Embassytown by China Miéville is a real mindbender. I’ve read other works of his and found it possible to slip inside his challenging constructions fairly quickly. Not this time. Embassytown is science fiction at the edge of the known universe. All the trappings of the genre are there—but shaken, shifted and synthesized into something so original that it requires new maps.
Avice Benner Cho is a human raised in a protected colony on a planet at the far reaches of explored space. She lives in a futuristic civilization in which children are raised in pods by surrogate parents, time is measured in kilohours, the space between planets is known as the immer and odd-looking indigenous creatures, the Hosts, allow the human outpost. They are advanced, sentient, hoofed and winged life forms who communicate with their guests through specially-engineered humans, identical clone pairs called ambassadors. The aliens—strange word as Arieka is their planet after all—are Ariekei and their communication is unique. They can only speak the truth—there is no concept of falsehood or ability to lie in their intelligence or culture. Avice can’t speak their language—called Language in the book—but she is a part of it. As a child she was made into a simile, a bit of grammar that allows the Ariekei and the ambassadors to converse.
Language, how it shapes a civilization and how it can be subverted, is the center of the story. The ambassadors are two speakers who function as one to mimic the Ariekei idiom, which is set in tiny, italicized typography as a word over a word in the text. They speak doublespeak, literally and symbolically. Betrayal triggers the unraveling of relations and there are layers of betrayal that go far beyond language.
Avice leaves Arieka and travels for years throughout space but eventually returns to Embassytown, just as it is on the cusp of cataclysmic change. She has to sift through competing loyalties to her husband, her lovers, her native culture, authority that is untrustworthy, aliens who are more like her than she can imagine. There is a cascading series of calamities that brings Embassytown and its environs to the brink of annihilation—and Avice is the key to eventual salvation or devastation.
The novel is a surprisingly gripping read. I say surprisingly because Miéville is so deeply enmeshed in this world that the language he creates to describe it to us is abstruse, the concept is bewildering and events refuse to sort themselves out neatly. You surrender your ticket and hang on for dear life because you can’t see where the plot is going, although it’s a great ride. This was a tough book to read in a day—many of the terms are invented and resist deciphering. The future society portrayed has moved beyond conventional assumptions of gender-determined behavior so social interaction is not predictable. There are no shortcuts, no comfortable context from which to draw clues. My strategy was to glide over the incomprehensible bits, searching for the overall sense of the story, and let meaning reveal itself as it would. That worked pretty well. It was mesmerizing to follow a story that zigged just when it might have zagged and never allowed me to hazard a guess about what would happen next. Honestly, I was kept busy enough trying to figure out what was happening in the scene I was reading.
There are more accessible Miéville books but, while Embassytown is not for the easily daunted or the faint of heart, I liked it. I would recommend to it intelligent friends who enjoy engaging with a work of literature from time to time. Engage: to cross weapons; to enter into conflict; to attract and hold fast.
Embassytown China Miéville | Del Rey 2011