Review of Embassytown by China Miéville
by China Miéville
Some books are just made for readers. Embassytown, with its focus on the way language shapes our perceptions and our thoughts, is one such book. As readers we are conoisseurs of language, we inhale it and revel in it and cultivate it and all of its diversity. Language informs us, sways us, entertains us, engages us … it is everything to us.
Science fiction seems, to me, like a perfect vehicle for exploring our dependence upon language. After all, there has been a great deal of speculation about how we would communicate, if at all, with other intelligent forms of life. Assuming we could recognize that they are intelligent, how do we establish a common frame of reference? It’s not like learning a new human language, where we have common memes and ideas, not to mention a shared neurology and physiology that makes our languages quite similar.
(I’m trying to come up with other examples of fascinating twists on language but drawing a blank on this hot summer day. There’s the episode of TNG featuring a language based entirely on metaphors. Feel free to add more examples in the comments!)
OK, I dug out the fan and am ready to continue.
Basically, Embassytown is about the quixotic relationship between humans and the Arieke, or Hosts. Unlike any other species thus far discovered, the Arieke vocalize out of two holes instead of one. Their simultaneous vocalization forms singular words and phrases—and for the Arieke, Language is literal in the sense that words don’t actually signify anything other than themselves. As a consequence, Arieke cannot lie, because they can only speak of what is. They don’t have the words to do otherwise. To use figurative, comparative language, they need living examples—similes. These are people who do or have done something that can serve as a comparison for the state the Arieke wants to refer to, but that person has to be present when the Arieke wants to make such a statement.
Avice Benner Cho grows up somewhat feral on the streets of Embassytown. When she reaches adulthood, she becomes an immerser—some kind of spaceship pilot or navigator—and leaves the planet behind, returning only at the behest of a man she meets and marries, because he is obsessed with the Hosts and Language. Through Avice we see the complicated relationships between the people of Embassytown, the Staff at the embassy, and the clone Ambassadors who replicate Language as best as humans can. Avice is a simile; she is an outsider; and she is also a native.
I struggled a lot with Embassytown. Newcomers to Miéville might chalk that up to his writing and to the difficulty of understanding what he means as he discusses Language and the ways the Hosts differ from us. I know better, though—it’s not Miéville’s ideas at all that are the problem; they are grand and wonderful and truly thought-provoking at times. No, it’s his characters. At least for me, the problem has and always will be his characters. I don’t know if it existed in Perdido Street Station and I’ve only gradually clued into it, but I noticed it with Bellis in The Scar, and it was far too obvious in Iron Council.
Avice just spends most of the book not doing anything.
She has an interesting, albeit confusing incident at the beginning of the book as a child. Then she skips planet for a few years, growing older, meeting people, returning to Embassytown with Scile in tow. But she’s always on the edge of the story, watching things happen, passive. It annoys me, these sorts of protagonists. I want to run up to them on the street, grab them by their shoulders, and say, “You’re letting the story pass you by! Go do something!”
Eventually, towards the end of the book, Avice takes my advice. She finally clears her head, realizes there is a crisis going on, and develops a plan. It’s a damn fine plan, if I say so myself, and what’s even better is that it works … mostly. Watching Avice step up, take charge, and take the lead was the best part of this book, and it really recharged my flagging interest. I just wish it had happened a lot sooner.
The crisis, by the way, is also quite clever. Somewhat reminiscient of Snow Crash, it involves rendering the Language into a kind of drug that infects the Arieke (not to mention their genetically-engineered technology). This dramatically changes the status quo on the planet in a way not even the instigators of the plot had predicted, destabilizing diplomatic relations and leading to the brink of war—as well as civil war. Avice’s solution involves radical alterations to the way Arieke use Language. It’s revolutionary but necessary.
In this respect it’s obvious that the Arieke are in for a big change as a result of Avice’s interference. Yet I never got a clear sense of what they are leaving behind. Miéville describes the Arieke language and the barriers to communication it creates, but he spends precious little time devoted to descriptions of Arieke culture and society. How are they stratified? What is their history like? Do they have spaceflight of their own? The only cultural event we ever see is the Festival of Lies, and that is an artifact of human–Arieke contact, not something indigenous to them. Without delving deeper into the nature of Arieke society, Miéville’s portrayal of them is little more than the background necessary for flogging his linguistic speculations.
Embassytown has all the makings of a good book, but I just didn’t enjoy it as a story. Miéville is a great storyteller—he knows how to break people down and build them up again; and he can make bad things happen like no one’s business. But in this case, there was nothing here into which I really sank my teeth. Avice was not, for the most part of the book, compelling as a protagonist. None of the minor characters held my attention. So I wandered, bereft of an anchor, through a sea of explanation and exposition about the Arieke and Language. It was like reading an interesting but fictional textbook on an alien culture.
Judging from other reviews, there’s definitely love to be had here if you can rustle up more sympathy for the characters or more interest in what’s happening. I just kind of let it pass me by. I suppose this lack of enthusiasm is what everyone who regularly does not enjoy China Miéville books feels. There were good moments, exciting moments, but for the most part Embassytown read somewhat like the Language it’s about: words without a lot of meaning.