and Charlie becomes greater as the narrative progresses. Though they do agree on how to best handle certain situations, the accord is not made through a commonality of perspective, but through necessity. As Warm’s offense to the Commodore becomes clear and the brothers further question their role in everything, the gulf of personality grows, and Charlie’s lack of conscious reveals itself as the one thing that will forever keep the brothers apart on a truly emotional level.

DeWitt’s modest existential tale is what’s missing from most genre fiction—a desire to play with archetypes within the confines of their established sandbox. The Sisters Brothers is laced with an unexpected dry wit that feels at once in line with Eli’s personality, but also exists on the fringes of genre expectations. The novel is a bit of a breath of fresh air—a Western that pays homage to the establishment without feeling indentured to it.

And pour one out for Tub. Poor horse dragged more emotion out of me than most characters this year.