"For myself," wrote James Joyce, in 1922, "I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal." Eight novels into his career, it's become clear that China Miéville is as preoccupied with the idea of the city as was Joyce. The city is the physical anchor to which he tethers ideas of ever-increasing magnitude; the particular by which he examines the universal. Although it's hard to imagine how Miéville could top the novel where the city itself develops a mind, he may have done just that with Embassytown. In Perdido, the mind is conceived; in Embassytown it reproduces. Here Miéville mixes up a batch of Golden Age science fiction tropes, stirs in a little imperial history, spices things up with the aesthetics of Joyce and the philosophies of Augustine, and then tosses some linguistics into the pot for good measure. And then he takes his overflowing novel batter, throws it onto the stove, and cooks up something completely different and entirely new.
This may sound like a bit much, but don’t go into Embassytown fearing Finnegan’s Wake with Aliens. This is China Fucking Miéville we're talking about here; you’re in capable hands. Embassytown is good because, first and foremost, it’s rollicking good science ficition. But Embassytown is so much more, and that’s what makes it great. Yes, it’s a novel about aliens and space-travel and futuristic technology. It's also a novel about imperialism and expansion, about language and meaning, about movement and stasis, about love and sacrifice. It's about the politics of meaning and the poetics of resistance. And, at its heart, Embassytown is a novel about community, about moving forward together no matter how terrifying the unknown.
With Embassytown, Miéville creates a world where the connective tissue between thought and speech is lacking – there’s language but there’s no meaning. Embassytown takes place on a planet at the furthest edge of a vast interspace empire, a planet with only a tiny population of non-natives eking out a modest life in what’s essentially a bio-bubbled ghetto, and trading in the organic technology the Ariekei – the planet’s dominant species - produce. Humans and non-Ariekei can never really understand Ariekei thinking, and can only communicate with the Ariekei via a simulacrum of their language, Language. The Ariekei, for their part, don’t comprehend non-Ariekei speech as communication – to them, it’s merely meaningless noise. Those non-Ariekei who “speak” Language control the empire’s supply of resources from the planet. For generations these speakers, called Ambassadors, have been genetically identical twins, trained in Language from their test-tube births at the behest of their distant imperial authority. But now the Metropol, hoping to increase production from the planet, has introduced a new kind of Ambassador, of a sort hitherto understood as impossible. And the moment they open their mouths and speak, the world ends.
Embassytown showcases some of Miéville's best writing to date, including a section ("Addict") as thrilling and as movingly written as Iron Council’s “Anamnesis.” Miéville's achievement in Embassytown is not to be sniffed at. He never lessens the Ariekes by attempting to humanize them; throughout the novel they remain profoundly alien and profoundly other. Until they don’t. It’s an extraordinary moment in the story, a moment as profound for the reader as for the characters. While his portrayal of Ariekes life and community and need and suffering makes them relatable, both for his protagonist and for his audience, Miéville never allows his readers to relax in his alien setting. håe inserts constant reminders that it’s the humans here who are different, the alien; their bodies so other, so unnatural that their decomposition can’t even feed the planet’s soil. But the reader never, ever doesn’t care.
Embassytown is not exactly an easy book. Like all Miéville’s novels, it rewards careful reading. Which is not to say that Embassytown can’t be read casually; of all Miéville’s gifts as an author, perhaps his greatest is his ability to write a damned fine story. The casual reader, however, should be warned that the first fifty pages can be slow-going, and the complicated timeline of the first section of the novel can be confusing.
Autonomy of the mind - freedom of conscience, freedom of reason, freedom of will - is a theme Miéville returns to again and again, arguably nowhere with as the assurance and sophistication of Embassytown. I use these words – conscience, reason, and will – very carefully. They’re inaccurate translations of Augustine’s retentio, contemplatio and dilectio, and are more commonly referred to as memory, knowledge and will. Memory, according to Augustine, is holding God in your mind, repeating the scripture again and again. Knowledge is contemplating the truth of God, and dilectio is delighting in it. Dilectio, however, is more accurately translated as “love” – it’s the ghost in the machine, the shadow that falls between. Together retentio, contemplatio and dilectio make up the tripartite mind, Augustine’s seat of the soul. For Augustine, the synthesis of these three elements is the route to God. For Miéville, their combination forges something equally as sacred: community. And from community is born autonomy.
In Embassytown, the analogues for Augustine’s memory and knowledge are speech and thought. The discovery of dilectio in Embassytown –of delight, will, love – is its revelation, its climax and its promise for the future. It’s that which makes possible the twinned compromise and coercion necessary for community, for autonomy, and for progress. In a way, Embassytown boasts the most positive and least ambiguous ending of any Miéville novel besides UnLunDun. suggesting as it does that the way forward may not be easy, and it’s certainly frightening, but it’s always possible.
“The city’s a heart,” Miéville writes towards the novel’s end, “…and in that a heart and a city [are] sutured into a third thing, a heartish city, and cities are heart-stained, and hearts are city-stained too.” Embassytown isn’t just the novel’s title; it’s the novel’s meaning, the heart of all the cities in the world. The particular that is key to the universal.
Embassytown is a masterwork.