the Little Red Reviewer

Let’s talk Language, Communication, Miscommunication, and Mieville’s Embassytown

Posted on: May 19, 2019

On a lark, I picked up China Mieville’s Embassytown to reread.  I read this back when it came out in 2011, and it blew my mind. (I even wrote a pretty good review!) I remember being intimidated by the vocabulary, of having open while I was reading. I remember that at the time I wondered if half the words were made up, or if Mieville was trying to prove that he was smart and I was dumb.  I was the girl who read what was given to her.  Maybe Mieville was just telling me to pick up a damn dictionary already.


On this reread, pen in hand, I decided to underline every word I didn’t know.  I underlined maybe five words? All of which I could figure out contextually. That girl, the one who got all defensive because she ran into words she didn’t know? Eight years later that girl is a stranger to me.  These days, words I don’t know are like eating a fruit i’ve never had, or a dessert i’ve never heard of, or gaining access to the rare book room at the library. They are a joy.


Speaking of weird words I don’t know Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun tasted like mochi and illuminated manuscripts .  To put that in context, the first time I tasted Mochi I cried with joy.

(Words you don’t know is like rehearsing with a jam band. You want to be the worst musician in the room, because that guarantees you’ll learn from the other musicians. Being the best musician in a jam band is boring – you risk not becoming a better musician)


I can’t talk about Embassytown without talking about language, and how spoken communication is both more and less about the actual words that come out of our mouths.  My fave subgenre of scifi is books that deal with language, linguistics, first contact, communication. I hate the word “communication”, it is such a bland, cheap sounding word for something that encompasses basically everything.


This post  has minor and major spoilers for Embassytown. Consider yourself warned.  But like any Mieville book, i can tell you what happens at the end, and it won’t spoil any of the good parts of the book for you.


In the book Embassytown, the aliens, the Ariekei, speak with two mouths, two voices at once.  If what they are saying is two syllables, they say both syllables at the same time. The way this is presented within in the text fantastic, it looks something like this:



It takes two humans, speaking at the same time, to speak in Language that the aliens will understand.   One human talking just sounds like white noise to them. They hear sound (maybe?) but the sounds are just noise.

(spoilers, and hella cool conversation on language ahead!)


Spoiler:  the Ariekei have no way of communicating something that isn’t true. Their verbal communications are all literal truth.  They require the intervention of humans to allow them to create similes in their Language. They have no concept of metaphor.  The main character in Embassytown, Avice (lolz, her full name is Avice Benner Cho. . . ABC, the first thing children learn in regards to written language!), is one of those humans chosen to be a literal simile. She was the girl who ate what was given to her.  Whenever an Ariekei wants to say “I am like the girl who ate what was given to her”, they are speaking Avice. The humans have no idea what the phrase “the girl who ate what was given to her” means.

The Ariekei also have no non-verbal communication. They don’t gesture. They don’t point, they don’t shrug their shoulders, they don’t roll their eyes.  The concept simply didn’t exist for them, and thus far it hadn’t  been needed, so there was no need to create/invent it.


No concept of metaphor, no non-verbal communication.  No theater, no mythology, no love poems dripping with metaphor, no clowning around, no physical humor. What does story telling or comedy look like when you don’t have a concept of metaphor or non-verbal communication?


Spoiler:  the humans accidentally do something really really stupid (it’d be fun, they said!), and the only way the aliens can survive the thing is if they deafen themselves.


Major Spoiler: Their Language has no method for non-verbal communication, and now large groups of them are deaf.  They deaf ones invent gesturing and pointing. They invent non-verbal communication that signifies. At the same time, other Ariekei gain a small understanding of metaphor: how to tell the truth by lying.


The discovery of non-verbal communication and metaphor drastic change utterly breaks how the aliens view the world, and how they view humans.


It breaks the Ariekei.  The limits they had on how to communicate were shattered.


Us humans, and our stupid hubris.  Did we break the Ariekei, or have we opened a whole new world for them?   Or both?  did we hurt them or help them?


(there is an entire ‘nother blog post about other languages, cultures, religions, and ways of thinking  that were “broken” or “broken open” thanks to, well, paradigm shifts and all sorts of other things. But that’s another panel)


More fun stuff to think about, because I freakin’ love language: we use similes and metaphors every day in regular conversation, more than we even realize.  Comparing one thing to another is an underlying method of how one human fully communicates with another. How limited would your everyday communication be if you couldn’t use similes or metaphors?    


Have you ever watched a young child learn how metaphors work, and get really confused by them?  I remember being that high school literature class kid who took metaphors literally, and just didn’t get it. And that taking them literally was (and still is) a fun exercise unto itself.


So yeah, language, and how we use a lie/comparison to express a truth that we don’t quite have the words for is hella fun.


If any of this sounded interesting to you, here are the recommendations I posted on twitter the other day:


For fun with how language affects the way we think and form our worldviews:

Babel-17 by Samuel Delany

“The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (this became the movie Arrival)

“The Prison House of Language” by Elana Gomel  Apex Issue 118

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (one of my fave lines is “All communication is manipulation”

Embassytown by China Mieville


For fun with human’s limitless hubris in thinking we understand aliens (or animals) just because they can speak a few words in our language:

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

Blindsight by Peter Watts


For fun with “is this a metaphor or is this literal, and does it matter?”, try

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne Valente

Starship and Haiku by Somtow Sucharitkul


And for fun with comparing everyday language to computer programming try

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (it’s a subtle connection, but it is there!)

And if you have any recommendations on some non-fiction texts that can improve my vocabulary on talking about “how and why language and communication work”, I’d love to hear them.  I’d like to be able to say something more intelligent than “this is so cool!!”


8 Responses to "Let’s talk Language, Communication, Miscommunication, and Mieville’s Embassytown"

What a great review!


thank you! and thanks for checking out my blog! 🙂


Yes!! This is a kickass post! 😀
I remember reading your posts about Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and loving them for the ‘new words encountered’ bits (I’m actually interested in reading Gene Wolfe now because of those posts – he’s always been a super-intimidating author for me).
Thank you for all the recommendations too – I shall investigate those titles. I don’t know if you’re as interested in novels that make up their own slang/language to convey a sense of how society has changed? but I’m pretty keen on this type of book too(Random Acts of Senseless Violence and The Country of Ice Cream Star being two of my favourites in this sub-sub-category).
Did I tell you how awesome I think this post is? It’s awesome!! 😀 😀


thanks! this post was a ton of fun to write!

and yes! I am interested in books that make up their own slang and have words that show how society has changed. I love it when authors do that, the slang becomes part of the worldbuilding! who are the authors of the titles you mentioned?

Gene Wolfe stuff looks all intimidating, and he likes to play tricks on readers, but much of what I’ve read of his was easy to get into. If Stand alone’s of his that I recommend are The Sorceror’s House, and A Borrowed Man. if you enjoy either of those novels, you’ll do great with Book of the New Sun, or you can jump right in at BoTNS too! He has a million books and short stories that I haven’t read too!

the thing with Wolfe is that he is not going to tell you what is going on, and you’ve got to be OK with that. You’ve got to be OK that reading his stuff is like playing chess – that you only get better by having a more talented player kick your ass. His books get more fun and satisfying the more you reread them.

Liked by 1 person

Cool! You make Wolfe sound much more approachable. I love having to work out what’s going on, like when an author is setting out a puzzle for you almost, so maybe he’ll be a whole lot more fun than I’m expecting. Thank you! 🙂
In answer to your question: Random Acts of Senseless Violence is by Jack Womack and The Country of Ice Cream Star is by Sandra Newman. If I had to pick just one of these two for you, I’d pick Womack. I think you’d like Womack. 🙂

Liked by 2 people

Awesome review. I have been meaning to read this.

Liked by 1 person

thank you! it was a lot of fun to write.

Liked by 1 person

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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