Embassytown by China Miéville

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.

SPOILERS

Even after reading this book, I don’t feel like I’m qualified to talk about it. I feel like I should have a graduate degree or be a professor or something so that I can talk about the book and sound vaguely intelligent. Which isn’t what China Miéville tries to do in his books, but it’s always how I end up feeling once I finish. That and like a badass, because I did actually finish.

A part of me is still confused as to why I actually read the entirety of this book, considering it’s the kind of thing I normally stay away from – a book whose cool ideas overshadow anything else. But this time, they were really, really cool ideas, so I guess that makes all the difference.

I loved how the Hosts were one hundred percent alien. There was no part of them, either in looks or in thought processes, which shared any similarities to humans. They’re pretty much as Other as you can get. And their dependence on Language affected that, because language and how one conceives and understands it is what lets one make observations about and perform actions on the world around them. Because the Hosts are unable to lie, what with Language only being able to be understood if spoken with true intent behind the words and because they can only refer to things and concepts that already exist within Language, the world, such as they understand it, is something I don’t think I will ever comprehend. I can’t imagine seeing the world as the Hosts did.

What made this novel for me, apart from the cool ideas about Language, was that Language was on the verge of being entirely corrupted, which meant that the entirety of the Hosts’ existence and future was in danger of being wiped out. Language was perverted and turned against the Hosts to turn them into either mindless addicts or Language-less killers. This book, in its main conflict, is the direct descendent of the story of the Tower of Babel. Intellectually, I knew that language and culture mirrors each other such that if one part changes, the other will eventually change as well (or at least I think so, I am in no way well-versed in anthropological linguistics or linguistic anthropology). But this was the first instance in which the theft of the stability of a species’ language, compounded by the fact that they’re unable to recognize any other language other than Language as being a language, meant that their entire society and way of life was undercut and in danger of extinction. They recover, but Language is no longer Language, and the Hosts will never be the same, and will see and understand the world much differently than they have before.

China Miéville’s writing shows that he’s an intelligent person who has a vivid imagination, but sometimes the way in which he describes certain concepts (such as the immer) make me think that even he doesn’t fully understand what he’s trying to say. It’s definitely not “easy” reading, particularly in how the words line up on the page. I have to fight to read the sentences he writes, because it’s all too easy for me to read a page and not absorb a word he wrote.

The really awesome thing about China Miéville’s books is that they’re always different, and this is no exception. This is a science fiction book that actually feels new and different, as does the world and the people living in it. It’s easy in sci-fi books for the aliens to be humanoid duplicates in how they think and operate, and for these advanced, outer space worlds to feel like a 20th or 21st century Earth. Here, it’s millions of years in the future, and that means there are practically no meaningful ties left to that period in Earth’s history. Everything – their system of government, their morals and values – are all different.

So yeah. It’s a cool book, if new and exciting ideas and “what-ifs” are your thing. And if you’re willing to work for you reading experience. Which isn’t a bad thing, but if you don’t want to, you will end up hating it. Still, I’d recommend it.

Disclosure – borrowed

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2 thoughts on “Embassytown by China Miéville

  1. Pingback: 2011 Nebula Award Finalists « Lost in a Good Book

  2. Pingback: 2012 Hugo Award Nominees « Lost in a Good Book

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