On reading China Mieville
Posted May 24, 2011on:
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.