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.

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