The Short Version: Out at the edge of the known universe on a planet called Arieka, humans have established an outpost called Embassytown. The natives, the Ariekei (or Hosts), speak a complex form of language that only allows for truth; even similes must be literally created in order to be spoken. When a new human Ambassador (genetically-modified twins, mentally linked to be able to accurately mimic the Host’s two-voiced speech) arrives and throws the balance of Embassytown into disarray, a few human and Ariekei must valiantly attempt to save their civilization – even if it means changing everything they know.
The Review: China Miéville is on record somewhere as having said that he wants to write a novel in every genre. Of course, that should be taken with a grain of salt: he’s going to write a China Miéville novel in every genre. So if The City and the City was a hard-boiled crime novel, then Embassytown is the space adventure (although also maybe the Western or perhaps just generally the edge-of-known-existence novel). But neither of them are just those things: they are multifaceted examinations of the human condition, of high-flying conceptual questions, of what a novel – what a genre novel – can really do. And Embassytown is right up my alley.
Miéville spends much of the early stages of the novel setting up the world we’re going to be inhabiting. Earth is a distant memory, the universe traversable by means of a strange underlying universal topography known as the “immer”, and technology & society have adapted far beyond our present. But some things don’t change, including colonial expansion: enter Embassytown. Avice Benner Cho, our heroine of sorts, is a child of Embassytown who gets out thanks to her aptitude as an Immerser (someone who can pilot a ship through the immer). The city is a small outpost at the edge of the universe and for a while, we just get background. This causes what some might call a “slow burn” for the first nearly third of the novel: we know that a thing is going to occur, some sort of major event involving a new Ambassador… but in order for us to appreciate that bigness, Miéville takes the time to introduce us to the world-as-it-was. Concepts like the immer are all but left to one side as the novel picks up speed, but the world is made more real by having come to spend such time with them.
The most important thing that Miéville spends time establishing, though, are the rules of Language and how humans interact with it. Language (with a capital L) is the language spoken by the Hosts, this strange form of speech that is spoken simultaneously by two mouths controlled by the same mind and that cannot compass lies. Ambassadors are genetically-modified / neurally-linked humans who essentially speak with the same mind – enabling the Hosts to understand it. And when a non-matched Ambassador pair speaks, it sends the Hosts into a drug trip. Several other things happen with Language over the course of the novel that I won’t go into, because they’re spoilers and also just worth experiencing fresh and with your own brain as opposed to via mine, but the specifics don’t matter so much as the understanding of what Miéville is doing here: he’s delving deep into just what language can do. What it can be. How it changes. How it changes us. It is a terrifically meta accomplishment but he doesn’t do it with meta in mind; that is to say, there’s no sense that the author is reveling in the cleverness. He’s just really fucking smart and demanding that same level of intelligence from his reader. If anything, it’s the more impressive accomplishment on his part to not cow to any sort of pressures that might have existed to make the book more widely readable or “dumb it down”. He writes the book that he wants to write, using language to examine language, and forcing the reader to think about how their own language is changing today.
Let’s look at the things he does here. Besides inventing his own language (Language) and several phrases (floaker, immer, exot, etc), he explores the transition from simile to metaphor, the concept of lying, the concept of linguistic evolution, the power of words (both literally and figuratively, including the way leaders can use language to control a population), the power of silence, the struggle to communicate between the deaf and the hearing, and the way some things cannot be described accurately no matter how hard we might try. But he masks it all in a rip-roaring sci-fi adventure, full of danger and strangeness and the sorts of things that make you semi-unaware that you’re in the midst of a really demanding intellectual experience. It’s a sort of pedagogical exercise that I (pun somewhat intended/irony fully acknowledged) don’t entirely have the words to explain other than to say that the experience of reading a China Miéville novel is unlike any other literary experience I can think of. I am obsessed.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A part of me wants to give him the +, but that does ignore a couple of moments where the story seemed like it was ending… only to go on for many, many more pages. It stops short of being a pacing problem, but it’s a noticeable jerkiness of pace. Still, who cares? Not only has he created a fully realized world that’s almost completely removed from the one we understand, he then uses that disconnect of strangeness to really dive into the things we take for granted about language and present them as something worth newly considering. It’s an awesome achievement and while Miéville demands absolute intellectual engagement from his readers, the payoff is better than nearly any brain game you can imagine. I cannot say enough about the pleasure of locking into a Miéville novel.