Embassytown (2011) – China MIÉVILLE

Small note about this review: it is full of spoilers, because I literally cannot talk about the huge ideas and concepts Miéville deals with without going into specifics. So if you want to read this novel – and I really, really suggest you do – just skip to the last paragraph, where I gush some more.

Embassytown is a small human outpost on the planet of Arieka. It is also the birthplace of Avice Benner Cho, a young women with training to fly spaceships through the immer – the space-time vortex. It is also the native planet of the Hosts, mysterious aliens who can only speak Language, requiring specially trained Ambassadors to act as translators. When Avice returns home with her new husband, she does so at the same time as a new Ambassador. A new Ambassador from the outside. A new Ambassador that will bring Embassytown to its knees.

Earlier this year, Christopher Priest, the author of The Prestige, went on a vaguely insulting rant about this year’s Arthur C Clark award. Whether this is simply sour grapes over the fact that his latest novel didn’t make it, we’ll never know. He does, however, make three claims about Embassytown, and I thought it might be fun to look at each in turn, and see if Priest is a raving loony, or someone to whom people should listen.

Priest’s first objection to Miéville’s novel is that it is full of “careless solicisms.” I’m not going to lie – I had to look the word up in a dictionary. Yes, there is the occasional bending of certain grammar rules, along with confusing neologisms, but I wouldn’t expect any good science fiction novel set in the far flung future worth its salt not to try and push the boundaries of the English language – for that is what most characters speak.

Language (and here I mean both language and Language) is obviously central to the novel. Miéville has clearly read a lot of linguistic theory, and wants to talk about it – and as a novelist, the best way for him to do so is to write a novel about it. Who thought linguistic theory could be so interesting? Certainly not I. The idea of a language that must be spoken by two voices is strange enough, but then the idea of language that not only must be spoken by two voices, but by one mind – that is mind-blowing. It brings up questions of identity and communication I had never imagined – if two people are required to speak Language, is one person by his or herself simply a piece of unintelligent meat? That is the fear of humans who cannot speak Language – that the Ariekei see barely even see them.

To counteract this problem, we have Ambassadors. Genetically bred twins/clones/same people, who are taught to speak Language. Their names are plays on two syllable names with which we are already familiar – MagDa, CalVin, BranDon, and YlSyb. It is a social faux pas to speak to them as separate people – for all intents and purposes, they are one sentient being, even when it comes to terms of address. Perfect social conditioning forced upon a group of people living on the edge of the human empire. As the only form of communication between humans and Hosts, they are in a unique position, and are suitably pompous about the whole thing. Of course, as with all good genetic experiments, there is a downside, and the shocking, though ultimately unsurprising truth about how Ambassadors come into being is nicely played.

The reason behind EzRa’s ability to affect the Ariekei in the way it does is fascinating. Two voices, speaking Language in perfect unison, but hating the other the entire time. All of a sudden, Ambassadors take on yet another level of symbolism – this new breed of Ambassador is the part of humanity that hates itself, that cannot stand the sight of its other half, whatever that may be. For Ez and Ra, two men brought together for shady purposes, to then spend time together in order to keep an alien revolt from occurring – it’s going to strain anyone’s relationship.

Priest also derides “lazy writing” as a sign of  Miéville’s unsuitability to be listed for the Award. I must, once again, politely disagree. As we reach the third act, where all hell has broken loose in Embassytown, I couldn’t help but marvel at the precise, intricate structure built into the first two acts. The opening passages, of Avice’s childhood in Embassytown, becoming part of a simile, and meeting Bran, all function as a nice wading pool into the wider imagined world. Or so you think. All of a sudden, every single piece of information you had before is a clue to understanding the addiction of the Hosts/Ariekei, and understanding the possibility of a cure. We shift gears in the second act, when Avice brings her new husband back to Embassytown, and we are set up for what we all know will not be a happy homecoming. But things are afoot in Embassytown, and just as Act One will inform the finale, so too does Act Two. Each part of the puzzle is carefully laid out before us, though we remain completely oblivious as to which parts are important and which are Christie-style red-herrings. Here’s a hint: everything is important. Miéville wastes nothing, and each sentence is a part of a whole that builds to the final dénouement.

If the violence of Bolaño is lauded for being subtle and vague, then we must also praise Miéville for being the exact opposite. There are some truly horrific things that take place in Embassytown. The first is clear and easy – the addiction of the Ariekei to the god-drug EzRa is recounted and described in harrowing detail, and though we could not be any more different – biologically, mentally, or intellectually – it is not hard to feel an indescribable pity and sorrow for what they have become in the name of the colonial project, still alive and well this far into the future. At the same time, though, it is understood that not all humans are bad, just as not all Ariekei are good. Each side fractures into a whole spectrum of ideas about how to stop the war, how to fix the addiction, and how to deal with the other side(s). Naturally, Avice finds herself on the side with the solution, though its not the one I was expecting. I’m curious to head Miéville’s thoughts on the solution with which he came up, because it kind of suggests that Language – the ultimate sign of the Other in this novel – is not a viable option. The only way for the Ariekei to move on is to assimilate into the wider cultural milieu.

Priest’s final objection is “a lack of characterisation,” and alas, this is where I must agree, though it’s not all bad news for Miéville. If there is one flaw in the glass, it is that some of the characterisation is a little light on. Avice herself doesn’t have much of a personality, though her occasional asides in the narrative are a nice touch. She seems to wander through a chain of events, and though she is deeply affected by what is happening – how could you not be? – she maintains a strange sense of detachment.

I’m going to stop here, because I could probably write a thesis on the ideas embedded in this novel. It’s freaking huge. So here are some final comments: Embassytown is a big, sprawling novel of ideas and concepts. Nothing escapes Miéville’s mind – a perfect blend of post-colonial criticism, lingustic fireworks, religious questions, bizarre aliens and a fully-fledged science-fiction world. It is in turns exhausting and exhilarating, and will linger with you long after you have it down. Truly a novel that deserves to be read by everyone.

Yes, there is the occasional bending of certain grammar rules, along with confusing neologisms, but I wouldn’t expect any good science fiction novel set in the far flung future worth its salt not to try and push the boundaries of the English language – for that is what most characters speak.

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4 thoughts on “Embassytown (2011) – China MIÉVILLE

  1. winstonsdad says:

    Had him down as some one to try but keep avoiding this one sound most lit to me as I really not keen on sci fi ,all the best stu

    • Matthew Todd says:

      If you’re not keen on sci-fi, I should warn you that this is proper, hard-core stuff. But the best kind of intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi.

  2. Caitlin says:

    I was really really excited for this since the Scar is one of the biggest and most exciting and unique things I have ever read… loved the stories in Looking for Jake too. Mieville takes Clive Barker and Cthuhlu and puts it in a big wrought iron Gothic blender.
    Embassytown was SO BORING THOUGH?
    I wanted to love it. I even gave up on my “If it isn’t good by a third of the way through, move on” rule and got about 3/4s of the way through it. By the end I just gave it to Robert to skim read and summarise the ending for me, I couldn’t stand another paragraph of Avice… in the end I wasn’t even sure why I disliked it so much, Mieville has never been good at characters so I wasn’t expecting Avice to inspire epic fanfiction, but she had so little characterisation she barely existed? In terms of writing it also lacked the …texture? and richness and density that his other stuff has.
    In the end it turned out as a big bag of concepts, held together very neatly and nicely, but still a big sack of basically nothing.
    I liked the linguistics bits though. Have you read his other books?

    • Matthew Todd says:

      I haven’t read any other stuff of his before, but I’m keen to now that I’ve read this.

      I didn’t think it was boring at all. There are some legitimate criticisms to make – Avice is the ultimate cipher, and has absolutely no personality – but I don’t think it’s boring. The ideas and concepts he wants to talk about more than make up for some shoddy characterisation.

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