Reminiscent of 1970s socio-political science fiction by the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Doris Lessing, China Miéville's often revelatory new novel Embassytown is three books in one: a tense political thriller, an amazing, sometimes brutal rhapsody on the uses of language, and a curiously flat account of civil war.
Embassytown follows hard on the heels of two other Miéville novels: the much-lauded philosophical police procedural cum fantasy The City & The City and the fun but overlong romp Kraken. The new novel most closely resembles The City & The City in attempting to combine the grotesque physicality of The Weird with other genres -- this time alien contact SF -- while also engaging the reader at the level of Idea. As ever with such enterprises, it takes tremendous skill to make those ideas an organic part of story and of character. At times Embassytown attains mastery, at times it does not.
The clinical yet compelling Avice Brenner Cho narrates this alien contact adventure. She is a native of Embassytown, which occupies an uneasy position as a human outpost on the planet of Arieka. The indigenous intelligent species, known as the Ariekei, have helped humans create a livable space that keeps out the planet's toxic atmosphere. Their civilization depends heavily on animals rather than inert machinery. Factories, buildings, and vehicles are all living bio-tech, as boldly visceral as anything in Miéville's Bas-Lag novels.
Avice belongs to two unique groups. First, she can help pilot ships through the immer, which allows travel to Embassytown and other far-flung enclaves. What is the immer? Miéville is typically inventive in describing it: "The immer's reaches don't correspond at all to the dimensions…of this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole." That last bit slyly infuses an already language-besotted novel with some of Ferdinand Sassure's linguistic theorizing.
Second, the Ariekei inflicted a peculiar honor on Avice as a child, making her in essence a part of their language. She is asked to perform the actions that will allow the Ariekei to truthfully say the following: "There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given to her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time."
Why do the Ariekei need her for this? To radically simplify Miéville's intent, the Arieke language is hyper-literal; a comparison cannot exist unless it has a physical reality:
Where to us each word means something, to the [Ariekei] each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that reference, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen…Everything in Language is a true claim. So they need the similes to compare things to, to make true things that aren't there yet, that they need to say.
Her strange experience, almost ritualistically staged, makes Avice a member of an exclusive club of fellow "similes," who, like a self-help group, meet to discuss the meaning of their transformation.
But that's not the only aspect of the Ariekei language crucial to the novel, nor even the most interesting, because daily trade and other communications depend on vat-grown human Ambassadors: perfectly paired twins who can perform both "the Cut and the Turn," the dual sounds without which the two-mouthed Ariekei do not recognize their own language. The result is a linguistic puzzle apparently unique in the universe, an enigma so deep it engrosses Avice's husband, a linguist named Scile, his obsession putting serious strain on their bond.
Miéville's ruminations on language are brilliant, as are explorations of the relationship between Avice and various Ambassador pairs, which deepen the political intrigue. Miéville also sets up an interesting factionalism within the Ariekei by presenting a sect of the aliens who use a Festival of Lies as a deadly serious gambit to change their civilization. The crisis that emerges is intensified by the author's cross-cutting between real-time and past events, a technique which results in a richly layered portrait of Embassytown and its inhabitants. The culmination of this effect occurs when Miéville documents the first meeting of the Arikei and a new Ambassador, EzRa, sent from the off-world central authority. Not only does EzRa represent a possible imperial gambit by the home government, but they also are not perfect twins. Indeed, they are quite mismatched, one "tall and thin" and the other "stocky, muscular and more than a hand shorter."
The effect on the Arikei when EzRa speaks to them sets off an irrevocable chain-reaction that threatens the existence of both Embassytown and the Arikei. Oddly, it's in this transformation of a place and a civilization that Miéville, who has for almost two hundred pages wedded tension and characters to amazing extrapolation, loses his bearings.
For a long time after this event, Avice narrates, but slips from her role as central to the action. As a result, the text becomes less nuanced in places, fewer scenes protrude from summary, and other characters must come to Avice and relate particulars. Individual missions she undertakes -- whether "traveling out of the city," making "our way to some nursery," dragooning "some of Embassytown's transit machines," or leaving the city "three times" contain a sameness that becomes repetitious and undermines innervating images of destruction. Characters like Scile drift out of the narrative, only to reappear less as people than as plot devices. An epidemic of suicides by Ambassadors isn't given sufficient initial explanation, nor does Avice adequately explain upfront why Embassytown is suddenly in such immediate danger. Tension leaks away like the rapidly degrading environment of Embassytown itself.
Nevertheless, toward the end, the novel largely regains its inner equilibrium. Avice again becomes more personally involved -- her role as an Arieki "simile" proving to be key -- and the uses of language re-enters the plot with renewed significance. A last desperate quest to rescue the situation contains real pathos, real sacrifice, and true narrative vigor. Embassytown, Arieka, and the Ariekei will never be the same again, but something meaningful may be salvaged.
Embassytown isn't a perfect novel -- it is infuriatingly dull and plodding in places -- but it's also original, sophisticated, bristling with subversive ideas, and filled with unforgettably alien images.
In the distant future, humans have colonized a faraway planet. The colonists and the resident Ariekei coexist, but it is an uneasy peace, each viewing the other with suspicion. After years on other planets, Avice Benner Cho has returned to Ariekei; she cannot speak the tongue of its natives, but she can sense that something ominous is changing.... A stunning new novel by three-time Arthur C. Clarke Award winner and four-time Locus honoree China Miéville (P.S. The author's 2010 novel Kraken racked up impressive sales and enviable critical reviews.)
Miéville (Kraken) adds to the sparse canon of linguistic SF with this deeply detailed story of the ways an alien language might affect not only thought patterns but ways of life. Avice Benner Cho returns to her backwater colony home of Embassytown so her linguist husband, Scile, can study the almost empathic, in-the-present language of the planet's natives, the Hosts. When a Host learns to lie, the resulting massive cultural earthquake in Host society is compounded by two new Ambassadors whose voices have a profound physiological effect on the Hosts. Miéville's brilliant storytelling shines most when Avice works through problems and solutions that develop from the Hosts' unique and convoluted linguistic evolution, and many of the most intriguing characters are the Hosts themselves. The result is a world masterfully wrecked and rebuilt. (May)
On a distant planet in the distant future, humans and aliens regard each other suspiciously but manage to coexist. Then a new group of humans drop in. Billed as an author of literary sf, Miéville has won the British Fantasy Award (twice), the Arthur C. Clarke Award (three times), and the Locus Award (four times). Now I want to read this, and I don't even read sf. With a five-city tour.
A new venture into science fiction from the talented British author (Kraken, 2010, etc.) best known for his extraordinary steampunk-style fantasies.
Avice Benner Cho returns to her childhood home, the remote planet Arieka, after many years of working in the immer, a weird hyperdimension that permits passage among the stars. Arieka's indigenous Hosts have a remarkable, entirely biological technology and maintain a bubble of human-breathable atmosphere above Embassytown. The Ariekei have two speaking orifices and utter their language through both simultaneously; for them, language, thought and reality are inseparable, hence they cannot understand the speech of individual humans, tell lies or speculate. The only way they can express things that haven't happened is by performing a ceremony in which a human is declared a "simile," an honor for which young Avice was chosen. The Ariekei hold contests to see which of them can come closest to uttering an untruth; by human standards, their efforts are laughable. Humans, however, developed Ambassadors: clone-twins so alike in appearance, thought and experience that when they speak simultaneously, the Ariekei can comprehend them. Then Embassytown's overlords send a new type of Ambassador, EzRa, dissimilar in appearance and thought. Somehow, they can speak and be understood—yet the Ariekei don't react as expected. Instead, they show every sign of being intoxicated by EzRa's speech; not only that but they turn out to be hopelessly addicted. As their civilization begins to crumble, Avice must team up with Bren, a former Ambassador whose clone-twin died, to unravel a most unpleasant conspiracy. Much of this is far too formidably dense and complex to be summarized, and Miéville further blurs matters with a difficult, almost hallucinatory narrative structure. Conceptually, though, it's utterly astonishing.
A major intellectual achievement that, despite all difficulties, persuades and enthralls.
Mieville's ambitions here are grand, his imagination fertile. He's clearly having fun…And that joy translates to the reader…Embassytown bursts with so many amazing ideas from start to finish that the reading experience remains rewarding. I found myself grinning at each new concept, dazzling set piece and clever turn of phrase. They more than justify Mieville's reputation as one of the sharpest writers working today.
The Washington Post
Like all of Miéville's additions to the literary atlas, [Embassytown] seems at once wildly imagined from scratch and phantasmagorically drawn from life.
The New York Times
From the Publisher
“A fully achieved work of art.”—Ursula K. Le Guin
“The most engrossing book I’ve read this year, and the latest evidence that brilliant, challenging, rewarding writing of the highest order is just as likely to be found in the section labeled Science Fiction as the one marked Literature.”—Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Original, sophisticated, bristling with subversive ideas, and filled with unforgettably alien images . . . an amazing, sometimes brutal rhapsody on the uses of language.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“Richly conceived . . . Embassytown has the feel of a word-puzzle, and much of the pleasure of figuring out the logic of the world and the story comes from gradually catching the full resonance of its invented and imported words.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Miéville’s swing-for-the-fences gusto thrills. This is Big Idea Sci-Fi at its most propulsively readable.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Miéville [is] one of today’s most exciting fabulist writers.”—Los Angeles Times
Read an Excerpt
When we were young in Embassytown, we played a game with coins and coin-sized crescent offcuts from a workshop. We always did so in the same place, by a particular house, beyond the rialto in a steep-sloping backstreet of tenements, where advertisements turned in colours under the ivy. We played in the smothered light of those old screens, by a wall we christened for the tokens we played with. I remember spinning a heavy two-sou piece on its edge and chanting as it went, turnabout, incline, pig-snout, sunshine, until it wobbled and fell. The face that showed and the word I’d reached when the motion stopped would combine to specify some reward or forfeit.
I see myself clearly in wet spring and in summer, with a deuce in my hand, arguing over interpretations with other girls and with boys. We would never have played elsewhere, though that house, about which and about the inhabitant of which there were stories, could make us uneasy.
Like all children we mapped our hometown carefully, urgently and idiosyncratically. In the market we were less interested in the stalls than in a high cubby left by lost bricks in a wall, that we always failed to reach. I disliked the enormous rock that marked the town’s edge, that had been split and set again with mortar (for a purpose I did not yet know), and the library, the crenellations and armature of which felt unsafe to me. We all loved the collegium for the smooth plastone of its courtyard, on which tops and hovering toys travelled for metres.
We were a hectic little tribe and constables would frequently challenge us, but we needed only say, ‘It’s alright sir, madam, we have to just…’ and keep on. We would come fast down the steep and crowded grid of streets, past the houseless automa of Embassytown, with animals running among us or by us on low roofs and, while we might pause to climb trees and vines, we always eventually reached the interstice.
At this edge of town the angles and piazzas of our home alleys were interrupted by at first a few uncanny geometries of Hosts’ buildings; then more and more, until our own were all replaced. Of course we would try to enter the Host city, where the streets changed their looks, and brick, cement or plasm walls surrendered to other more lively materials. I was sincere in these attempts but comforted that I knew I’d fail.
We’d compete, daring each other to go as far as we could, marking our limits. ‘We’re being chased by wolves, and we have to run,’ or ‘Whoever goes furthest's vizier,’ we said. I was the third-best southgoer in my gang. In our usual spot, there was a Hostnest in fine alien colours tethered by creaking ropes of muscle to a stockade, that in some affectation the Hosts had fashioned like one of our wicker fences. I’d creep up on it while my friends whistled from the crossroads.
See images of me as a child and there’s no surprise: my face then was just my face now not-yet-finished, the same suspicious mouth-pinch or smile, the same squint of effort that sometimes got me laughed at later, and then as now I was rangy and restless. I’d hold my breath and go forward on a lungful through where the airs mixed, past what was not quite a hard border but was still remarkably abrupt a gaseous transition, breezes sculpted with nanotech particle-machines and consummate atmosphere artistry, to write Avice on the white wood. Once on a whim of bravado I patted the nest’s flesh anchor where it interwove the slats. It felt as taut as a gourd. I ran back, gasping, to my friends.
‘You touched it.’ They said that with admiration. I stared at my hand. We would head north to where aeoli blew, and compare our achievements.
A quiet, well-dressed man lived in the house where we played with coins. He was a source of local disquiet. Sometimes he came out while we were gathered. He would regard us and purse his lips in what might have been greeting or disapproval, before he turned and walked.
We thought we understood what he was. We were wrong, of course, but we’d picked up whatever we had from around the place and considered him broken and his presence inappropriate. ‘Hey,’ I said more than once to my friends, when he emerged, pointing at him behind his back, ‘hey.’ We would follow when we were brave, as he walked alleys of hedgerow toward the river or a market, or in the direction of the archive ruins or the Embassy. Twice I think one of us jeered nervously. Passers-by instantly hushed us.
‘Have some respect,’ an altoysterman told us firmly. He put down his basket of shellfish and aimed a quick cuff at Yohn, who had shouted. The vendor watched the old man’s back. I remember suddenly knowing, though I didn’t have the words to express it, that not all his anger was directed at us, that those tutting in our faces were disapproving, at least in part, of the man.
‘They’re not happy about where he lives,’ said that evening’s shiftfather, Dad Berdan, when I told him about it. I told the story more than once, describing the man we had followed carefully and confusedly, asking the Dad about him. I asked him why the neighbours weren’t happy and he smiled in embarrassment and kissed me goodnight. I stared out of my window and didn’t sleep. I watched the stars and the moons, the glimmering of Wreck.
I can date the following events precisely, as they occurred on the day after my birthday. I was melancholic in a way I’m now amused by. It was late afternoon. It was the third sixteenth of September, a Dominday. I was sitting alone, reflecting on my age (absurd little Buddha!), spinning my birthday money by the coin wall. I heard a door open but I didn’t look up, so it may have been seconds that the man from the house stood before me while I played . When I realised I looked up at him in bewildered alarm.
‘Girl,’ he said. He beckoned. ‘Please come with me.’ I don’t remember considering running. What could I do, it seemed, but obey?
His house was astonishing. There was a long room full of dark colours, cluttered with furniture, screens and figurines. Things were moving, automa on their tasks. We had creepers on the walls of our nursery but nothing like these shining black-leaved sinews in ogees and spirals so perfect they looked like prints. Paintings covered the walls, and plasmings, their movements altering as we entered. Information changed on screens in antique frames. Hand-sized ghosts moved among pot-plants on a trid like a mother-of-pearl games board.
‘Your friend.’ The man pointed at his sofa. On it lay Yohn.
I said his name. His booted feet were up on the upholstery, his eyes were closed. He was red and wheezing.
I looked at the man, afraid that whatever he’d done to Yohn, as he must have done, he would do to me. He did not meet my eyes, instead, fussing with a bottle. ‘They brought him to me,’ he said. He looked around, as if for inspiration on how to speak to me. ‘I’ve called the constables.’
He sat me on a stool by my barely breathing friend and held out a glass of cordial to me. I stared at it suspiciously until he drank from it himself, swallowed and showed me he had by sighing with his mouth open. He put the vessel in my hand. I looked at his neck, but I could not see a link.
I sipped what he had given me. ‘The constables are coming,’ he said. ‘I heard you playing. I thought it might help him to have a friend with him. You could hold his hand.’ I put the glass down and did so. ‘You could tell him you’re here, tell him he’ll be alright.’
‘Yohn, it’s me, Avice.’ After a silence I patted Yohn on the shoulder. ‘I'm here. You’ll be alright, Yohn.’ My concern was quite real. I looked up for more instructions, and the man shook his head and laughed.
‘Just hold his hand then,’ he said.
‘What happened, sir?’ I said.
‘They found him. He went too far.’
Poor Yohn looked very sick. I knew what he’d done.
Yohn was the second-best southgoer in our group. He couldn’t compete with Simmon, the best of all, but Yohn could write his name on the picket fence several slats further than I. Over some weeks I’d strained to hold my breath longer and longer, and my marks had been creeping closer to his. So he must have been secretly practicing. He’d run too far from the breath of the aeoli. I could imagine him gasping, letting his mouth open and sucking in air with the sour bite of the interzone, trying to go back but stumbling with the toxins, the lack of clean oxygen. He might have been down, unconscious, breathing that nasty stew for minutes.
‘They brought him to me,’ the man said again. I made a tiny noise as I suddenly noticed that, half-hidden by a huge ficus, something was moving. I don’t know how I’d failed to see it.
It was a Host. It stepped to the centre of the carpet. I stood immediately, out of the respect I’d been taught and my child’s fear. The Host came forward with its swaying grace, in complicated articulation. It looked at me, I think: I think the constellation of forked skin that was its lustreless eyes regarded me. It extended and reclenched a limb. I thought it was reaching for me.
‘It’s waiting to see the boy’s taken,’ the man said. ‘If he gets better it'll be because of our Host here. You should say thank you.’
I did so and the man smiled. He squatted beside me, put his hand on my shoulder. Together we looked up at the strangely moving presence. ‘Little egg,’ he said, kindly. ‘You know it can’t hear you? Or, well... that it hears you but only as noise? But you’re a good girl, polite.’ He gave me some inadequately sweet adult confection from a mantlepiece bowl. I crooned over Yohn, and not only because I was told to. I was scared. My poor friend's skin didn’t feel like skin, and his movements were troubling.
The Host bobbed on its legs. At its feet shuffled a dog-sized presence, its companion.
The man looked up into what must be the Host's face. Staring at it, he might have looked regretful, or I might be saying that because of things I later knew.
The Host spoke.
Of course I’d seen its like many times. Some lived in the interstice where we dared ourselves to play. We sometimes found ourselves facing them, as they walked with crablike precision on whatever their tasks were, or even running, with a gait that made them look as if they must fall, though they did not. We saw them tending the flesh walls of their nests, or what we thought of as their pets, those whickering companion animal things. We would quieten abruptly down in their presence and move away from them. We mimicked the careful politeness our shiftparents showed them. Our discomfort, like that of the adults we learned it from, outweighed any curiosity at the strange actions we might see the Hosts performing.
We would hear them speak to each other in their precise tones, so almost like our voices. Later in our lives a few of us might understand some of what they said, but not yet, and never really me.
I’d never been so close to one of the Hosts. My fear for Yohn distracted me from all I’d otherwise feel from this proximity to the thing, but I kept it in my sight, so it could not surprise me, so when it rocked closer to me I shied away abruptly and broke off whispering to my friend.
They were not the only exoterres I’d seen. There were exot inhabitants of Embassytown – a few Kedis, a handful of Shur’asi and others – but with those others, while there was strangeness of course there was never that abstraction, that sheer remove one felt from Hosts. One Shur’asi shopkeeper would even joke with us, his accent bizarre but his humour clear.
Later I understood that those immigrants were exclusively from species with which we shared conceptual models, according to various measures. The indigens, in whose city we had been graciously allowed to build Embassytown, Hosts were cool, incomprehensible presences. Powers like subaltern gods, that sometimes watched us as if we were interesting, curious dust, that provided our biorigging, and to which the Ambassadors alone spoke. We were reminded often that we owed them courtesy. Pass them in the street and we would show the required respect, then run on giggling. Without my friends though I couldn’t camouflage my fear with silliness.
‘It’s asking if the boy’ll be alright,’ the man said. He rubbed his mouth. ‘Colloquially, something like, will he run later or will he cool? It wants to help. It has helped. It probably thinks me rude.’ He sighed. ‘Or mentally ill. Because I won’t answer it. It can see I’m diminished. If your friend doesn’t die it’ll be because it brought him here.’
‘The Hosts found him.’ I could tell the man was trying to speak gently to me. He seemed unpracticed. ‘They can come here but they know we can’t leave. They know more or less what we need.’ He pointed at the Host’s pet. ‘They had their engines breathe oxygen into him. Yohn’ll maybe be fine. The constables’ll come soon. Your name's Avice. Where do you live, Avice?’ I told him. ‘Do you know my name?’
I’d heard it of course. I was unsure of the etiquette of speaking it to him. ‘Bren,’ I said.
‘Bren. That isn’t right. You understand that? You can’t say my name. You might spell it, but you can’t say it. But then I can’t say my name either. Bren is as good as any of us can do. It…’ He looked at the Host, which nodded gravely. ‘Now, it can say my name. But that’s no good: it and I can’t speak any more.’
‘Why did they bring him to you, Sir?’ His house was close to the interstice, to where Yohn had fallen, but hardly adjacent.
‘They know me. They brought your friend to me because though as I say they know me to be lessened in some way they also recognise me. They speak and they must hope I’ll answer them. I’m… I must be… very confusing to them.’ He smiled. ‘It’s all foolishness I know. Believe me I do know that. Do you know what I am, Avice?’
I nodded. Now, of course, I know that I had no idea what he was, and I’m not sure he did either.
The constables at last arrived with a medical team, and Bren’s room became an impromptu surgery. Yohn was intubated, drugged, monitored. Bren pulled me gently out of the experts' way. We stood to one side, I, Bren and the Host, its animal tasting my feet with a tongue like a feather. A constable bowed to the Host, which moved its face in response.
‘Thanks for helping your friend, Avice. Perhaps he'll be fine. And I’ll see you soon, I’m sure. “Turnaround, incline, piggy, sunshine”?’ Bren smiled.
While a constable ushered me out at last, Bren stood with the Host. It had wrapped him in a companionable limb. He did not pull away. They stood in polite silence, both looking at me.
At the nursery they fussed over me. Even assured by the officer that I’d done nothing wrong, the staffparents seemed a little suspicious about what I’d got myself into. But they were decent, because they loved us. They could see I was in shock. How could I forget Yohn’s shaking figure? More, how could I forget being quite so close up to the Host, the sounds of its voice? I was haunted by what had been, without question, its precise attention on me.
‘So somebody had drinks with Staff, today, did they?’ my shiftfather teased, as he put me to bed. It was Dad Shemmi, my favourite.
Later in the out I took mild interest in all the varieties of ways to be families. I don’t remember any particular jealousy I, or most other Embassytown children, felt at those of our shiftsiblings whose blood parents at times visited them: it wasn’t in particular our norm there. I never looked into it but I wondered, in later life, whether our shift-and-nursery system continued social practices of Embassytown’s founders (Bremen has for a long time been relaxed about including a variety of mores in its sphere of governance), or if it had been thrown up a little later. Perhaps in vague social-evolutionary sympathy with the institutional raising of our Ambassadors.
No matter. You heard terrible stories from the nurseries from time to time, yes, but then in the out I heard bad stories too, about people raised by those who’d birthed them. On Embassytown we all had our favourites and those we were more scared of, those whose on-duty weeks we relished and those not, those we’d go to for comfort, those for advice, those we’d steal from, and so on: but our shiftparents were good people. Shemmi I loved the most.
‘Why do the people not like Mr Bren living there?’
‘Not Mr Bren, darling, just Bren. They, some of them, don’t think it’s right for him to live like that, in town.’
‘What do you think?’
He paused. ‘I think they’re right. I think it’s… unseemly. There are places for the cleaved.’ I’d heard that word before, from Dad Berdan. ‘Retreats just for them, so… It’s ugly to see, Avvy. He’s a funny one. Grumpy old sod. Poor man. But it isn’t good to see. That kind of wound.’
It’s disgusting, some of my friends later said. They’d learnt this attitude from less liberal shiftparents. Nasty old cripple should go to the sanatorium. Leave him alone, I’d say, he saved Yohn.
Yohn recovered. His experience didn’t stop our game. I went a little further, a little further over weeks, but I never reached Yohn’s marks. The fruits of his dangerous experiment, a last mark, was metres further than any of his others, the initial letter of his name in a terrible hand. ‘I fainted there,’ he would tell us . ‘I nearly died.’ After his accident he was never able to go nearly so far again. He remained the second-best because of his history, but I could beat him now.
‘How do I spell Bren’s name?’ I asked Dad Shemmi, and he showed me.
‘Bren,’ he said, running his finger along the word.