Embassytown / China Miéville

For the first 100 pages of Embassytown my fanboy willingness to read anything by China Miéville was close to a breaking point. It’s rare when a book I read is so bad for so much of the beginning and actually gets readable by the end. While there is lots of meaty stuff to chew on, the plotting is a hot mess that I can’t recommend to anyone but devoted Miéville fans.

In Miéville’s first book of straight science fiction, Embassytown is an outpost on an alien planet. It’s wholly surrounded by an unbreathable atmosphere kept at bay by a permeable bubble. The alien Ariekei evolution bred sentient beings who have two mouths with which they use to speak. Consequently they’ve developed Language, where two things spoken at once. Humans quickly learn to understand it, but the effort required to speak it is substantial. In fact, it can’t be done by one person or a computer translation. It requires two people speaking exactly in harmony or the Ariekei don’t even recognize it as speech. These Ambadssadors are paired clones who are linked electronically.

The main character, Avice Brenner Cho, grows up in Embassytown but leaves to be an immerser, someone who can consciously travel through hyperspace between worlds. Most people get sick or are otherwise incapacitated by the mode of travel, so immersers crew the ships that travel intersystem. While away, she marries the linguist Scile. He talks her into returning home so he can study Language.

During her second stay in Embassytown, things fall apart. Dissident humans murder a dissident Ariekei, with the complicity of both the human and Ariekei rulers. The first off-world Ambassador since the early days of the colony sets off the breakdown of society. Something about EzRa’s method of speaking Language is addictive to the Ariekei who hear it. The addicts can do little but seek to listen more, forgetting to eat or care for themselves.

The first chapters of Embassytown are incredibly convoluted. The normal advice to writers to show not tell worked badly in this case. The story could have used some telling to clear things up. Embassytown also took a hell of a long time to get to the meat of the story. It was all back story and world building until well after page 100. Some of those details were important later on, but man were they boring.

For instance, the Ariekei have a complicated system of similes. The Hosts (as they are called by the locals) cannot simply make up the constituent parts of a simile. Both sides of the language construction have to exist for them. I can say snow is like a blanket but the aliens cannot unless they’ve seen both the snow and the blanket. Avice is a simile in their language. She is the girl who ate what she was given. She performed this action in front of the Ariekei so that they could use that particular action in similes. The driver staying on the road is like the girl who ate what she was given. At the point of the telling of this story, it was all very tedious. At the time, it seemed like overly detailed language geek nerdery. (If you are into that, this book is definitely for you.) It does play an important part later on, but the reader really has to wait a long time for it.

What’s good about Embassytown is exactly what you would expect from China Miéville, creativity. He makes alien aliens, who never act anything at all human life. Mr. Miéville periodically adds details to their appearance. Each detail only adds to the mystery of their visual impact; they never solidify. Two mouths, multiple sets of wings, and hooves. Pendulous bodies in old age designed to be eaten. I imagined various lengthy appendages though I can’t recall if they were ever described.

The Ariekei world is equally interesting. Most everything there is bio-rigged, meaning that they are live animals bred for specific purposes. One of the ones that Mr. Miéville uses frequently are battery creature which follow the Hosts, periodically plugging into other animals that need juice. At one point the situation breaks down so that the battery animals scramble around aimlessly, looking to plug into something to power up. That is their purpose after all. I imagined something similar to my cat when she goes on a nightly tear for reasons I cannot fathom. Farms and other means of Ariekei life are similarly interesting.

And I have to give mad props to Mr. Miéville for using and skewering one of my pet peeves of writing. That’s when characters in a story have themselves a bit of a conversation to solve some sort of problem, but at the crucial moment the author pulls a whispering act so the reader doesn’t know the resolution. If that were to happen naturally, I would have no problem with it. But when I get to hear the rest of the conversation, it’s a lazy attempt to keep some sort of mystery going. That’s the problem. It’s lazy. The author couldn’t think of a way to legitimately structure the story without popping the bubble of fake reader omniscience. Here’s how China Miéville wrote it (emphasis added by me, quote comes from A.R.C. and may not reflect the final text):

How many days before they get here? I said. Can you get hold of YlSib? And others? Any you can? He narrowed his eyes but nodded. We need to go. Get YlSib or whoever to contact Spanish Dancer and the others. I’ll— I stopped. I don’t know, I said. I don’t know whether … Maybe I can tell Cal.

Tell me, Bren said. I thought you’d despaired.

I did too.

What, then? Tell me.

I told him. Revelation was spoiled for him, but I can retain it here, for you.

Lots of material is fodder for political discussions too. Given Mr. Miéville’s socialist background, I’m not surprised. Embassytown sets the humans up to have a very precarious existence on an alien world. Even so, I have some qualms about their participation in the plot that I unfortunately cannot detail without spoilers. Embassytown includes a good illustration of what could be the politics of a superpower and it’s interaction with a remote colony. So much so that my guess is that it incorporates elements from a specific instance in our history. I’m not enough of a student of history to know what it is though. The government is not malevolent, but it’s not benign either. It very much does not have the best interests of the residents at heart. It also very much satisfies the Bechdel test too.

As I noted above, the book finally settled into something readable. Still, parts of the resolution were much to esoteric for my taste. Considerations on the connection of language to the nature of sentience are great for philosophy discussions over beers or marijuana (or for linguists) but it just isn’t very exciting. Again, if the construction of similes sends you into ecstasy, you’re opinion will most assuredly be different than mine.

Everything considered, the book rates more highly than last year’s Kraken, but isn’t going to challenge Perdido Street Station or The Scar for the best Miéville book in my mind.

I received a copy of Embassytown from Random House through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, which requires a review to be posted on LibraryThing but has no requirements on the content of my review.

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