Thursday, 21 June 2012

Embassytown - Book Review

 Embassytown has just won the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. In his thank you message, China Miéville described the book as a homage to some of the science fiction authors he grew up with and was influenced by, including Ursula le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Gene Wolfe, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, and Joanna Russ. This is quite a lot for Embassytown to live up to, but thankfully, it really does. (And I say that as a complete unashamed fangirl of Ursula le Guin, whose review was one of the main reasons I decided to read the book.)

Embassytown, by China Miéville, is a science fiction story about human interaction with an alien race called the Ariekei, whose Language (capitalised here on purpose, as it is in the book) is very different from any human language. The Ariekei, “insect horse coral fan things,” speak with two mouths but one consciousness, and they cannot lie. In fact, they cannot speak in, or seemingly even perceive of, abstractions. This makes communication extremely difficult, sometimes all but impossible. Only specific humans – the Ambassadors – can speak Language, and so all interaction with the Ariekei must go through them. One day, sent by Embassytown’s suspicious mother-planet, a strange and impossible new Ambassador arrives to speak to the gathered Ariekei diplomats. The consequences are unexpected, and devastating.

This is a book about language and its complexities, but also about the disturbing and shattering effects one society can have on another, the clash of two very different cultures, imperialism and power politics, and a colony struggling to find its independence. Finally, it is about the breakdown of the Ariekei culture, the attempts of the humans to prevent this for various reasons of their own, the Ariekei struggle to change their often simplistic worldview in an ever-increasingly complicated world, and the resulting mix of triumph, understanding and lost innocence this brings. However, it seems some readers have fixated a little too much on what the book’s Big Message might be, forgetting that it is also (and first and foremost) a truly fantastic, gripping and emotional story. By the end I had been taken on such a spiralling journey of shifting sympathies that I felt exhausted. But in a good way. The ‘can’t put down, staying up all night to see what happens’ kind of exhausted that only comes with a really compelling read. This is easily the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Swallowed a Thesaurus: China Miéville’s Style

Anyone familiar with China Miéville knows that he can be quite... difficult, to read. His style is very descriptive and wordy (long, dictionary-demanding wordy), and often quite poetic. Some might want to call it ‘high brow’ or ‘literary.’ Others have called it pretentious. I sympathise, but I don’t agree. I think it’s beautiful and a real pleasure to read. It seems absurd to label ‘difficult’ language as pretentious when it is used so capably and artfully, and when it complements the theme of the story so well. Perhaps it’s not a style for every book, but it’s perfect here. This swallowed-a-thesaurus wordiness is also quite essential to stories of the Weird or New Weird (no, I don’t really know what New Weird is either. Does anyone?). An obscure or antiquated word can conjure up feelings and associations that a more obvious choice would not. Certain authors will play with language in this way, and it is part of the joy of reading them.

A dictionary won’t always help, either. There are many sci-fi terms and neologisms in the story (China Miéville is so famous for baffling readers with these that they are sometimes referred to as Chinaisms). Some hate these; I love them. I always prefer science-fiction and fantasy authors to refrain from explaining their fictional words, ideas, or rules (this is different when it comes to historical or other real-world settings, when readers do sometimes need some help). I like to be confused for awhile, to let the story tell itself naturally and for meaning and understanding to dawn upon greater immersion in the world. You won’t find any info-dumps in this story.

The Story

The book has a somewhat slow beginning that needs sticking with before the story really kicks in. The narrator comes across as oddly flat at first (perhaps a little too androgynous), and alternating past and present chapters can be off-putting for some readers. But really, stick with it; it’s worth it. It doesn’t take long before the story begins to flow a little more naturally, and both flashback and present-day chapters grow equally tense. The pacing after this is perfect; the story grabbed me and didn’t let go until the end.

I was surprised by how well the author managed to manipulate my emotions throughout. At first I was very suspicious and apprehensive of the Ariekei Surl Tesh Echer, feeling a sense of growing menace in its attempts to learn how to lie. What would happen if the Ariekei did learn how to lie? Would they become aggressive? Would their society be destroyed forever? How would it affect the humans? I was disturbed, and thought I knew which direction disaster was heading from. I was completely wrong. Soon, I felt terribly, desperately sad for Surl Tesh Echer and its companions (and a little guilty for being afraid of it). Later I would sympathise most with another of the Ariekei, Spanish Dancer (its human nickname), and this became my favourite character of the book. To explain more would be to give away spoilers, so I will just say that the author managed to surprise me with most of the plot’s twists and turns, with some genuinely unexpected events and consequences. The exception was the ‘revelation’ towards the end concerning the Ariekei and the humans’ solution to their problem, which had become rather obvious some time ago. However, the ending of the book was immensely satisfying.

The Girl who Accepted What the Author Told Her and Enjoyed the Story Anyway: The Ariekei Language and Similes

I can’t leave this review without mentioning the idea of the Ariekei Language and what it means to the story. Some reviewers have criticised this, finding it to be an unforgivable fault of a story that bases itself on the theme of language. This is because the Ariekei Language is implausible, and most likely could never actually exist. The Ariekei have no symbolic language and cannot use abstractions. For instance, they cannot say ‘that cup’; they would have to say ‘the red cup beside the book on the table’ or ‘the cup next to you.’ Of course, that’s an oversimplification, as they would have the same issues with ‘table’ ‘book’ and ‘you,’ and so further clarification would be necessary. I don’t even want to imagine how convoluted that could get. But, worse, isn’t language itself a form of abstract thinking? How is it possible for language to exist without abstraction, metaphor, or symbols? The Ariekei have similes, but only as long as the simile has physically existed (i.e. it is literally true). Avice herself (Avice Benner Cho, or, ABC) is a simile: she is ‘the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her.’ Yes, that’s as weird as it sounds. The Ariekei themselves set up this particular simile, giving the humans a precise list of exactly what should happen to Avice. How exactly could the Ariekei plan this, if they cannot conceive of things that have not happened? In fact, how can they plan anything? How can they think about the future, or create, or invent?

Well, first, I’m pretty sure the author knows that his premise is improbable:

“Does it ever occur to you that this language is impossible, Avice?" he said. "Im,
poss, ih, bul. It makes no sense. They don't have polysemy. Words don't signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language? How do their numbers work? It makes no sense.”

Second, is this really a problem? Perhaps. But only to the extent that FTL is a problem, or time-travel, or any other alien species with unlikely language traits (Star Trek: Next Generation I’m looking at you – how could a species possibly speak only in metaphor? It’s even more problematic than the Ariekei). This rule that all technology and alien species must be scientifically plausible and logical is limited to hard science fiction, and is one of the reasons I tend to dislike hard science fiction. For me, it’s not the ‘thing’ that matters, but the consequences of the ‘thing’: how it affects society, how people deal with it, what it means and how it relates to being human. For instance, in this story, Language is a huge part of Ariekei culture (well, in fact it is Ariekei culture), meaning that its limitations and its loss are the limitations and loss of the Ariekei culture. When the Ariekei begin to change in order to adapt to human interference, there are many who want to stop them. For some of the Ambassadors this is because they are afraid of losing power and influence. For Scile, it is a matter of preserving the ‘pure’ and uncorrupted culture of an alien species. Both come at the expense of the Ariekei’s own wishes, of their need and desire to change. The real strength of the book is that it does not condemn the Ariekei for changing, but it also does acknowledge a deep sense of sadness in this, the loss of their old culture and innocence (you can also read the book as a ‘Fall story’ – like all good science fiction, it has many possible interpretations).

Besides, are the Ariekei really incapable of abstract thought as everyone supposes? Have they actually been closer to lying than they themselves realised? Is something else going on? What would it mean to a mind that does not understand lying to suddenly find itself speaking in metaphor, rather like a human who thought themselves incapable of contemplating eternity suddenly having to face it? When you find yourself lost in these kinds of thoughts days after finishing a book, you know that it has had a strong and permanent effect on you.


This is exactly how I like my science fiction. It’s clever and thought-provoking as well as truly gripping, and it really made me feel for the characters involved. There’s a lot more I’d like to say about it (I could probably discuss the themes in it for weeks), but I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone else. This is one of those stories that each reader needs to draw their own conclusions from. It’s a book that will stay with you for a very long time after reading it.

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