the Little Red Reviewer

On reading China Mieville

Posted on: May 24, 2011

I’m about ⅔ of the way through China Mieville’s newest novel Embassytown, and although I truly haven’t a clue how this book will end, I feel the need to talk about the way this book is written, and Mieville’s writing style in general. That way, my review of Embassytown can actually focus on the wonderfulness that is the book, instead of the everything else.

Over the years I’ve heard fans and critics alike describe Mieville’s habit of using 50-cent and sometimes overly obscure words in his novels as a not-so-subtle “fuck you, ignorant uneducated peasant”. His word choice has caused many a reader (myself included) to wonder if some of these are real words used for  cultural effect, or made up words, also used for cultural effect. It’s narrative interruptus until a dictionary is found. But for once, I choose to be the optimist.  I choose to believe Mieville’s not-so-subtle message is one telling me that having a dictionary at hand will only add to my literary experience, not detract from it.  I choose to believe that he’s saying “don’t know what this word means? the only thing stopping you from grabbing a dictionary is you”.    Enticing me, inviting me, seducing me into learning,  into building my own confidence? China Mieville, you are one brilliant fucking bastard.

Isn’t this one of the reasons we read science fiction, because we are nearly addicted to the new, the strange, the unusual, the unbelievable, the unknowable and impossible? And what could be more wonderful, new, or strange than a pattern of words you’ve never seen before, to describe something completely impossible?  I choose to see words I don’t know as just another opportunity for new and unusual and unexpected.  It’s almost like learning a new song, or a new chord on guitar, or singing in a harmony you’ve never tried before.  Something new and wonderful that only enriches your experience.

My spine tingles just thinking about it.

I’m making Embassytown sound like it’s impossible to understand for the average reader. Not true. Sans dictionary you can, and you will contextually figure absolutely everything out.  If you’re reading fast enough, your brain will do the contextual figuring out for you, and you won’t even notice.  And for fuck’s sake this is a story about language with a capitol L, the entire book is about layers upon layers of communication! About comparison, about knowledge!!

Speaking of  communication  and music, here’s a little Embassytown spoiler for you:  The natives of the alien planet have two mouths. And they speak with both of them, at the same time, speaking different syllables from each mouth. In a sort of harmony.  When humans first arrived on the planet, we couldn’t figure out how to communicate with them, because the aliens, the Ariekei, didn’t hear a single voice as Language. A single voice didn’t signify as anything but noise to them.   Such a cacophony of sound, different words coming out of their two mouths at the same time? How could a human listener ever understand this? They speak in harmony but not rhyme, almost like two kids singing a folk song in a round, except each child is singing a completely different song.

It reminded me of a game we used to play at summer camp when I was a kid. One person would leave the room. The remainder of the children chose a two syllable word (seven, mermaid, keychain, doorknob) and split into two groups, each group choosing one syllable, whispering all the time so the person waiting down the hall couldn’t hear.  The missing person would return to the room, only to hear, on the count of three, two teams saying two different syllables at the same exact time. They had three chances to guess the word we were trying to say.  Much laughter ensued, and I recall the guesses were correct about half the time.  That is how the Ariekei speak. All the time.  And they don’t understand us unless we speak the same way back.

Embassytown feels a little like practicing just the first page of a Chopin for an hour straight, in the hopes I can play it without a mistake.  It gets much easier as you go, the first 10 minutes are an intimidating fearful torture, but after that you gain confidence, figure out the pattern, what the hell is going on.  And then suddenly, without warning,  feeling better for it, feeling enriched for it.  Feeling the power of what a book filled with beautiful words, almost to the point of illumination, can do.

and with that, imma gonna go finish me some Embassytown.

Dude, what’s with all the swear words?  Embassytown ain’t for kids, yo.

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18 Responses to "On reading China Mieville"

I suspect it’s easier to read Mieville when you’re not a native speaker – I’m used to not understanding all of the words so I don’t sweat it. But I agree, it really is a lot like practicing an instrument, and if your heart’s not really in it, it’s often easier to just give up. It’s nice to see that you plan to read Embassytown despite everything. :)

I listened to the audiobook of “Kraken” last year and it was easily my favorite book of the year. The way he puts sentences together — coupled with the way he doesn’t rely on standard tropes to move his plots along. Just wonderful.

I’m reading “The City & The City” right now and will certainly read “Embassytown” later this year. I want to parse out these books so that I don’t devour them all at once!

I haven’t had much success with Mieville…yet. I started reading Un Lun Dun back when it first came out and I felt like I was reading a book co-written by one author who was very talented and one who didn’t understand basic grammar. Sometimes paragraph to paragraph it would go from brilliant to awful. I finally gave up in frustration. A couple years ago I started listening to the audio of The City & The City and was really enjoying it. I wasn’t sensing those issues I had with Un Lun Dun. It was a new book though and the library wouldn’t renew it because of holds and I just turned it back in and haven’t gotten back to it. I am really wanting to read Kraken because it sounds so interesting, but my motivation to do so is dampened somewhat by my previous experiences, by some of the same stuff you are saying, and to a much smaller degree by some of the interviews of him that I’ve read that don’t make me feel favorable towards him.

Carl, I suddenly wonder if Mieville style of putting sentences together works better as an audio than written? I’ve noticed with a few chunks of Embassytown, that when I read the sentence or paragraph out loud, it makes much more sense than when simply read.

I thought City and The City was just Okay, and I haven’t Kraken yet.

I’m oddly entertained by the fact that things that I think are huge positives about Mieville, so many others see as negatives.

I guess I just don’t the issues some people seem to have with the advanced vocabulary used in this book. Yeah, I didn’t know every single word given in here, but how is that a new thing? Everyone complained when Stephen R. Donaldson did it back in 1977. Gene Wolfe does it all the time. Steven Erikson on occasion. The other common complaint I’ve seen on this book is that the reader gets dropped in the proverbial deep end without any explanations. But so what? Other great authors do the same thing.

This is the first (and so far only) Miéville I’ve ever read, so maybe I’m missing something, but I had zero complaints about this book. I loved every word of it.

Totally!! This is something Gene Wolfe gets away with constantly. . . making the books read more like literature than *gasp* genre lit!

Embassytown was your first Mieville? you may have spoiled yourself forever!

The thing I’ve discovered that I love best about reading on a Kindle is my ability to put the cursor near the word and have it give me a definition instantly. Coolest thing ever.

That said, I actually really, really enjoy having authors use new words for me (in moderation). I appreciate learning a few new words, rather than being inundated with half-recollected SAT words.

Completely loved reading this post. I am a HUGE fan of this author, and am slowly making my way through this book (slowly, because I want to make sure I’m getting everything…. I usually gulp down his books).
And — you so eloquently put it —
“Embassytown feels a little like practicing just the first page of a Chopin for an hour straight, in the hopes I can play it without a mistake. It gets much easier as you go, the first 10 minutes are an intimidating fearful torture, but after that you gain confidence, figure out the pattern, what the hell is going on. ” YES. Reminds me of working my through Revolutionary Waltz years ago. Also reminds me …. I need to dust off some Chopin.

Thanks for the great post.

Agree with Trin. English is a foreign language for me. Usually when I encounter a word I don’t immediately understand I just file it away in my mind and hope that I will discover the meaning from context. I’m very rarely using a dictionary. It’s a little like reading science fiction actually — you encounter new and strange things, and you have to accept them and get to know them through the narration of the story.

But some of the invented words in this novel are derived from German, so I was helped this time by knowing a bit of that language.

Erin – lol, that is cheating! but i’m no different, I’m sitting here with dictionary.com open. ;)

Jo – someone who gets my mutilated metaphors, alright! And Revolutionary is my favorite Chopin! I haven’t found sheet music for it yet, and honestly, I’m a little afraid to. That opening almost glissando type thing sounds like it looks awful on the page. I can do a decent Raindrops tho.

aka – exactly like reading SF! and why I love SF. Understanding comes through the entire narrative, not just through a single sentence or word. Thanks for visiting!

Now I love me some Gene Wolfe, but I never feel like he is just putting in big words to be all high-falutin’. I’m not saying Mieville does this either. I haven’t finished any of his books yet to make that kind of judgment, but I’ve read stories by authors, more often short stories, where it feels like the word usage is more of a gimmick than it is their natural way of communicating.

[...] Manga/Graphic Novels On reading China Mieville [...]

[...] post will make much more sense if you read my other Embassytown posts, On Reading China Mieville and the Embassytown [...]

I just bought The City and the City. Is that a good place to start? It was the only one in stock at my local indie.

Hi John, The City and The City is a great place to start. it’s probably Mieville’s most mainstream book. Sure, it’s wonderfully weird, but everything else he writes is weirder.

i really need to get Kraken one of these days. . . .

[...] extra treat for me was being able to read Little Red Reviewer’s three posts about Embassytown. She does a much better job at describing the book than I do. Eco World [...]

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About this redhead, etc.

Redhead is a snarky, non-politically correct 30-something who reviews mostly science fiction and fantasy and talks about all sorts of other fun scifi and fantasy geekery. She once wrote a haiku that included the word triskaidekaphobia.

This blog contains adult language and strong opinions. The best way to contact her outside of this blog is twitter, where she is @redhead5318 .

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