Saturday, June 11, 2011


Embassytown by China Miéville
Random House, May 2011
Hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345524492
highly recommended

From the cover:
...with Embassytown, Miéville has crafted an extraordinary novel that is not only a moving personal drama but a gripping adventure of alien contact and war.
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.
My Thoughts:
Embassytown by China Miéville is a science fiction novel narrated by character Avice Brenner Cho. The actual titular Embassytown is an outpost located within a city on the planetary home of the indigenous intelligent species called the Ariekei. Humans are unable to live in the planet's toxic atmosphere without the help of the Ariekei's bio-technology. In fact, everything on the planet is based on their living bio-tech. 
The Ariekei themselves have two mouths and use both of them at once to speak. Interestingly, they only speak what is true. Everything has one meaning. They can not lie. They even have a Festival of Lies where they try to tell a lie (after having an Ambassador lie.) The Areikei don't recognize language in most other humans, except the Ambassadors. Ambassadors have been specially bred and are chosen based on their ability to work with their "twin" while both are fitted with technology that allows them to speak in unison. They are the only humans able to speak with the Areikei.
Avice, the narrator, is also unique. She is a simile in the Ariekei language. They had her do a task as a child and she became, in short, "The girl who ate what was given to her."  Since everything in their language is true, they needed her and others to do some task in order to make a comparison. Avice is also able to travel and help pilot ships through the immer, which allows travel to distant worlds and outposts. Avice returns to Embassytown, which is unusual for those who have left, with her husband, Scile.
At the beginning the chapters in Embassytown  switch back and forth from past events to the present. Once the new Ambassador arrives, EzRa, they switch to the present. In fact, EzRa's arrival ends up setting off a whole chain-reaction of conflicts and events which makes Embassytown a science fiction novel full of political intrigue.
But, after saying all of that, Embassytown is, most importantly, a  treatise on the uses of language and communication and their effects on civilization. Even the way Miéville uses word derivations and neologisms, or new words, in the character's language is inventive. (See the quotes below for examples.) He uses language in unique ways while telling a story where language is a key plot element as well as a theme.
To be honest, though, Embassytown is uneven. It is brilliant and original in some places while slow and dull in others. I was about to set it aside, sad that I wasn't enjoying it as much as Miéville's other works, when suddenly the plot took off at a gallop. Then much to my frustration, it once more slowed down before again resuming the quick pace. Even while this was happening, the implications driving the plot make it a most worthwhile novel.
Highly Recommended 


The children of the embassy all saw the boat land. Their teachers and shiftparents had had them painting it for days. One wall of the room had been given over to their ideas. It’s been centuries since any voidcraft vented fire, as they imagined this one doing, but it’s a tradition to represent them with such trails. When I was young, I painted ships the same way. opening

I could see her thinking, You chose, and it was true. I’d been going to leave, until half a year before, until the last miab had descended, with the shocking news of what, who, was on the way. Even then I’d told myself I’d stick to my plan, head into the out when the next relief came. But it was no real revelation to me when at last the yawl had crossed the sky and left it howling, and I’d realised I was going to stay. Scile, my husband, had probably suspected before I did that I would. pg. 5

At this edge of town the angles and piazzas of our home alleys were interrupted by at first a few uncanny geometries of Hosts’ buildings; then more and more, until our own were all replaced. pg. 10

It was a Host. It stepped to the centre of the carpet. I stood immediately, out of the respect I’d been taught and my child’s fear. The Host came forward with its swaying grace, in complicated articulation. It looked at me, I think: I think the constellation of forking skin that was its lustreless eyes regarded me. It extended and reclenched a limb. I thought it was reaching for me. pg. 13

 The indigenes, in whose city we had been graciously allowed to build Embassytown, Hosts were cool, incomprehensible presences. Powers like subaltern gods, which sometimes watched us as if we were interesting, curious dust, which provided our biorigging, and to which the Ambassadors alone spoke. pg. 14

Look instead at a map of he immer. such a big and tidal quiddity. Pull it up, rotate it, check its projections. Examine that light phantom every way you can, and even allowing that it's a flat or trid rendering of a topos that rebels against our own accounting, the situation is visibly different.
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.  pg. 31

What we do, what we can do - immersers - is not just keep ourselves stable, sentient and healthy in the immer... pg. 33

"This is the third universe," I told Scile. "There've been two others before this. Right?" I didn't know how much civilians knew: this stuff had become my common sense. "Each one was born different. It had its own laws - in the first one they reckon light was about twice as fast as it is here now. Each one was born and grew and got old and collapsed. Three different sometimes. But below all that, or around it, or whatever, there's only ever been one immer, one always." pg. 34

Ultimately, as a carta-carrying Embassytown native immerser, crewing and vouching for my fiancé, it only took tenacity to get him the rights to entry, and me to reentry. Scile had been preparing for his work there, reading, listening to recordings, watching what few trids and vids there are. pg. 40

A classic unspoken agreement among escapees from a small town: don't look back, don't be each other's anchors, no nostalgia. pg. 53

"Everything in Language is a true claim. So they need the similes to compare things to, to make true things that aren't there yet, that they need to say." pg. 56

It felt like being a child again, though it was not. Being a child is like nothing. It's only being. Later, when we think about it, we make it into youth. pg. 66


Jeanne said...

Hmm. I have this one on my shelf, but will take your advice about The City and the City first.

samantha.1020 said...

This is an author that I have been wanting to try for some time now. I've even checked out some of his books from the library but have only returned them unread. Soon though...I will actually read one of this books :) Nice review!