Embassytown : A Novel

  • China Miéville
  • Del Rey
  • 368 pp.

The limits and perils of language, at the far edge of science fiction.

Reviewed by Nancy Kress 

China Miéville’s new science fiction novel, Embassytown, asks a provocative question: What are the abilities and limits of language? The book also inadvertently raises a different question: What are the abilities and limits of science fiction?

Embassytown takes place in a far future in which space travel through a sort of underlayer of reality (the “immer”) has allowed humanity to spread throughout the galaxy. This means colonizing planets that already have native sentient life. One such, on the edge of known space, is the planet Arieka, which we see through the eyes of narrator Avice Benner Cho. She grows up there and then later returns with her husband, Scile, a linguist, during a cross-cultural crisis with the Ariekei.

The crisis concerns language. The Ariekei have two “mouths” and speak through both at once. This is ironic because a key feature of Ariekei thought is that they are unable to lie. Language for them does not signify reality, it is reality, and they are literally unable to double-voice anything that is not true. Nor can they, again literally, recognize any speech that does not feature two words spoken at once by the same creature. Humans, wanting valuable trade with the Ariekei, have developed genetically engineered “ambassadors,” clones who speak separate words in perfect synchronicity. For generations the Ariekei have accepted these ambassadors as the only sentient life among the humans; everybody else is regarded as animals. The ambassadors hold enormous power in Embassytown, the settlement where interaction occurs between colonists and their Ariekei “Hosts.”

Things might have continued this way indefinitely, except that humans have introduced the Ariekei to the idea of similes ― a mild, literary way of falsifying reality. After all, to say that a girl is “like a rose” is to take one step away from language as concrete, toward language as imaginary. Once you start down that path, events of the book indicate, you open up minds, cultures, whole planets to change. Avice herself becomes a living simile: “the girl who ate whatever was given her.” This allows the Ariekei to speak fancifully (for them, anyway) of situations that are endured without being able to alter them. It is the tiny opening wedge to cataclysmic events.

Science fiction built around the potentialities of communication is not new, but nobody I can think of has taken it as far as Embassytown. By the end of the novel, language itself has led to addiction, to shifts of power, to war, to near genocide. It’s as if applying imagination to words is what opens Pandora’s box ― including the iconic hope mythically found at the bottom of that homely, low-tech container. In getting there, however, Miéville has pushed close ― possibly past ― the limits of science fiction itself.

The inherent danger in the genre is that a future may be so different from the present that readers, especially casual readers, must struggle mightily just to figure out what is going on, let alone why. The more a writer explains such changes, the more the novel becomes an expository tract, viewed from the outside. If the differences are not explained, readers find themselves immersed in the science fictional milieu as in any other novel, but they may flounder in these deep and unknown waters. Miéville has made the latter choice, introducing scores of terms and situations that are not explained because, of course, narrator Avice takes them for granted. Whether readers will do so depends on their patience and tenacity, especially since the first third of the book functions basically as a tour of Ariekene things-as-they-are, with very little plot or tension. But how superbly interesting are Miéville’s things-as-they-are! Arieka is a unique, fully developed, very strange world, one built not on physics but on bio-engineering. Buildings, power sources, farm machinery: all are built of flesh (at one point Avice idly notices “a herd of immature factories grazing in the distance”). The level of detail is astonishing. The characters, including Avice and Scile, seem plausible and solid in this setting. They both are, and are not, us. That is, they love, hate, strive, anger, frustrate, but in response to stimuli other than those extant on 21st-century Earth. They are as recognizable to us as would be medieval people, who also operated on entirely different premises in a world of entirely different technology.

And the aliens are even stranger than that, although just as plausible in their own context. No middle-class Americans with strange ears masquerading as extraterrestrials ― not here.  Mieville’s Ariekei are profoundly, wondrously alien.

Embassytown is a triumph of a certain type of science fiction novel. Again, that type is not palatable to everyone. For hard-core SF fans, however, Miéville’s novel is a must.

Nancy Kress is the award-winning author of two dozen books of fantasy and science fiction.  Follow her blog at http://nancykress.blogspot.com/

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