The Miévillian mystique is such that I’m generally loath to write reviews of his books. I suspect – I know, in fact – that I’m not the only one. This reticence stems from many sources: his prodigious vocabulary, the text’s obvious depth, his literary reputation and even the critical competition. Unlike other genre titles, Mr. Miéville’s books are regularly poked by London Review of Books and other impressive institutions. Proper criticism, innit.
As a result, I'm intimidated. Hopelessly so. When I’m asked why I like China Miéville, I stammer; make jokes. I go shy. I know I missed things. Hell, I know I missed most things. What if I get it wrong?
I know this is ridiculous. Mr. Miéville himself often tends towards the deconstructivist (a word I learned from his books) view and refuses to grant that his books even have a correct interpretation. There’s no way to read a novel wrong, and, even if there were, he'd be the last to say.
But the question isn't solely about being right, but having something to say at all.Given the surfeit of intellectual analysis of Embassytown, what can I, the beer-swilling Eddings fan, contribute to the conversation? Embassytown has been compared to Joyce, Augustine, Hegel and Brontë. What can my contribution be - “ZOMG spacemonsters"?!
In a word: yes. For progressive and intelligent, I suggest a visit to Anne’s review from last April. I’m going to take the road less-travelled and regard Embassytown solely as a piece of entertainment.
Embassytown is at the far edge of nowhere – a distant port on the edge of the immer, the magical space goo that underlies reality and allows faster than light travel. Its remoteness is exacerbated by its weirdness. The town is the sole human structure on Arieka, the hostile world of the Ariekei. The Ariekei, or the “Hosts” as they’re respectfully known by the human tenants of the world, are truly alien – twin-mouthed bug creatures with a prodigious grasp of biotechnology. If it weren’t for their own curiosity-fueled generosity, humans couldn’t live on Arieka at all: Embassytown is made livable by the squidgy oxygen producing aeoli, a gift from the Hosts.
Although nominally part of the sprawling Terran galactic empire, support is irregular and the supply-lines erratic - to the point where shipments are known colloquially as “miabs” (‘message in a bottle’). A childhood anecdote from Avice, Embassytown’s protagonist, only emphasises the city’s precarious isolation. A miab arrival – always the cause of civic celebration – goes wonky. Immer-critters piggyback on the package and run amok through the town until they’re finally brought down by the militia’s reality guns.
Another of Avice’s childhood anecdotes helps contextualise the fragility of human life on the planet. Avice and her other young friends dare one another to run further and further into the unbreathable fug of the city’s alien atmosphere. When one friend, the bravest of the lot, stumbles, he comes dangerously close to death. The incident introduces Avice to a Host for the first time, an indescribable, inhuman figure that stands about, calmly wiggling its many insectile appendages while Avice gawks.
It is then that the reader is introduced to the core tension on Arieka. The Hosts, with their twin mouths and wing-ear-bud-things, can’t understand humans. Our language – all human languages – are complete gibberish to them. Communication between the species is channelled through Ambassadors: pairs of cloned twins that are trained to speak in unison, and therefore replicate the harmonious “Language” spoken by the bemused buglords.
To some degree, the reverse is also true. The Ariekei’s Language is the very heart of their culture. They cannot tell a lie. Not even a little one. This goes beyond “I’ll be home by 8”, “I’m spending the night at Jenny’s house” or “That’s a good-looking top” – the Ariekei can’t even use a simile unless that event actually happened. Avice, who is largely uninterested in the nuances of Language, is herself a simile – the result of a strange set of events in her adolescence. As a result of being a girl who ate what was given her, she’s opened up entire avenues of discussion for the Hosts. (She’s also a minor celebrity.)
That, in a nutshell (except not in a nutshell, but like the large piece of paper that was put onto paper, folded eight times and put back on the shelf), is the stage set for Embassytown. The furthest outcropping of the human race is a tiny outpost on a hostile world, surrounded by eccentric aliens that tolerate us as simile-monkeys.
To Avice, however, it is home. Certainly Embassytown’s heroine has wanderlust, but after a few years navigating the immer, she spends the bulk of the story back in her hometown. And although the tension of Embassytown’s position on Arieka is palpable, it is still her home, and she glides through it with a certain native imperturbability. Avice is (and her on-again/off-again linguist husband, Scile) jaded – having grown up with it, she doesn’t fully appreciate exactly how wonderfully, terribly bizarre her home world is. But she does appreciate its fragility, and when Scile’s linguistic experiments begin to tamper with the status quo, she becomes rightfully worried.
Scile’s not the only one fiddling with the world’s cultural ecosystem. The (not-as-hands-off-as-they-seem) governmental agents in Bremen also have a few schemes in the works. And the Hosts themselves are divided: some look to push the boundaries of their Language, others do not. This remote world is suddenly the center of political and social unrest, with the evolution of Language (and language) as the battlefield.
Embassytown's conflict (and its cinematically triumphant resolution) is compelling, even for someone that managed to fail high school French. On the face of it, it feels absurd – a space opera about similes – but it works. The vocabulary of the text is no more alienating than the absurdist technojargon of hard science fiction (and fans of that cant will delight in the first few chapters anyway). It is also easy for science fiction readers to embrace the story’s familiar, Hegelian (I learned that one from The City & The City) structure: introduce concept, break concept, evolve concept to a different place. Robert Heinlein demonstrated it with ATOMIC DEATH RAYS in 1950. Sixty years later, China Miéville uses metaphors (with the added bonus of not being racist).
Great stories don’t demand extra-textual knowledge. Just as the classics of Golden Age science fiction didn’t require the reader to possess advanced degrees in astrophysics, the contemporary genius of Embassytown doesn’t insist on a familiarity modern linguistic theory. It happens to be that Embassytown’s plot-propelling go-juice is distilled from abstract language. But the actual story is about a young woman who loves her weird and wonderful home and, despite knowing even less about the underlying conceit than the reader does, is willing to wade through Heaven, Hell and a host of irritable ex-lovers to save it.
Avice’s motivations are empathetic, her adventures are captivating and the world is spellbindingly unique. Although an appreciation of Joyce undoubtedly adds six more layers of material icing, Embassytown is already a great story. One of Embassytown's many, many possible interpretations is that it is a debate about accepting language at face value. When this standard is applied here, the result is one terrifically entertaining work of science fiction.
(Also, ZOMG. Spacemonsters!)
From 16 January to 3 February, members of The Kitschies' judging panel will be discussing all of the 2011 finalists. Each review only reflects the view of that judge, and should not be taken as representative of the panel's collective opinion or final selection.