Thu
Jul 5 2012 3:00pm
A New World For Author and Tale: Embassytown by China Miéville

This week we’re looking at the novels nominated for this year’s upcoming Hugo Awards. Today we look at Embassytown by China Mieville, an excerpt of which can be read here.

A review of Embassytown by China Mieville, a Hugo 2012 Best Novel nominee

In Embassytown, China Miéville’s latest novel out in the U.S. on May 17th, there is language and there is Language.

Language is the communication system of the alien Hosts that co-exist with the human diaspora on the unforgiving backwater planet of Arieka. Yet Language with a capital “L” could also describe the linguistic acrobatics Miéville deploys in his first science fiction venture. Meaty, high-concept passages of Language to digest in every chapter. This isn’t a light summer read. But it’s certainly not without the thrills and dazzling eyeball kicks that have come to be expected of Miéville, either.

Mild spoilers ahead.

Certain authors have established a strong trust with readers. To say that Miéville has a highly devoted fanbase would be an understatement. Bestselling, lauded with awards and critical praise from regular geeks and genre veterans alike, some fans are the type to grab each novel immediately, sit back, and trust that a Miéville novel won’t disappoint in taking them someplace marvelous. These are the fans who should stop reading this review, get Embassytown, and come back here to discuss. Here there be mild spoilers. And if you’re going to read Embassytown, you may as well read it fresh. It adds to the fun.

If you’re the type of Miéville fan wishing he’d return to the world of Perdido Street Station and The Scar, well, you’re no fun. But Embassytown just might appeal to you more than his recent standalones.

Avice Benner Cho grew up in Embassytown, the sole city on Arieka where human settlers—and other exoterre and automatons—can live, thanks to the gracious gift of biotech and food from the native Hosts. The Hosts ask nothing much from the humans in return. They couldn’t anyway, not really. Language cannot be spoken by typical humans and the Ariekei can’t fully perceive anyone who can’t speak Language. Thus the need for Ambassadors, genetic clones who are linked through tech to speak the duel components of Language. Two people with one shared purpose and name, such as CalVin or MagDa.

Language is the lynchpin idea of the novel. The Hosts cannot think anything untrue, though they attempt it at the raucous Festivals of Lies, like an alien poetry slam. They cannot speculate or think of metaphors. But they are aware that they need to conceptualize abstract ideas and so employ humans to perform similes. As a child, Avice was plucked from school, taken to a closed restaurant, and asked to perform a simile. It’s a great honor, making her a respected component of Language thereafter. Avice is “the girl who ate what was given her.” Avice goes on to become an immerser, a starship crew member who can survive travel in the nightmarish sub-space between planets. Immer, as it’s called is at once the most science fictional and one of the more fantastic elements of Embassytown, a haunted sub-reality filled with monsters and beacons and dangerous tides. The time Avice spends in space is brief. Soon she returns to Arieka as something of a celebrity and welcomed into the political elite of Embassytown.

When a new, impossible kind of Ambassador from Bremen arrives to speak to the Hosts, Avice has ringside seats for the disastrous results.

I won’t spoil what happens after that, but Embassytown winds up some place very unexpected from the initial setup.

This is a first-person narrative and I needed that level of intimacy with Avice. She sometimes felt as cold and alien to me as the Ariekei. She is, after all, technically an alien herself. She’s grown up in a commune, she has a poly relationship with her linguistics scholar husband, her best friend is a robot. She also subscribes to the philosophy of floaking, one of those cool terms that I hope becomes part of the geek lexicon like Heinlein’s “grok.” A floaker is someone who demonstrates a particular kind of carefully maintained laziness, maneuvering just enough to get where they want to be in life, but not going out of their way to be too noticed or have too much responsibility. “Everyone has some floaker in them,” Avice says. It’s a valuable survival skill.

The first-person narration gives an immediacy to the very action-filled events in the latter half of Embassytown. More than that, Avice’s journey from simile to floaker to much more is permeated with a sense of real melancholy as her homeworld is threatened. And threatens her in return. When things on Areika go bad, they do so in shocking fashion. And while it’s harrowing for Avice, it’s exhilarating to read. Here is where Bas-Lag lovers will be most pleased. This isn’t the silly, over-the-top apocalypse of Kraken (which I loved for its punk rock nihilism), this is a baroque tableau of urban decay and war as biotech fails and even the guns, helicopters, and buildings turn on city inhabitants. And all throughout, the crucial importance of Language evolves as human-Host relations change, too.

Embassytown is post-colonial science fiction at its horrorshow best.

While I say I’m willing to trust in Miéville’s vision and follow his narrative wherever he chooses, I admit I’ve felt like I was led off a cliff by some of his endings. (Note: This was not the case with The City & The City.) I braced myself for some mild annoyance or disappointment as the last chapter neared and was pleasantly surprised. I won’t say what the ending was, of course, only that this time, the ending really worked for me. It was rallying, even. I actually grinned.

More stories in the Immerverse seem guaranteed. With Embassytown, Miéville has taken a sophisticated creative and stylistic leap and I’m eager to explore a new universe through the eyes of a talent that is still growing, perfecting, and challenging itself. China Miéville is no floaker.


Theresa DeLucci is a total floaker. She is an alum of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in ChiZine and Morbid Outlook.

8 comments
Rich Bennett
1. Neuralnet
The terms floaking/floaker should definitely become mainstream... they are so appropriate.

This was a great SciFi story. I give credit to Mieville for coming up with a really unique story/world. The idea of Language was very thought provoking. My only complaints about this book are it seemd like it took a long time to set up the story/conflict and there was a lot of dense future tech jargon. I think I had to read about 100 pages before I really felt like I was understanding everything.
Palpatim
2. Palpatim
I read both The City and The City and Perdido Street Station, and they just didn't work for me. On paper, his stories seem like they'd hit all of my buttons: challenging philosophical questions; luminous, artful prose; and a strong sense of place in a carefully crafted setting. But for whatever reason, both stories left me cold. Perdido, in particular, felt like a narrative without a purpose--a story that went to some fascinating places, took some truly spectacular snapshots, and then came home and resumed its former life.

How would you compare Embassytown to these two? The premise is just so damn intriguing that I find myself drawn in against my will.
Theresa DeLucci
3. theresa_delucci
I'd say Embassytown is really unlike a lot of his other fiction, but I'd put it closer to TC&TC because it's a later work and he kind of reigned in the narative a bit, making it more structured. I agree with you on PSS to an extent. There were bits and pieces I felt went on too long and it seemed like the characters served more as mouthpieces for ideas than living people (or garuda.) It was something I felt about Iron Council, too.

Embassytown is definitely a book that benefits from re-reading to fully grasp it all because the first 50 pagse or so are so disorientating.
David Thomson
4. ZetaStriker
You just described why I stopped about 250 pages in, Theresa. I couldn't finish the nobel, but I am kind of curious; is it indicative of his other work? I've heard so many good things about him, that I ended up being very disappointed by what I eventually got in Embassytown.
Palpatim
5. Petar Belic
Zetastriker, I enjoyed most of Embassytown. But I had to force myself to finish it though, I don't know why - probably about the 250 page mark. I think it deserves another read at some stage. I remember being disappointed that there was not much 'science' in the science fiction, and that Mieville's ideas on language did not go far enough. But what I did like about it was that it reminded me of a longform sustained dream, with it's own inevitable logic and focus on ideas that would otherwise be discarded. I'll probably give it another go in a few years.
Ian Rapley
6. Alfonso Baronso
Prior to this I'd only read The City and The City by Mieville (I keep looking at some his other books and not convincing myself to read them). What it shares with TC&TC is a fantastic concept at its heart - the cities in the earlier book, and the language in this one. The Arieke world was great (as was the immer, although it was largely irrelevent to the story). But I was a little disappointed with the way the story played out.

I can't say that I found it hard to get into, nor to finish, but my problems with were 1) the central character - in my view he just didn't belong in his world for any reason other than as a vector for the reader, and this annoyed me, 2) the language - too showy by far and in need of a stern edit, & 3) I thought that the ending was a let down - I thought that the plot was much less imaginative than the world and central themes.
David Thomson
7. ZetaStriker
Actually, my apologies. The novel I was so disappointed in was in fact Perdido Street Station, not Embassytown.
marian moore
8. mariesdaughter
This book passed a critical test for me. If it makes me ga-ga for the subject, it's a good book. This book made me search out non-fiction by linguists ("What is Language” by McWhorter for one).

I wasn't interested in Mieville's earlier books despite finding him an interesting panelists at conventions. "The City and the City" was the first novel that blew me away. I was raving about "Embassytown" for weeks. Unfortunately, my SF community is so fractured that I don't know a single other person who has read the book. Thanks for being the "one" other person who has read this book.

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