Author: China Miéville
Published: 2011 by Pan Macmillan
Genre: science fiction, space opera
Source: Copy received from publisher for review
My Rating: 9/10
China Miéville said that he wanted to write a book in every genre. Embassytown (2011) is his experiment in science fiction, and more specifically, in space opera. And oh, what a beautiful piece of science fiction it is – elegant, cerebral, audacious. Sf might be the genre of ideas, but many of those once outlandish things have become tropes of the genre, as common and clichéd as love triangles or dark and stormy nights. It’s wonderful then, to read a novel like Embassytown, proving that sf can still push the limits. Not that Miéville ever disappoints in that department.
His space opera is less about exploring the universe than about using the possibilities of an infinite universe to explore ideas about language and communication. In the novel, Embassytown is a relatively small, parochial town on the planet Arieka, at the very edge of the known universe. There’s only one Embassy in town, and its function is communication with the Ariekei, the large insectoid aliens of the planet. The Ariekei (also known as ‘Hosts’) speak Language – yes, that’s language with a capital ‘L’, because it’s unlike any other in the universe. The only humans capable of speaking with them are the Ambassadors, who are specially bred and trained from birth for this purpose.
But then an “impossible” new Ambassador arrives from off-world, and the Ariekei react to his speech as though it were a powerful drug. Addiction spreads through both the Ariekei population and their biotechnology (‘biorigging’), dismantling the entire social and political system. It threatens not only the existence of the Ariekei, but also the humans of Embassytown who depend on Ariekene biorigging to survive on the planet.
Recording this momentous time in Ariekei and Embassytown history is Avice Benner Cho. Possessing an innate talent for immersion (space navigation), Avice left the backwater that is Embassytown for more exciting prospects. She returned only at the request of her husband Scile, a scholar fascinated by Language. Avice’s off-world experience gives her some influence within the Embassy, but she’s also important to the Ariekei, because when she was a child they made her a part of Language.
Miéville’s world-building in this novel is superb because he’s created something very alien. It’s hard to grasp at first, but that strangeness is part of what makes the novel so fascinating. You feel like you’re literally exploring the unknown:
Had I ship-hopped in other directions, I could have gone to regions of immer and everyday where Bremen was the fable. People get lost in the overlapping sets of knownspace. Those who serve on exot vessels, who learn to withstand the strange strains of their propulsion—of swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech—go even farther with less predictable trajectories, and become even more lost. It’s been this way for megahours, since women and men found the immer and we became Homo diaspora. (p.50)
‘Knownspace’, ‘exot’, ‘bansheetech’, ‘Homo diaspora’ – once again Miéville plays around with language, inventing and repurposing words for his world (he also has a tendency to use words described as ‘literary’ or ‘formal’ so keep a good dictionary handy). Some are easy to figure out; others escape understanding. I’m still not sure what the ‘immer’ is (hyperspace?) except as a vague idea that it’s some dimension of space and ships travel in it. But not being able to understand it is the point. According to Avice, only the few people capable of immersing know what the immer is. It’s impossible to describe:
The immer’s reaches don’t correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on. (p.31)
It makes sense for this to be beyond understanding as well – having never travelled through space, encountered aliens, or lived on other planets, why should we be able to ease into this world with comfortable familiarity?
Not only is space conceived differently, but time, social structures and religion as well. Avice has the bad habit of giving her age in years, when she should be using subjective kilohours. But the years she uses aren’t Earth years anyway (at 11 she’s into her fourth marriage). Children are raised in communal nurseries by ‘shiftparents’. Avice has had two husbands and a wife, and her marriage to her fourth husband, Scile is registered as a “nonconnubial love-match” (p.40) because the couple soon found that they didn’t enjoy having sex with each other and would rather have it with other people. Christianity has survived in the worship of Christ Pharotekton.
Any one of these ideas could generate enough content for a whole novel, but Miéville uses them as the detailed backdrop for a more unusual story about language. Unlike every other known language, the Ariekei’s Language is not an arbitrary system of signs: in Language, “Words don’t signify: they are their referents” (p.80). I’ll explain – if I say or write the word ‘red’, it’s the sequence of sounds or letters that communicate the idea of the colour to you. But the sounds and letters have nothing to do with the colour itself. It’s only because we both use a traditional system of signs (English) that those sounds and letters are linked to the concept. The sounds and letters are interchangeable, as long as they’re part of a system, which is why we can have many different languages and alphabets.
In Language however, the word for red is synonymous with the colour itself. In Language, “each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for the word can be seen” (p.55).
These ideas about language are the basis of the linguistic theory I studied in literary theory classes at varsity. The novel certainly isn’t reserved for those who’ve studied linguistics, but going over the basics (I re-read a few chapters of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916)) really helped me appreciate these ideas more. The Hosts’ Language differs fundamentally from everything we understand about language, and Miéville explores the implications of that.
The Hosts can’t lie. Because their words are linked to reality, they can’t say anything that contradicts reality. Because they can’t lie, they can’t use metaphors, as metaphors are essentially lies, saying that one thing is another. They can use similes, but they have to ‘create’ them first. In order to say “We are like the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her” they must first hurt a girl in the dark and give her something which she then eats. As a child Avice performed this particular simile for them and so become part of Language. The Hosts ‘speak’ her, and by becoming a simile she makes it possible for them to say and think things that were inaccessible to them before.
Clearly, Language both enables and impedes thought and communication. With no metaphors and only limited similes, the Hosts can’t think about things in non-literal ways. Because their words aren’t arbitrary, aren’t interchangeable, they cannot learn any other languages, cannot even imagine other languages. For them, thought is impossible without Language, and they can’t conceive of those who don’t speak it as being sentient. Another quirk is that they speak using two voices that utter different words simultaneously. To be able to speak Language, the Ambassadors, therefore, are pairs of clones (doppels) who have been trained from birth to speak as if they are one person. They have names like CalVin (ie. Cal and Vin), MaBel, MagDa. The novel twists grammar a little to accommodate them – CalVin is not a ‘he’ but a ‘they’.
Then EzRa comes – the “impossible” Ambassador (I won’t say why). Technically, EzRa should be unable to speak to the Ariekei, but somehow they can. This impossibility enthrals the Ariekei, and that’s why his speech is like a drug – the Ariekei’s minds and bodies are overcome by an experience that they should not be able to experience at all. EzRa becomes a “god-drug”, a literal opiate of the masses as the Ariekei seek out his voice in desperate droves, abandoning all other activities.
It’s a pretty damning concept of religion. There are lots of other religious ideas and references in the novel. Some humans see Language as a pure, prelapsarian language, because words and meanings are indivisible, and the Ariekei are unable to lie. A few do try to lie, with great difficulty, and some humans are appalled by this – they think that if the Ariekei actually learnt to lie, they would parallel the Fall of Man by introducing deception to their race.
One idea I really liked is how this god-figure is a manifestation of the impossible – is that perhaps why gods are so alluring, why people are always looking for one? At any rate, impossibility is certainly part of the allure of sci fi and Embassytown is full of impossibilities; it’s part of what makes it such an amazing novel. The Ariekei’s biorigging, the Ambassador EzRa, his ability to speak Language, even Language itself – all these things are described as impossible at some point, yet they defy such limitations by their very existence. Even the resolution of the novel’s greatest conflict depends on defying the limits of possibility. And this is what sci fi, as a genre, should ideally strive for – to push beyond what we think we know, what we think we can do. That’s when it’s most exciting.
Although Embassytown is mostly slow-moving, requires patience and attention, and feels fairly academic at times, it’s a fascinating and rewarding read. Avice is a strong character and a well-placed narrator who also reflects on the way in which she is telling the story. She eventually beings this mostly quiet, contemplative narrative to an epic climax that, to my surprise, actually had me on edge. What I got in Embassytown then, was almost everything I value in a novel – interesting ideas, a good story, riveting tension. Perhaps it’s only flaw is that the story isn’t quite as strong and impressive as some of Miéville’s earlier work, specifically Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002). Not that that really matters – it’s still a top class novel that any fan of science fiction or literary fiction should pick up.