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.
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.
Mild spoilers ahead.
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.