Embassytown – China Miéville

Like, I think, all his books, Embassytown is very very different from the rest of Miéville’s work. I’m hesitant to say now that it’s my favourite of the ones I’ve read, partly because I only just finished it, and post-read euphoria makes everything UH-MAY-ZING, but also partly because I’m not sure it’s really directly comparable to, say, Kraken. For starters, Kraken is fantasy and, if Embassytown is anything, it’s SF. But it doesn’t quite feel like most SF I’ve read. Possibly this is because I don’t read all that much SF anyway, and that tends to be what people recommend (i.e. the Classics, not the weirder stuff). But even if it is just that, it still makes comparison with Kraken, or the City and the City or whatever, very difficult. In their own ways, both Kraken and Embassytown are immensely good books. I would struggle to say which of them I enjoyed more. But Embassytown has something in it beyond just good book, good story enjoyment. So maybe I think it gets to be my favourite of his books for now.

The reason I’d been looking forward to reading Embassytown (and I had, after I found a review of it when I was looking for something about Kraken) was that I knew it was in some way about language. And, as some of my reading choices below show, I am a sucker for things that appeal to certain of my interests. And this did. It so, so did.

Broadly speaking, no spoilers, Embassytown is about a space colony in the future and some stuff that happens to it. Yes, I know, that’s ridiculously bland but it’s really, really hard not to spoil. As far as constructing a believable universe and space-travel jargon and whatnot, it does it well. It’s one of the better ones I’ve read, and the whole idea of the immersers is a really cool one. It’s not at all the same thing, but the way the immerser works as a character apart from the rest of the people of the plot kind of reminded me of Siri in Blindsight. What he is and what he does sets him apart and makes him the perfect narrator, because, as he sees things a little differently and does things differently, he is perfectly poised to explain them to us in rather more abstract terms. And Avice is like that, though the immerser is somewhat less… abstracted… than Siri. Much of the universe construction is left incidental and unexplained, however. There are no maps in the front of the book, as it were. And that’s not exactly unusual, but it does serve to focus us much more on what it must be said feels like the point of the book.

The point is not the plot or the characters (repeated comment about Miéville and one dimensional characterisation) but the exposition about language. Plot happens. It’s some good plot. I enjoyed it. But the language is so fundamentally critical to everything that happens that it kind of feels like the plot is subservient to it.

Right, spoiler time. If I’m going to talk about Embassytown properly I have to talk about the language thing in more meaningful terms than just referring to it. And that way, spoilers lie a-plenty. Not many plot-spoilers, admittedly, but some exposition spoilers. So if you actually intend to read the book and don’t want me to spoil basically the point, look away now (and come back for the last couple of paragraphs if you care about my summing up).

LANGUAGE IS SO DAMN AWESOME. That’s Language, not language. There’s a difference. The former is what the Hosts, or Ariekei, speak. These are some properly alien aliens, which is nice to see. In essence, their language is so intrinsically bound up with thought that to lie, for them, is basically impossible, as far as humans at the start of the book are concerned. The whole idea of speaking with two voices in one being is already pretty cool, but combining that with the idea that a lie is so utterly incompatible with them as a species… it makes for a lot of awesome language exposition which really made the book for me.

Which is not to say that I don’t disagree with some of the premises. Miéville at one point says that for them lying would be like us lying to ourselves in thought and believing it. He puts it rather more eloquently than I do, but the point is the same. And… well, I’m not sure I believe that that is impossible. I was willing to accept it for the duration of the book, but generally speaking… No. I mean… surely if there was some need or desire to speak in a way other than the directly truthful, they’d construct some sort of conditional clause system or something. Some sort of condition, as well as the normal ones, where the veracity of the statement was unknown or doubted or potential, or even some sort of mood where truthfulness was suspended entirely. An abstract mood or something. A mood of hypothesis or… I don’t know. It just seems really, really implausible when I think about it. Which is sort of the point I’m sure, but still. I’m sure I can lie to myself in my brain if I frame the lie the right way. Though I suppose: aliens. Aliens can be alien in their thought processes and think alienly and not be able to conceptualise in the same way as me. That’s the answer to all this sort of nit-picking. Aliens are alien and you can’t really second-guess their alienness. So there. But I do kind of want to.

The communication problem is solved in the book by having cloned human pairs linked by implants so they are somehow (handwaving here) mentally connected, so they can speak as one unit sufficiently to be understood by the Ariekei. Pains are taken to ensure the pair don’t deviate from each other (their physical differences are “equalised” daily, so they cannot be told apart) so clearly some sort of physical unity is important to how the Ariekei understand personhood. It is only explained near the end of the book, in a rather feeble way, I feel, that it is considered “rude” to ask the Ariekei whether they think an Ambassador (as the cloned pairs are called) is one person or two. I feel like some space could have been wasted discussing that part further.

That said, Miéville is careful to present all understanding of the aliens’ psychology through the medium of the human understanding within the plot. The authorial voice is that of a character in the book, not the omniscient third person narrator, and as such she would have to understand it herself in order that we might be able to understand too. Miéville does not exactly go in for exposition per se. There’s plenty, but it’s through the thoughts of Avice, so we are limited in what we are allowed to understand. In some ways, it’s good. The perception of the aliens and the understanding we receive are kept within a sort of human capacity. But I /want/the enlightenment the omniscient third person author could give me. I want to know how the aliens think, why their language works like that, how this happens and why this and what that. It probably wouldn’t be as good a book if I did know, but that doesn’t stop me wanting. I think this limitation of our understanding is as far as Miéville ever goes towards proper character… well, anything. We do not really know Avice Benner Cho. We don’t feel her emotions, even though we see the plot through her eyes. This is certainly a thread that runs very much through all his books I’ve read. But in having her as our narrator we do have her understanding of the events of the book. We may feel nothing of her, but we have her knowledge. And that’s a sort of characterisation, if not the sort I really want.

The whole resolution of the plot is that they teach the aliens who speak Language to lie and it completely resets their language paradigm and, by implication, their thought processes. They are able to make their language sufficiently abstract that they can, for the first time, understand speech by machines and written language and signs and all the trappings of language that come from that abstraction. It’s a really cool thought experiment, basically. A what-if of a clever little idea about how language might work. And I suppose that’s what a lot of SF that I don’t like is. The only difference between them is that it’s a what-if where I understand and actually care about the subject of the potentiality.

It’s kinda shifted how I think about SF, actually. Certainly the reasons why I don’t like it. I always thought I hated the style of SF, the irritating exposition and fuss about details and making it… real, in a very different way to fantasy. In fantasy, you make the people and the plot real, and you make the world real in how humans deal with it (or elves or whatever), but the background stuff can be outlandish, so long as the way it interacts with the people is believable. I thought I didn’t like SF that got bogged down in all those background details because it cared too much about making this, as someone I know once described SF, “what happens if you change one thing about the world?”. And that… I don’t know, I thought I didn’t like it because it was a bit pretentious and irritating and thoroughly up itself. But Embassytown does exactly the same thing. The only difference is I like language, and know enough about it to waffle coherently along with the fiction. So I discover today that I am a hypocrite. Or I have to rescind my views about SF.


Nope, I’m a hypocrite.

Overall, I found it an excellent read. Properly, wonderfully, amazingly excellent. But only because I love the language exposition. I think, were I not a language-nerd, I’d have hated it, in the same way I didn’t like… I don’t know… some of Asimov or whatever. I can’t really get along with exposition like this, the sort that’s kind of half rooted in reality, if I don’t have a proper, deep interest in what it’s all about. I don’t think I could care so much about biology exposition, for instance, and I quite like biology.

Beyond the exposition, you have a fairly clever novel in a quite cool world setting with utterly uninspiring characters. So if you do read it, you’re reading it for the made-up language-geekery. If that sounds good to you, you’ll probably love the book. If it doesn’t… you probably won’t. I think that’s a fair assessment. For all that there is a plot, I don’t think it forms enough of the substance of the book to be the larger component of anyone’s opinion. I’m obviously biased, I know. I read it because I knew there would be language-geekery. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you can be utterly disinterested in language and still enjoy it as a book, but I doubt it. Reader caution advised, basically. But if you’re into the right thing, it is totally and utterly worth the effort.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
This entry was posted in All, Awesome, Else, Science Fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Embassytown – China Miéville

  1. AnnaJ says:

    I read this recently purely because it was recommended to me as “linguistic science fiction”, and I had a pretty similar response to you. In the real world, I have a lot of problems with how Language works that the book really doesn’t address, but at the same time I found it an incredibly interesting concept and very much enjoyed reading it. Like you I suspect that without the linguistic nerd aspect I wouldn’t have thought much of it at all (particularly as I’d have liked more about the immer anyway, that seemed like an interesting idea that could have had much more done with it). I haven’t read anything else by Mieville, but I’d like to – any recommendations?

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