Embassytown, China Miéville
Embassytown, China Miéville
2011, Pan, 405pp, £7.99
There can be little doubt that China Miéville’s is currently the poster boy for British genre writing. His novels routinely appear on award shortlists – he has won the Arthur C Clarke Award three times, a feat so far unmatched. He’s one of the few genre writers to appear at mainstream literary conferences, or to write on non-genre topics in national newspapers. As a result, any new novel by Miéville is a) going to raise high expectations, and b) be widely praised anyway.
Because, let’s face it, if Embassytown had appeared in the 1970s, it would have raised few eyebrows. Perhaps it delves into its central conceit a little more than books of that decade generally did, but when a book puts a reader in mind of titles such as Norman Spinrad’s The Void Captain’s Tale, Vonda N McIntyre’s Superluminal, Ian Watson’s The Embedding and Ian Watson and Michael Bishop’s Under Heaven’s Bridge, it’s hard not to conclude it has appeared some forty years too late.
Which is not to say Embassytown is a bad book. Far from it. It’s a well-written, intelligent, thought-provoking and involving piece of science fiction. It simply feels a little past its sell-by date. Perhaps its current stature – it is already on the BSFA Award shortlist, and is a favourite for the Clarke Award shortlist – is in part a reprisal of M John Harrison’s Light. When that book appeared in 2002, it was seen by many as Harrison validating heartland science fiction (the book went on to win the BSFA Award and appear on the Clarke Award shortlist). Perhaps Embassytown is perceived as Miéville validating heartland sf for the current generation of readers.
None of which actually says anything about the novel itself. Like Miéville’s other novels, Embassytown is about a city – the eponymous city. This is an enclave within an alien city on the world Arieka, somewhere on the outskirts of human-colonised space. The Ariekans, known by the Embassytowners as Hosts, are mysterious and ineffable. They have two mouths, and their languages is built around this double-speech. Even more importantly, the Hosts cannot abstract. They can only describe what is. To use a simile, the action or object referenced must have at some point happened. Like Avice, the book’s protagonist, who is “the girl in pain who ate what was given her”. As a result of the Hosts’ inability to use symbols, they can only speak the truth.
Avice proves to have a talent for “immersing”, ie, operating starships as they travel through the strange ur-space which connects worlds. (This space is called the immer, which is German for “always”; and the real universe is the manchmal, German for “sometimes”.) Avice travels throughout human-populated space, experiencing new worlds and alien cultures, before eventually returning home… with a linguist husband in tow. This forms the first third of the novel.
The remainder of Embassytown describes Avice’s experience on Arieka after everything changed. Important to relations with the Hosts are the Ambassadors. Because Language (as the Ariekan language is called) can only be spoken with two mouths, each Ambassador is actually two people. But they must think and speak as one, and so are clones trained from birth for the role. The need for such people depends upon one vital characteristic of the Hosts. They cannot recognise as Language anything spoken by something that is not sentient, no matter how phonetically accurate or syntactically correct. So a translation device is impossible. Ambassadors have names such as CalVin (Cal and Vin), MagDa (Mag and Da), and so on.
When the Ambassador Ezra arrives on Arieka from Bremen, the world which administers Arieka (Embassytown is its colony), their appearance provokes a shock. Ez and Ra are not identical. They are two entirely different people. Yet when they speak Language, the Hosts understand them. This should not be possible – two unrelated people should not be able to mimic a single mind when speaking Language. Worse, whenever EzRa speaks some dissonance in their voices and/or empathic connection acts as an addictive drug on the Hosts. The aliens become hooked on Ezra’s words, irrespective of content. Ariekan society begins to break down…
The concept of a race whose language concepts must be concretised is fascinating. It’s is the (now discredited) Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis taken to the nth degree. That states, roughly, that if a concept cannot be framed in a language, it cannot be conceived by the language’s speakers. For Language, if a concept cannot be manifested in the real world, then it cannot be described and so is beyond comprehension. The need for speakers of Language to be sentient in order for the Hosts to understand them, however, is a bit of wibbly-wobbly authorial hand-waving. For one thing, Embassytown‘s plot depends on recordings of Ambassadors speaking Language being as effective as their speech in person – which does not logically follow.
Avice the protagonist is extremely well-drawn, and her place in the story makes perfect sense. Miéville also captures the sense of an expatriate enclave within a foreign culture quite well. The Hosts are intriguingly enigmatic, without being so alien they are nothing but ciphers. Perhaps the resolution of the novel, the solution to the problem presented by EzRa, relies a little too heavily on further hand-waving, but it is effective all the same. Having said that, the secret history of the Ambassadors I found a little flat – the existence of “failures”, and their subsequent treatment, should, I think, have been more shocking than it came across.
Embassytown feels a little old-fashioned, in the way that science fiction novels written by literary authors encroaching on science fiction often do. Yet it also reads like a novel written by a genre insider. It is good because of that literary dimension, but it is also very good in its deployment of genre tropes. It’s just a shame those tropes feel somewhat dated and well-used. I’m going to stick my neck out and say I don’t think Embassytown will be on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist.
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