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Embassytown by China Mieville

01/11/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Embassytown in the USA - or Buy Embassytown in the UK

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pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 345 hardback. Price: $26.00 (US), $30.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-52449-2 pub: Macmillan. 405 page hardback. Price: GBP 17.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-230-75076-0).

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I reviewed China Miéville’s last novel, ‘Kraken’, here a year ago. While that was, on the surface at least, a contemporary fantasy about the theft of a giant squid from London’s Natural History Museum, ‘Embassytown’ is, from the first page, a far more exotic Science Fiction novel, being set on a far-off alien planet many centuries in humanity’s future. So can Miéville write SF as convincingly as he writes weird fantasy?

The central character in ‘Embassytown’ is Avice Benner Cho, a human who was born on Arieka, the planet upon which Embassytown is situated. Unlike most of her compatriots, she managed to leave both town and planet by training as an Immerser, one of the rare class of people who pilot spaceships through the Immer, the void that underlies real space and enables faster-than-light travel. Avice has returned to Embassytown with her new husband, Scile, an expert in linguistics. He wants to study ‘Language’, the method that the Ariekei, the dominant native species on Arieka, who are known locally as the Hosts, use to communicate with each other.

‘Language’ is a unique and highly constrained form of oral communication. When a Host speaks, two voices sound in parallel. Early human visitors were ignored by the Hosts, who cannot recognise a single voice as anything more than noise. In fact, the only way humanity found to communicate with the Hosts was by training identical twins and, later on, clones, to think and speak in parallel. Embassytown’s diplomatic service is therefore filled with pairs of cloned ambassadors. Each pair shares a single name and identity and are the only people who can speak to the Hosts.

As if this wasn’t involved enough, Miéville has another complication up his sleeve. The Hosts’ ‘Language’ does not signify meaning as, for example, English or French does. It is a literal form of communication, a bit like hieroglyphics and can only include words and concepts that exist in the real world. The Hosts are unable to talk about things that they have not seen. Indeed, as a child, Avice was paid to act out a scene for the Hosts and so became one of many human similes being known by them as ‘the girl who ate what was given to her’. Such new similes are vital to the Hosts’ ability to engage with the human settlers. Crucially, the Hosts are incapable of lying. One of the funniest passages in the book occurs at the so-called ‘Festival of Lies’, when a series of ambassadors amaze the Hosts with the most mundane of porkies, before the boldest of the Hosts try to replicate the achievement. The nearest any of them can come to lying is to say that a yellow object is, in fact, ‘yellow-beige’. These are not creatures that would do well as estate agents.

Everything changes, though, when a new pair of ambassadors called EzRa turn up. They are not clones but two very different men who, nonetheless, can speak ‘Language’. They have passed every test set them and seem ready to take their place amongst their colleagues. However, the first time they speak to the Hosts something strange happens. Their utterances seem to send the Hosts into trances, almost as if EzRa was some kind of illicit drug. From that moment on, nothing will ever be the same again. The Hosts appear to become increasingly addicted to EzRa’s speech and, like all addicts, they start to neglect their duties and become ever more insistent on the need to get another fix. As violence threatens, Avice has to decide whose side she is on and what she’s willing to do to restore calm to her childhood home. If she wants to help the Hosts break their addiction to EzRa’s pronouncements, she may have to show them how to move beyond ‘Language’. To do that, she will have to teach them how to lie.

Miéville has written a fascinating and thought-provoking SF novel which deserves a wide readership. The book is a wonderful meditation on the importance of language to identity and should be treasured by all those who value books that make you think. It is chock-full of ideas and will, I am sure, bear repeated re-readings.

On the other hand, the density and complexity of the story also has its downsides. The book is pretty slow to get started and although it’s mercifully free of info dumps, there are quite a few discussions about linguistics that are hard going unless you’re already an expert in the area. The sheer unfamiliarity of the Ariekei and their culture can also make it tricky to follow what’s going on at times.

‘Embassytown’ is not a novel for the casual reader. It is dense and complex and requires attention and effort to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. However, if you’re prepared to put the time in, Miéville will reward you with an intelligent tale that has much to say about humanity and the importance of language to our appreciation of ourselves and each other. If you enjoy literary SF, I’d urge you to make the time to read it.

Patrick Mahon

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