Embassytown part 2: The Review
Posted May 25, 2011on:
Embassytown, by China Mieville
published in May, 2011
Where I got it: the library
Why I read it: I is a Mieville fangirl.
This article got way too long, way too fast. and then it got spoilery. And then I edited the crap out of it. So stay tuned for a super spoilery part 3 that talks more about Mieville’s worldbuiling and how truly imaginative this novel is, and possibly a part 4 as well. Embassytown is turning into that kind of book. blame Mieville. it’s his fault.
In the far future, humanity has discovered a not-hyperspace and not-lightspeed style travel (I was temped to liken it to how the Spacing Guild pilots of Herbert’s Dune travel) and we’ve started colonizing both empty and alien planets.
Avice is the narrator of our story, and she is the first admit there is nothing special about her life. A local Embassytown girl who makes good after her 15 minutes of fame, she leaves her home town to explore the world and returns years later, husband in tow, marriage in shambles. Suddenly awkward, Avice is no longer native, but not foreigner either.
A colony of Bremen, on the planet Arieke, Embassytown in a ghetto on the edge of the Ariekei city. There have been occasional whispers of a revolution for independence, but the Embassytowners know they depend on the financial support of Bremen, and the bio-tech support of the Ariekei. Embassytown exists on the sufferance of their Bremen governors and the hospitality of the Ariekei, known colloquially as The Hosts.
It’s not that The Hosts can’t lie per se, it’s that their language has no method for allusion, or metaphor, or reference in general. Their methods of verbal communication refer to the literal only. The humans believe that since they have figured out a way to communicate with the Hosts, that they understand them. The entirety of Embassytown is an unforgiving metaphor of the risks of getting lost in translation.
Mieville’s design of the Ariekei planet is his most imaginative world yet. You know those utterly alien aliens you’ve been looking for in science fiction? This is them. Everything on the planet has evolved symbiotically, leaving the Ariekei no need to develop machine technology. Yes, they have “machines”, but everything they use, eat, and live in is biological, they truly live 100% in harmony with their environment. “Buildings” made of living flesh that’s been bred to grow that way, “roads” that are really kilometers long intestines that push food matter from one area to another, smaller animals that appear to be both pets and sources of battery energy. Mieville does imaginative and weird in a way that no other author comes close to.
As I went into further detail about here , the Ariekei at first proved so hard to communicate with because they have two mouths, and each mouth says a different syllable, at the same time. Regular human conversation registers as nothing but noise to them. Human Ambassadors, genetically bred and pharmaceutically altered, are able to communicate with the Ariekei. But communication doesn’t always equal understanding.
It needs to be said that these Ambassadors are an Embassytown innovation. They would be unable to socially survive anywhere else. And everyone knows it.
When a Bremen supplied Ambassador irrevocably changes the relationship between the Hosts and Embassytown, Avice and her compatriots begin to realize how biologically symbiotic this world is, and how much has truly been lost in translation. Can they survive until the relief ship arrives in a few months to whisk everyone away to safety? If they ditch, if they leave and the colony is closed, the Ariekei will die. Slowly and painfully, and through no fault of their own.
In a style reminiscent of my favorite Mieville novel, The Scar, our narrative starts out simple enough, and with no clue where the story is going. Political machinations cause unintended disasters with seemingly non-involved groups, and the story quickly turns from gentle and easy and interesting to fearful and horrific and bloody, with characters who once hoped for adventure now only hoping for survival.
Far heavier than Mieville’s recent The City and The City, Embassytown feels more like his earlier Bas-Lag novels – strange places, strange creatures, and horrific consequences. Peppered with arcane and obscure words that may send you running for a dictionary, this is a story that sticks with you, be it the surface plot itself, or the metaphors that run in woven layers underneath.
Beyond the odd language choices, the novel is written in first person, through Avice’s eyes. Not only is she indifferent to most politics, but she’s simply not knowledgeable about everything that’s going on. If she doesn’t know how something works, it isn’t explained to the reader. If she is confused, angry, or scared, the sentence structures reflect that. I expect a number of readers to be turned off by many of Mieville’s stylistic choices such as Avice’s assumptions of what the reader already knows, the obscure language use, the odd sentences structures that often sound just fine when read aloud, and simply put, the unmitigated strangeness of everything in Embassytown.
But if you like weird and strange, and aliens who laugh at our attempts to understand them, to humanize them, to sympathize with them – I think Embassytown is for you.