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Embassytown
China Miéville
Del Rey, 349 pages

Embassytown
China Miéville
China Miéville was born in London in 1972. When he was eighteen, he lived and taught English in Egypt, where he developed an interest in Arab culture and Middle Eastern politics. Miéville has a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge and a master's with distinction from the London School of Economics. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both an International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award. He lives in London, England.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The City & The City
SF Site Review: The City & The City
SF Site Review: Un Lun Dun
SF Site Review: Un Lun Dun
SF Site Review: Iron Council
SF Site Review: The Scar
SF Site Review: The Tain
SF Site Review: The Scar
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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China Miéville's first few novels made a great splash in the SF/Fantasy field, particularly the Bas Lag "trilogy": Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council. After these books he seemed to fit neatly in a pigeonhole. He was a leading light of the briefly fashionable non-movement "The New Weird." His novels were long, baroque, "weird" (yes, in a new way!). They were admixtures of Fantasy, SF, and Horror, with a splash of leftish politics for flavor. He was pretty good, but you knew what you were getting: intriguing but not quite believable grotesqueries, a bit of overwriting, often enough redeemed by really striking stuff buried within, and a plot full of action and passion but not always logic. There was MORE in Miéville than in most writers, but the MORE was only half good.

But what is exciting is that Miéville was not content. On the evidence of his subsequent work, he clearly wanted to expand his range. I don't mean to suggest he would endorse my readings or criticism of his work, rather that he recognized that he wanted to tell a variety of stories, and realized that to to do so he needed to adopt a variety of voices, styles, modes. And he has done so, with an accomplished YA novel (Un Lun Dun), and then a truly brilliant police procedural/philosophical thriller, The City and the City. The latter novel nearly swept the major SF awards, winning the Hugo, Clarke, and World Fantasy Awards (but only reaching the Nebula shortlist). At the same time it received respectful attention in the mainstream.

Embassytown, then, is another expansion of his range. It is Miéville's first out and out SF novel, though to be sure much of his earlier work can be squinted at and called SF. Like The City and the City it is built around an idea that is not quite plausible, but that is philosophically very rich, and that is worked out quite rigorously in the book. In Embassytown the central idea is Language, which is the language of the Ariekei, the native intelligent species of the remote planet (remote as defined by its accessibility through human FTL travel, which is based on something like wormholes) of which Embassytown is the single colony city. Language is unique, in that it is spoken by two voices simultaneously, in that it will not support a lie, and in that it is unintelligible to the natives if not spoken by an intelligence. (Recordings are OK, but not synthesized speech, and not even AI speech.) The intelligences speaking the two voices must be synchronized closely, so humans have had to construct Ambassadors by cloning individuals, and then linking the clones' brains.

The novel is told by Avice Benner Cho, a native of Embassytown who is locally famous because she became a "simile." That is, because native Language speakers cannot lie, they sometimes have people act out behaviour which can be referred to in Language to represent truthfully a comparison. Avice is "the girl who was hurt and ate what was given her." She is also unusual in that she left Embassytown and returned. She had the rare ability to "Immerse" -- to remain functional throughout FTL travel, and so she became a starship crewmember. But one of her marriages was to a linguist, and partly because of his interest in Language, she returned.

The main action of the novel comes some time after her return. A new kind of artificially created Ambassador has been tried -- two unrelated humans with unusual empathy have been linked in the same way as the more traditional clones. But it turns out that their speech, while comprehensible to the Ariekei, is horribly addicting as well. Ariekei society collapses, and threatens to bring Embassytown down with it. Avice becomes part of a faction trying to save Embassytown, and eventually the Ariekei, with the help of a curious faction of the alien society: aliens who are trying to learn to lie.

This whole idea is inherently fascinating to me. The novel joins the shortish list of significant SF novels about linguistics. (Obvious predecessors: Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao, Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17, Ian Watson's The Embedding.) Ultimately Miéville here is considering the importance of language in constructing "story," and perhaps the importance of story in establishing individual consciousness. Some of the Ariekei seem, by the end, to be desperately trying to wake -- to become individuals, to become truly conscious. And some humans desperately regret the loss of innocence, in a sense, of this people who could not lie. Miéville doesn't insist on answers here -- he asks intriguing questions about language, about sentience, and we are urged to think about them.

On this level the novel is an exuberant success. It is also well written, in as has become normal for Miéville -- a different voice than he has used previously -- a voice consistent to Avice's character. The characters are well-portrayed, though they are not on the whole terribly admirable (terribly human, though), and Avice is a bit cold and distant -- in particular, her love affairs don't ever emotionally convince. The novel isn't wholly successful, primarily because the action, as oppposed to the speculation, is often not very absorbing. I still enjoyed it a great deal, and it's very well worth reading, but there are longeurs. It's not Miéville's best novel -- that is still The City and the City -- but it is very good, very thought-provoking, and a true Science Fiction novel in the pure sense. And: more evidence that China Miéville is a writer whose every novel we must await with great anticipation.

Copyright © 2011 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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