Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Of language and Language: China Mieville’s Embassytown

Readers who’ve been waiting for China Mieville to return to the levels of brilliance he displayed in Perdido Street Station and The Scar can rejoice. Embassytown may be his best work yet.

A plot summary doesn’t really do the story justice, but here are the basics: in a human city on a planet at the edge of the known universe, the native Ariekei, who have two mouths each, speak a double-tongued language that is inseparable from thought. Instead of “Hello, how are you,” an Ariekes would say “Hello / How are you” (imagine the “Hello” positioned above the “How are you”, like a fraction). Humans cannot mimic Ariekei speech because they have only one mouth, and the Ariekei perceive recordings of their Language only as meaningless noise. Without thought behind it, Language does not exist. Thus special Ambassadors, pairs of electronically linked humans who function almost as a single unit, are the only ones who can communicate with the Ariekei, whose planet is a valuable source of hybrid machine-organic technology.

Crucially, the Ariekei are incapable of lying, or of abstract thought. Similes must first be staged in real life. Humans are often asked to “perform a simile,” becoming a living part of Language in order to make abstraction possible. The narrator, Avice, is as a child asked to be bruised and eat what is given to her. From that moment, she is invoked whenever the Ariekei want to argue that something is “like the girl who was hurt and ate what was given to her”.

I’ll stop there, because one of the true joys of Embassytown is its many revelations, not only of plot but of the nature of language (and Language) itself. Suffice it to say that at some point something goes terribly wrong, and the novel alternates between life-and-death tension and the fundamental question of what language is.  The salvation of the entire planet ultimately depends not on some epic space-battle between humans and aliens, but on a linguistic revolution.

With Embassytown, Mieville pulls off the rare feat of creating a difficult, multi-layered story that requires the reader’s full attention AND spinning an endlessly entertaining yarn. It takes a little while for things to get going (something I also found to be true of The Scar), but the payoff is immense.

There are so many small things that are wonderful about Embassytown, things that weren’t even really necessary to the backbone of the story but that make it all the more vivid and pleasurable. The narrator, Avice, is a rare find in science fiction: a female protagonist who exhibits no overtly feminine or masculine characteristics. Her ambiguous / polyamorous sexuality fits right in with those around her, and though she’s driven by a basic desire to do the right thing, she frequently acts in her own self-interest. Though other characters are not quite as multi-faceted, many unique and flawed personalities come through–even that of a humanoid robot, who Avice counts as one of her best friends.

Appropriately for a novel about the nature of language, China Mieville’s virtuoso word skills are on full display here. The introduction of dozens of new words and concepts from the very beginning of the novel can be overwhelming at times, but it adds to the flavor of the story, in which language dissembles as much as it clarifies. There are passages of great beauty that rival the best of any modern genre.

I read the last hundred pages of Embassytown with my heart in my throat, not only because of the impending climax of the story (though that was gripping), but because, admittedly, I was terrified that the novel would crash and burn. China Mieville has a habit of creating fascinating worlds or concepts, developing a narrative, and then being unable to bring the narrative and the concept to a satisfying end (this was especially evident in The City and The City). But this time, he gets it right, right up until the last words. Though the second half of the novel at times focuses more on good old-fashioned suspense than on the deeper questions about language, the incredibly satisfying conclusion manages to tie the story together, remain complex, AND address difficult questions about language all in one go.

I don’t want to say that Embassytown is much more than science fiction, a somewhat backhanded compliment that has been thrown at Mieville and other writers who’ve taken the form in bold new directions. Embassytown is great literature and great science fiction. But it also transcends genre. It’s a work of grand ideas and mundane human / alien concerns, a story that takes us to the edges of the universe but forces us to repeatedly look inward, at the language that we take for granted that is in fact a rare, miraculous gift.


4 comments on “Of language and Language: China Mieville’s Embassytown

  1. Redhead
    October 30, 2011

    Wonderful review!!

    I loved everything about Embassytown, and I do believe it is Mieville’s best work. I don’t even mind that I needed a dictionary by my side while reading.

  2. Lesley
    November 3, 2011

    Loved this review Lindsay! Haven’t read the book but your description totally took me there. Well done!

  3. gradland
    November 4, 2011

    Redhead–ha, yes, a dictionary might have been helpful (though kudos to Mieville for not providing a glossary, I kind of liked feeling lost in all his new words that slowly revealed their meanings). Lesley–read it for sure, The Scar may still be my favorite, but this one is a pretty close contender for first place.

  4. Anonymous
    November 5, 2011

    Just discovered your blog and will be back. Enjoy reading about the topic. Here is a new blog I discovered from a guy who apparently is finishing a Master’s program and is applying to PhD programs. Not as smooth as yours, but in the same genre! 🙂

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This entry was posted on October 29, 2011 by in Books and tagged , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

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