Embassytown (Book Review)

Embassytown cover

Embassytown

China Miéville is a restless author who resists being pigeonholed from book to book. The one constant element, though, is his love for unexpected and truly unusual ideas. From that perspective, Embassytown is on the same end of the spectrum as The City and The City, having just a couple new ideas that are worth taking the entire book to develop. Embassytown probably doesn’t have the crossover potential of The City and The City, though. While that new book was structured as a more easily-accessible police procedural, this new one is unashamedly science fiction.

In a way, it’s disappointing to see Miéville work in a traditional science fiction space. His irreverent experimentation sent shockwaves through the fantasy community a decade ago, but it seems perfectly normal on the SF side of the fence. However, this is the story of humans figuring out a strange alien race, and that subgenre plays perfectly to Miéville’s strengths.

The titular Embassytown is a human settlement on a planet populated by the Ariekei, an alien race whose language requires one to make sounds out of two mouths at once. It only sounds right to them if a single being is making both sets of sounds, so they simply can’t comprehend speech coming from a machine or from two humans working together. The human settlement can only communicate through “Ambassadors”, pairs of people whose brains have been altered to give them such a strong connection to each other that the Ariekei accept them as a single being.

The premise sounds hard to accept, like one of the minor races that a typical space opera would just mention in passing. In Embassytown, though, this concept is explained and expanded upon so carefully that it becomes meaty enough for an entire book. There are a number of interesting quirks to this system, of course. The Ambassadors’ lives and positions within society are important (as is the way this colony planet relates back to its parent empire – Miéville’s books always involve some cynical politics).The Ariekei, meanwhile, are born with an innate knowledge of their “Language”, but are unable to comprehend that any other forms of communication exist. The Language is so fundamental to them that they aren’t even able to lie, and the fact that humans can speak untruths is fascinating to them. To even use something as abstract as a simile, the Ariekei need to create that simile in real life. For this reason, the narrator of the book once took place in a carefully-orchestrated ceremony to become “the girl who ate what was given to her”. The narrator, Alice Cho, is unable to speak Ariekei Language despite being a part of it, and has no understanding of what meaning she now has in their alien minds.

All of this, with culture, the mysteries of alien language, and a little bit about space travel through the futuristic empire, makes the first half of the book fascinating. Mysteries slowly start to unravel, though human understanding remains imperfect. For a time, it seems like it may be one of Miéville’s most fascinating and original works yet. However, the novel’s real conflict becomes clear about halfway through, and these mysteries are all put aside in favor of simple survival. Miéville does not write about fear, crisis, and war as convincingly as he brings strange ideas to life, so even as both the human and alien civilizations begin to collapse, the danger feels abstract to the reader. It’s not an uncommon problem for Miéville – his strengths lie in the way he can build up worlds for us, but he personally is more interested in tearing them down – but it is more obvious in this book than in most, since the particular crisis the characters face makes it impossible to keep learning more about the fascinating Ariekei and their Language.

Fortunately, it all does come together again in the final chapters of the book, with the ideas that had been building at the beginning providing the answers at the end. Embassytown may have the tightest and most satisfying conclusion of any Miéville book yet, which should be a very reassuring sign to his fans.

That dragging section in the latter half of the novel is significant, but it really is the only fault in what would otherwise be one of the best science fiction works of recent years. With its original, weird, but still well-justified ideas, Embassytown is well worth experiencing.

Grade: B

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  1. I adored Embassytown. does it have some SF tropes like aliens and space travel and getting lost in translation? Sure, but that’s where the “traditional” ends. and you’re right, this one certainly doesn’t have the cross over appeal like City and the City did!

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