Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: Embassytown

Title: Embassytown
Author: China Miéville
Pages: 405
ISBN: 9780230754317

Buy it from The Book Depository

Embassytown: a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe.

Avice is an immerser, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, Humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts - who cannot lie.

Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.

Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts.

And that is impossible.


My first introduction to China Miéville’s work was Perdido Street Station. It was unlike anything I’ve read before, so when I heard that Embassytown was going to be a science fiction novel I just had to see what magic he could bring to the genre. Embassytown is everything you would expect from a Miéville novel and so much more. Describing it to someone is almost like telling a blind person about a color. It’s not really possible and you’ll quickly find yourself at a loss for words. Each person will experience it in a different way and on a different level, but I’ll try my best.

Miéville delivers a weird and wonderful world that is dazzling in its scope. Embassytown is populated by truly bizarre aliens, begging automa and biological technology that makes the city and its buildings an actual living breathing place in the truest sense of the word. Initially it is this complete and utter strangeness that makes it difficult for the reader to comprehend what’s going on, but as the story progresses, things slowly start to make sense.

Embassytown is located on the planet Arieka situated at the edge of the known Immer (equivalent of space). The native population of Arieka is known as the Hosts since they allow the human colony to exist and provide for the colony. The Hosts speak Language. For them speech is thought and they are unable to say something that is untrue. Due to their physiology Language needs to be spoken simultaneously with two mouths, but by one mind. In order for the humans to communicate with the Hosts special Ambassadors are needed. These Ambassadors are human twins (doppels) that have been trained since birth to think as one mind which gives them the ability to speak Language.

The story is told in the first person through the eyes of Avice a human immerser (the equivalent of an astronaut with the ability to traverse the Immer). We first get to know her as a child growing up in Embassytown where she is enLanguaged by the Hosts (used to act out a simile to allow the Hosts to speak it). Later after travelling the Immer, she returns home and is present when a new type of Ambassador arrives. She witnesses the utter chaos which ensues when he speaks Language for the first time. In order to save Embassytown itself Avice must find a way to communicate directly with the Hosts, a seemingly impossible task.

Language and communication is the core of Embassytown. Everything revolves around language - its definition, its use and misuse, the power it has and how it shapes and controls thought. Throughout the novel there is a slow progression and transformation in how the Hosts think. Language slowly evolves into language and it is this transformation, and the subsequent changes in thought, that ultimately saves Embassytown.

The characters are well fleshed out and although the aliens are truly alien you empathize with their plight. The horrific downward spiral of addiction and slow decay of both the Host population and their biorigged buildings and livestock evoked a visceral emotional response in me. You could feel the escalating sense of despair and anxiety as the situation deteriorated. The final act of desperation, when the Hosts mutilate themselves, affected me deeply. It was heart-wrenching to see the sacrifice they were willing to make in order to ensure a better future for their children.

I enjoyed Miéville’s crafting of words. His own creations are both memorable and apt (exots, immer, automa). I’m sure floaking could, in time, experience the same cult status as grokking. His descriptions of the world and its inhabitants, while somewhat vague, provided just the right amount of impetus to have my imagination working overtime picturing the Hosts and their biorigged buildings, farms, transport and other technologies.

The verdict:
Embassytown is a challenging but rewarding read. It was slow going for the first hundred pages, but once the new Ambassador appears on the scene the pace picked up considerably. I was so engrossed in the later chapters that I actually lost track of time and found myself reading into the early hours of the morning.

People with an interest in language and how it shapes thought will absolutely love this, but you definitely don’t need to be a linguist to enjoy it. Don’t expect a quick and easy read though. Embassytown has many layers and requires an attentive mind to unravel all the hidden meanings and complexity. I’m sure even subsequent rereads will reveal something new each time.

Rating: 7.5/10


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