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.