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Book Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

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It’s taken me a week after finishing Embassytown to be calm enough to write a well-thought out review. The shaking has now stopped. I feel I can be rational. But before I delve into what Embassytown is about and why it’s so worthwhile a read, let me say that, for hardcore science fiction readers, this book may come as a shock. Yes, there are all the keynotes of good sci fi: a futuristic timeframe, a planet that clearly isn’t Earth, though it’s populated both by transported earthlings, and “hosts” — really strange aliens that never become familiar, spliced beings and new languages, novel technologies that traverse space, and a language full of new words. The creative inventiveness in Miéville’s world is enough to drive the narrative and keep the reader interested.

To travel vast distances in space, Immersers travel in the Immer — a kind of wormhole. To communicate in “Language” with the hosts, Ambassadors are created by uniting two “twins” in order to enable a dual form of speaking. The hosts, the Ariekei, are fascinating characters who can only speak with two mouths at once — a “cut” and a “turn.” I tried to visualise them, but was only able to picture the eye corals, the gift wings, and the flamboyant clothing. They are technologically advanced in many ways, able to grow and farm organic houses and bio-furniture, skin terrains, living vehicles and create the food that sustains the visiting humans who rely on their capabilities. Those humans that can travel the Immer are prized and rare, and Avice Benner Cho, the protagonist of Embassytown, is one of those.

It is the transformation of Avice — the way in which she grows, changes, transforms both herself and the world she lives in — that makes this story so powerful. It isn’t just that Avice, who has been made into a living simile by the Ariekei by being fed something that hurt her as a child, is a compelling character, though her first person narrative is indeed compelling. It’s that Avice’s story, the story of the Ariekei and the humans on Embassytown, becomes the story of humanity now, and how we create meaning in our limited lives.

Avice is a tough chick, but she’s human, recognisable, seeking love, pleasure, and belonging as the outsider among the Embassytown officials and her renegade linguist husband. At a certain point in the book, pleasure gives way to the most intense recognition as Avice and the Arieki both whisper “yes” in unison, like alien Molly Blooms of the future. I found myself whispering “yes” along with them.

Throughout the novel, the language, — whether the English to be found in our dictionaries, or the rich, Clockwork Orange styled inventions that Miéville has created for this novel — is stunningly beautiful in its poetry: “radical and cussed, surl/tesh escher got that lie out into the world, a vomit of phonemes, against its own mind.” (151) Avice’s personal struggles with friendship, love, sex, and identity are all played out powerfully in the plot which follows her development. Subtly woven through the narrative is humour that is always just a touch provocative, such as Avice’s robotic friend Ehrsul, whose “humanity” becomes a subtext that is mirrored by the way in which Avice begins to interact with the Ariekei. Despite the heavy and powerful themes that underlie this work, the dramatic pace never falters, speeding up dramatically as the novel progresses and the Ariekei’s growing addiction to a rift in language threatens to destroy Embassytown.

There are so many parallels with who we are now, as a human race on a rapidly maturing planet, that I felt I could re-read the novel several times to pick up some of those references, such as the notion of aboriginals and colonists, of exploitation and co-habitation, of what it means to be a human and how far we might have to go to advance our race past the crossroads we now find ourselves at. But these are soft threads against the overwhelming story of language and how it defines the limits of who we are:

“Similies start … transgressions. Because we can refer to anything. Even though in Language, everything’s literal. Everything is what it is, but still, I can be like the dead and the living and the stars and a desk and fish and anything.” (245)

Every word in Embassytown is taut and dense. The novel touches on so many themes:  addiction, love, the notion of home, the limits of language and communication. There’s a strong post-modernist self-referentiality in the way in which the novel explores the power of metaphor to open mental doors, but it’s all done so smoothly, so integrated into its fantastic story where the crazy new world is so real that it almost reads like revelation rather than invention, that the reader hardly knows what’s happening until it happens. Then, with a gasp, the reader realises that we too have become language — our worlds opening out into the lie that tells a greater truth.

Embassytown may start like a fun, inventive good novel, but by the time you reach the 300th or so page, it become clear that this is indeed a great novel. Rich with nuance, meaning, and power that never comprises the overall fictive dream, or even the pure fun of its fictional world, this is a novel to read, re-read, and then re-read again. Miéville just keeps getting better and better, destroying the notion of a fixed, formulaic genre, and creating work that opens every door.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.
  • Walter Hecht

    Semantics: Language spoken in Washington, DC and by the one per cent. Requires ability to speak out of both sides of mouth at same time. Resembles language spoken in China Mieville’s novel, Embassytown, in which aliens actually have two “mouths.” Human ambassadors in pairs to the aliens required special training to be able to speak to and understand the alien speech.
    My favorite Mieville book is Scar.