Most authors deal in plots; China Miéville, by contrast, deals in settings. Perdido Street Station and the follow-up Bas-Lag novels gave us thaumaturgy and Victoriana; The City and the City was sociological science-fiction – the social construction of reality; in Embassytown, the exotic ingredient is language itself.
We are placed in the far-future, where the Terran origins of humanity have been almost entirely forgotten. The worlds of humanity – there are many – are ruled by different fiefdoms and connected by Immerships which traverse a dangerous, opaque and eternal subspace called the Immer (German: ‘always’), with a wildly-different connectivity from our normal spacetime.
The planet of Arieka is at the Immer frontier under the suzerainty of the distant planet Bremen. Arieka is inhabited by an intelligent alien race, the Ariekei, who resemble large winged insects or perhaps crabs. The native air is unbreathable for humans but the Ariekei (often called the Hosts) have used their bioengineering skills to create an enclave, the Embassytown of the title.
The story is told in first person by Avice Benner Cho, a woman who grew up in Embassytown but who showed an aptitude to tolerate the Immer, which allowed her to go out as Immership crew. As the story opens, Avice has arrived back in Embassytown on an extended vacation and we’re waiting for a new ambassador to the Hosts to arrive from Bremen.
We now come to the central dynamic of the novel, the way the Hosts use language. It is in general impossible to talk to the Ariekei, though not because their Language is particularly hard to understand. The Ariekei speak a parallel language: the Hosts have two mouths and use both simultaneously to articulate words. To speak Language requires two human Ambassadors who can speak simultaneously, and who are so alike that they can simulate to the Ariekei the sense that only one mind is conversing with them. Embassytown has to breed Ambassadors, clone them and keep them synched to the ultimate extent.
There is something else about Language. Can you write poetry in Perl? Can you write stories in C++? Can you lie in Lisp? Computer languages allow you to name objects, operations and relationships. They have a precise meaning with reference to the problem domain of the program and the computer’s internal state. The Ariekei Language is like that – so no hypotheses, no possibilities, no counterfactuals, no metaphors, no lies; in truth, no intentionality.
But we can lie. What happens if an Ambassador lies to the Ariekei? Their mental gears have metaphorical sand thrown in: they become intoxicated. And the new Bremen ambassador is going to have an even direr effect on the Hosts, with consequences which will lead to the destruction of Embassytown itself.
China Miéville’s work defies easy summary. Wonderful descriptive prose combines with good characterization to make this a many-layered novel. One reader might be most impressed by the character of Avice, a strong woman who is often ill-informed, under-estimated and ignored, but who nevertheless can make a difference when it counts. Another might focus on the Ariekei as a metaphor for the oppressed masses, duped and misled by the repressive-tolerance of a ruling elite’s ideology, and their savage, self-sacrificing response. And then there is the ageless dilemma: is it better to leave the Ariekei in their hobbled state-of-grace or are we doing them a favor by inducting them into our own language-world of truth, possibilities and lies?
With Embassytown, China Miéville has again introduced something new into science-fiction. I would add just one word of warning: as smart and deep as this book is, it’s lacking a certain page-turning quality. The start of the novel is opaque and one needs patience to come to understand what’s going on: some readers, I suspect, won’t care enough about the plot or the characters to make the effort. Too much head and not enough heart then – not a point I expected to make about a book by China Miéville.