“We’ve Been Like Countless Things”: China Miéville’s “Embassytown”

I find myself writing the second review in a week in which I wish to ignore the author. This isn’t especially because I subscribe to Barthesian canards, though in discussing a novel like China Miéville’s Embassytown recourse to a semiotician might not be so very bad an idea. It’s simply that so many other reviews of this and of the novel I wrote about on Wednesday, Great House, will refer to the controversies surrounding their respective writers that, wearily, their identity becomes almost the least interesting thing about their book. (The great absence at the centre of my piece on Great House, of course, was that Nicole Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer – Patrick Ness has summarised my feelings on this ‘issue’ so that I don’t have to.)

Miéville’s mantelpiece strains under the weight of an unprecedented haul of genre awards; Embassytown arrives in a stable already full of some of the finest thoroughbreds the track has seen in the last decade; and, as a longterm fan of his, I could write passably about how this new book resembles The City & The City in form and style more than it does the Bas-Lag trilogy that made his name, despite a return to ‘core genre’ trappings. But the (perhaps enviable) difficulty faced by a book welcomed with such breathless expectation is that it risks being lost in these comparisons and contextualisations. Impossible as it is to separate the novel from these kinds of questions, forgive me for now if I try and decide what sort of a book Embassytown is, rather than what sort of a writer its author might be.

It is, first and foremost, an intellectual pursuit (and, yes, here we might consider, if we were so minded, Miéville’s previous form in using the novel as an engine for an idea): set on a planet at the outer reaches of a future ‘Terran diaspora’, Embassytown is the story of a ghetto-cum-trading-post-cum-consulate, inserted at the edge of a city inhabited by the Ariekei, known as the Hosts by the human interlopers and a species which speaks quite literally with a double tongue. Slyly, this literalness is not matched metaphorically, since the Ariekei are incapable of speaking that which is not – they cannot lie, since for them to speak is to think, and they can no more speak what they do not think than a human can have faith in what they know not to be true.

Two observations about this sleight of hand: first, it is an inversion of the laziest of SF cliches, in which the physical qualities of an alien species are used in some way to signify their moral status in the work’s analogy or social comment; secondly, this encoding in the text of the Hosts’ inability precisely to signify is characteristic of the novel’s extreme subtelty. We might, were we interested here in Miéville’s oeuvre, observe that earlier in his career the criticism most often levelled at his writing was its wildness, its unconstrained insistence upon itself. The Miéville we now read is more controlled, far more ruthless with himself and his language.

This process of self-editing, this consideration of verbiage, may well be what has given rise to a book about language – or, more properly, Language, the capitalised tongue spoken by the Hosts. Language is spoken by two mouths – a Cut and a Turn, to provide their technical descriptors – which humans cannot replicate except by a merciless genetic engineering which bonds test-tube twins as an empathic, double-tongued Ambassador. Ariekei recognise speech only when it is spoken by two voices with a mind behind them – synthesised language is meaningless to them, as is the ‘Anglo-Ubiq’ spoken by the individual humans whom remain unsure that the Hosts recognise them even as sentient. Embassytown thus links language not just to sentience but to will – the Ariekei can only comprehend words like their own which proceed from a directing intelligence. In their inability to lie, however, the Hosts lack what we might think of as the crowning achievement, and the original sin, of such intelligence: invention and imagination.

For instance, Hosts must contrive to place humans in a particular situation if they to be able even to speak of that situation. Thus, the novel’s narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is taken as a child to a room full of Ariekei, where she becomes the girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. She and others – the man who catches fish every week, for example – are entered into Language as similes. “I am like the girl who was hurt and ate what was given her,” a Host might say if just that happened to it. That is, Language does not signify; it refers. Miéville is interested in how language controls thought, and vice versa – about how it holds us back as much as it might enable us to imagine the next place. (Anne at Pornokitsch is particularly good on Embassytown’s moment of revelation.)

Issues of control are especially charged in the complicated colonial relationship Embassytown (the place, not the novel) negotiates: its human inhabitants teach the Hosts how to trade, thus obtaining access to the resources of a planet rich particularly in biotechnology; yet the Ariekei remain, in the superstitious and polite culture of Embassytown, almost god-like in the reverence they are afforded by the humans. When Embassytown’s ruling power, Bremen, dispatches a new kind of Ambassador – one not manufactured on Arieke but compiled on the humans’ distant motherworld – something about how they speak Language ruptures this delicate balance. That Miéville has avoided in the previous pages anything banally analogous to a colonial relationship in our own past enables a series of quite bewildering narrative developments (at times, the reader suspects that this is less a novel and more a masterfully condensed trilogy). He is thus enabled to investigate a whole series of linked questions which would be impossible to juxtapose beyond the confines of a science fiction novel. To be sure, there’s something about Embassytown that gives you the sense you know it, that you’ve read it before – it is avowedly SFnal, to the brink of pulpishness. But Miéville continues to use genre wisely – uses it, as he always has should we care to remember, to refigure and recalibrate ideas and concepts. To posit, that is, new ways of imagining.

Nevertheless, and despite the swift narrative clip Embassytown establishes and maintains throughout, the novel risks becoming unbalanced towards its end, when the linguistics takes a necessary-but-noisy centre-stage. Avice routinely skips through and over time – the first half of the novel is told non-linearly, and its second habitually elides whole episodes – and this permits the novel an awful lot of room to grow almost out of sight, to plant ideas and concepts which feel to the reader to have a life of their own. But these are blotted out as the climax approaches, leaving only the promise of another novel in the series to answer our questions and tilt the uncertainly precarious finale of Embassytown one way or another. In a novel which does so much so elegantly, however, these are brutish complaints: in just 400 generously spaced pages Embassytown gives us interstellar flight (Avice has a brief career as an ‘Immerser’, travelling in the sub-reality shortcuts which connect her universe’s outposts), societal collapse (the passages which deal with the consequences on Ariekei civilisation of the Language spoken by Bremen’s Ambassador are some of the novel’s most memorably horrific), and conceptual transf0rmation (if the Ariekei can develop similes, how might they untether them from their referrents – how might they lie, fabulate, invent?).

Despite – or perhaps because of – this heterodoxy, Embassytown remains very much itself. It is muscular, confident and unusually coherent. It isn’t an homage, or a response, or merely the latest horse to arrive in the paddock. It is Embassytown, by China Miéville, and will require further thought.

4 comments
  1. byfuselage said:

    I have this lined up to read next (after a geeky book about fonts ;)). Really looking forward to it. Always find Mieville’s stuff thought provoking at the very least.

  2. Anne said:

    Thanks for the kind words. It truly is a compliment to be mentioned in such a thoughtful and thorough review.

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