China Miéville, “Embassytown” (2011) – I’m probably going to do a video on this! With a special guest star, as part of a new thing I’m doing. But I still figured I’d give a review.
China Miéville seems like a pretty cool type, genuinely committed to both genre fiction and to revolutionary socialism. In “Embassytown,” he does more or less straight up scifi! Though of course, Miéville seems the type to dislike having the phrase “straight up” ascribed to his writings, and there’s more than a little horror in here as well. In humanity’s future amongst the far-flung stars, there’s a settlement called Embassytown! It’s a little human spot on a planet dominated by a species they call the Ariekei, or the Hosts. In classic Miéville style, the author enumerates their many gross-sounding features but does not give a clear picture of what they look like. Roughly deer-like moss-bugs with coral extrusions that hold their eyes, multiple pairs of wings that are actually ears and/or arms, two mouths, various slimes, you get the picture. The Ariekei and the humans live more or less peaceably, with the humans sticking to the town with its breathable air and trading stuff back and forth, mostly goods the Ariekei biologically engineer.
The Ariekei speak a language, or rather, Language. It has two important features: first, they talk it out of both mouths at the same time, with said mouths each making different noises to make one word, and second, they can’t lie. Speech is thought for them, and vice versa, and they can only think/speak stuff that actually is. They have no word for “that,” for instance, just ways to specify what thing they are talking about. This creates communications problems! They couldn’t communicate with humans at all until the human started breeding people as twins of such a high empathy that they basically think the same thoughts? Or something? And can speak sufficiently in tandem to speak Language. Then, the Ariekei can understand. These twin pairs are called Ambassadors, and they and their handlers more or less run the human show on Embassytown, though a vaguely Hanseatic-themed human confederation technically has it as a colony.
Woof! All this happened in the past of the novel. In the present day, Avice is a child of human settlers who grows up on Embassytown and goes on to become an “Immerser,” which is to say, she can navigate the eerie nether space that is Miéville’s way of getting around the light barrier. She comes back with a linguist husband named Scile (who she doesn’t sleep with?) who is intrigued, naturally, by Language. Avice is also a simile in Language. In order to do similes, the Ariekei need for the thing they’re invoking to actually happen. So, using a human intermediary, they draft the child Avice to do a thing. She didn’t like it, which probably has to do with why she went out to space. But she returns to Embassytown just in time for a power play- the metropole sends a new type of Ambassador. They’re not twins! Just two guys! But it turns out that their Language is such hot shit that the Ariekei get addicted to it! Fuck!
I’m being a little facetious in my descriptions, as I seemingly can’t help but be with Miéville’s flashily “subversive” cleverness, but it’s a cool idea and it works well. It also ends a long middle period where the book wanders a little, as Avice slowly describes herself getting enmeshed in weird power/Language politics, with Ariekei who try to learn to lie, with other simile-children, with her husband and his increasingly unfortunate ideas about it all. But shit kicks off once the Ariekei get a load of EzRa (the Ambassadors all have names that are names that are also combos of names or at least nicknames- CalVin, DalTon, MagDa, etc). They quickly need to hear EzRa (who I don’t imagine as my friend Ezra, he’s a lot cooler) to function. And then they build up tolerance. And then EzRa refuses to fully cooperate with the other humans, because they’re fucked up and like being, as Miéville puts it, a “god-drug.” Then the Ariekei technology, seemingly all congealed out of bio-soup similar to that which the Ariekei come, get addicted to EzRa, and build up tolerances, and stop functioning, etc.
Soon shit starts to be some weird space-alien-drug-language-zombie-apocalypse situation! It’s pretty cool. You can’t ding Miéville for invention. The day gets saved, sort of, by some inter-species communication and language stuff. I’m not going to get too much into it, both to avoid spoilers, and because I want to get into the questions I’ve got with my friend on video! Stay tuned! ****’