2010s, 2011, Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee, British, BSFA Award nominee, China Mieville, Del Rey Books, genetic engineering, Hugo Award nominee, John W. Campbell Award nominee, linguistics, Locus Award winner, postcolonial, science fiction, weird fiction
Many, many moons ago, in the years before I started this blog, I discovered China Mieville. It wasn’t hard—his début novels, the stylish, steampunkish Bas-Lag series, won immediate critical acclaim. The City & The City combined Mieville’s brand of New Weird with the police procedural; King Rat combined urban fantasy and horror with a bold take on the Pied Piper legend; Kraken was a Gaimanesque fantasy/black comedy that treated the idea of an apocalyptic squid cult with deadpan seriousness, and allowed Mieville to unleash his already vibrant creativity. If you couldn’t guess, I was made a fan. But just after I finished Kraken I started this blog, and focused it more towards the wealth of forgotten fiction lurking in used bookstores, and here I am two Mievilles behind. This will not do.
Embassytown is a city far on the fringes of human-colonized space, an enclave on the alien world of Arieka, isolated and far-flung from its administrative world of Bremen. The Ariekei, called Hosts by Embassytowners, are enigmatic creatures who create a wide array of bio-technological creature-devices; their revered Language is built around the Ariekans’ twin mouths, enabling a precise form of double-speech. More important is that they are incapable of abstract thinking: they cannot lie, since they are unable to understand a concept without a previously existing reference point. Nowadays, they form similes by way of Embassytowners who act out a thought or concept for the Hosts.
Avice Benner Cho is one such living simile: “the girl in pain who ate what was given her.” Having grown up in Embassytown, she escaped mainly because of her talent for immersing—meaning she’s capable of operating a starship in the immer, a kind of ur-space or sub-plane which enables fast travel and circumvents the lack of FTL drives. (Though my German is rusty, I did pick up that the immer is the ur-space, and real space is the manchmal, which are auf Deutsch for “always” and “sometimes.”) Avice has spent years in the Out, and didn’t plan to return home until her linguistics professor husband begged her. And she couldn’t have returned home at a better time. The Embassytowners are introducing their newest Ambassador to the Hosts—Ambassadors being paired humans genetically modified to think and speak Language simultaneously, enabling contact with the Hosts. This new Ambassador—Ez and Ra, forming EzRa—triggers a massive change within the settlement: the aliens become addicted to his voice; they lose control of themselves, and society begins to break down…
Mieville has an impressive track record as one of the genre’s most creative and innovative authors, and there’s plenty of that in Embassytown in how Mieville tackles traditional SF stalwarts like bio-engineering, cyberware/augments, and space travel. But I’m also left feeling that this world isn’t as vivid or vibrant as his other novels’, and lacks the depth and polish of his earlier novels. The Bas-Lag books, for example, had their own rich atmospheres; Embassytown at times feels rather bland, with the barest of atmosphere and tone to carry it. I first noticed this when Avice is asked about the immer, and she explains that it’s indescribable—so are many other elements of this world, to the point where it existed as just a name or a nebulous background blur. There’s a few exceptions—a vivid section Avice comparing real slums to Embassytown’s “slums”, some of the passages detailing the war and decaying bio-devices—but overall, the atmosphere, tone, and setting are a bit weak.
Where Mieville shines—and where his creativity is unleashed—is with the novel’s big themes. The Hosts’ inability to lie causes a number of humans to form a religious cult around them; the cult sees purity within the Hosts, raising them above humans with no such restraint. Meanwhile, the Hosts become enraptured by the god-drug that is EzRa—religion as the opiate of the masses, creating its own fellowship from the ranks of the addicted, those compelled to hear EzRa’s every word. There’s a strong postcolonial theme in this, with the natives becoming dependent on the humans for their survival, and visa versa. More to the point, some of the Hosts see the human rulers and their Quisling native leaders suppressing any changes to the status quo—-one Host who attempts to learn how to lie is gunned down under the oversight of both human and Ariekei rulers, a tacit assassination allowing the murder of one who would shake the foundations of Language.
These themes come to fruition in the second half of the book with a strange duality of rebellions. Embassytown has planned to succeed from its Bremen rulers, but because of their growing addiction to EzRa, the Hosts trigger their own revolt to get away from their dependence on humans. Ariekei are slaughtered in the streets, torn to shreds by others of their species who have made the ultimate sacrifice and escaped god-drug addiction by maiming their own receptors. This duality of rebellions continues into the finale, with the Ariekei forming two “new paths” in reaction to their addicted state, two new rebellions within the greater rebellion. I’m not sure how many of these layers Mieville intended, but the book is plenty rich in them. And that’s not even getting into the symbolic use and analysis of Language, a living language that transcends mere speech because of the Hosts’ inability to lie.
Embassytown is a pretty epic novel; I’m not sure I’ve done more than scratch at the surface here. There are a few nits I could pick, a few more comparisons I could make. Mieville’s language remains impressive, his inclusion of ichor and sputum continues, and Avice is yet another Mievilleian protagonist who plays a small but important part in grand events far beyond her control. Overall, I think it’s one of my favorite Mieville novels for two reasons. First, I’m a sucker for this type of SF—human-alien relations, the postcolonial blues, the living Language, the god-drug opiate. It’s a very ’70s blend of themes that Mieville manages to make fresh and interesting, feeling both new and retro and not past its sell-by date. Second, while I found parts of the world remained under-defined, the character of Avice is incredibly well-drawn and realistic; the Hosts are mysterious and act like legitimate non-humans, but have good cultural depth, and are strange and sympathetic creatures to follow.
A big recommendation for Mieville fans, and I think other readers will be interested by the thrilling finale, the sheer creativity put into it, and its melange of fascinating themes. If you demand a proactive, highly capable protagonist who dictates the plot, you may be disappointed, and I’d recommend reading the e-book version so you can tap on the more esoteric words for an instant definition (or keep a dictionary handy).