Embassytown by China Miéville

China Miéville has been on a bit of a tear to explore every genre through his books. With Embassytown, he turns from his earthbound adventures of late (The City and The City and Kraken), and goes into deep space, for a truly alien world.

Opening on the planet Areika, the story follows Avice, the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her. Areika is home to an alien race (Areikans, also known as the Hosts) that is one of the very few examples of a credible alien, a race that is truly different from us, rather than an approximation of what people are like. Here, people trade for bioengineered technology, communicating through sophisticated ambassadors, two people who speak different parts of the Host’s complicated language. Departing Arekia, Avice goes into deep space, to the Immer, before returning to her home world, where she witnesses huge changes in the world.

The Arekian’s way of life completely change when a new ambassador arrives: EzRa, a paired, rather than cloned, ambassador. Their words act as if a drug on the Arekians, who are captivated by his words. As a result of his influence, the world is torn apart by a near-devolution of the planet’s inhabitants.

Embassytown shines, as does most of Miéville ‘s other books, when it comes to world building, with a stunning, visual and brilliant world put together, particularly when it comes to the Hosts and their Language. Unable to understand of conceive of the concept of symbolism, the Hosts perceive language as an absolute truth, rather than a representative of imagination, of what might be. Lies are unheard of, an inconceivable notion that exhilarates the Hosts at ‘Festivals of Lies’, where they hear these lies, and attempt them themselves. Avice herself is a simile, a literal figure of speech that allows the Hosts to comprehend a particular situation.

There’s a real religious element here, one that reminded me in part of Frank Herbert’s Dune, touching on religious extremism. Avice’s husband, Scile, a linguist (and who’s understandably interested in Language), is particularly distressed over the influence of humans and the very nature of how we perceive the world around us. There’s a divide between those who look to prevent the influence of humans, and those wishing to explore the differences, regardless of the consequences. The consequences become dire as the Host’s society begin to tear itself apart. In a large way, the book is as close to unveiling the roots of conflict in societies: differences between individuals and groups as a whole. Without giving too much away, the conflict here is even more terrifying than one might find amongst any human conflicts: we can choose our actions and reasons for fighting and believing in some side or another. Here, it’s another motivation altogether.

In another related aspect, there’s more to the religious element here, particularly with the words of EzRa, and eventually, EzCal. As the Hosts begin to flow to Embassytown to hear the words of the new ambassador, there’s an element of the introduction of sin to the planet and the race of aliens, culminating in an almost apocalyptic fall when the concept of lying is introduced to them. Not being someone who’s terribly religious, this comes from a layman’s perspective, but it works well with the overall story.

Along with the story of extremism over ideas and philosophies, there’s an interesting argument over colonialism that dovetails into the concerns of Scile. Language is a key element in how the Host’s society is formed and the introduction of humanity to the mix acts to subvert how things run on the world. It’s subversive, game changing and fascinating all at the same time. There are greater political elements at play hinted throughout the story, and the question that comes up amidst the story is the ethical one: should we, as invaders, effect such change in a world? Should we do it for our own good, our own interests? Here, Embassytown is at its best, a first contact novel of the first degree, with vast implications drawn from our own history, and the state of the world now, where the Middle East and the West simply aren’t speaking the same language.

I came away from the novel with a clear message: understanding, and in that, comprehending one another is essential in how we deal with others, whether alien or familiar.

For all of the extremely good ideas presented in Embassytown, the book fails to deliver when it comes to characters. While we have the opportunity to really get into Avice’s head as she narrates, the reader is essentially just along for the ride, seeing the actions, but not getting much more beyond that. Frequently, I felt disembodied from the characters, held at arms length. It’s a shame, because this is a book that’s incredibly smart, well plotted and allows for a lot of reflection. The problems in the characters undermines the entire effort, turning what could have been a great novel into a good one. It’s a little disappointing, especially after the excellence that is The City and The City.

Still, it’s not a bad book, nor is it worth avoiding: Miéville creates a truly spectacular world and novel, one that’s memorable in it’s own right, and one that puts its ideas and story first and foremost. The flaws here may even be deliberate: I have a feeling that an author as talented as Miéville couldn’t let something like this past, and given the book’s central themes around understanding, I can’t help but wonder if there’s more within that I’m simply missing after mulling over the book for a couple of weeks.

If anything, Embassytown is worth every page for its rich, spectacular world, its depth and prose. It’s easily one of the best books of the year, and while not my favorite Miéville book (The City and The City remains my top pick), it certainly blew me away, and has left me thinking about it for weeks.

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7 thoughts on “Embassytown by China Miéville

  1. I love the concept of an author who writes outside his/her comfort zone. Since Meiville seems to push the genre envelope, I will have to give it a whirl.

    Thanks for the review

    • Mieville is good for that sort of thing, and the books that I’ve read certainly do push at the boundries a bit: Kraken falls more into urban fantasy, and The City and The City falls into a sort of science fiction noir detective novel. This one’s clearly SF though.

  2. As a deeply religious person who is fascinated by the importance of language and its political and moral implications, this book looks like a must-read. I would have to agree with your suspicion that the emotional distance from the characters is intentional and designed, though without reading it I cannot say more.

  3. I understand your complaints, and I felt the characterization issues became more apparent and muddled near the end of the book. Near the beginning, I didn’t so much mind being just “along for the ride”. Embassytown didn’t strike me as a character based story, it’s more an idea based story, you know?

    • Less of a complaint, more of an observation. Ideally, a book or short story will be strong on the characters, plot and dialogue. Here, it’s the latter two, and the book works well there, but the characters and lack thereof is something that I found distracting. I strongly believe that characters really drive the plot, and here, it’s the other way around.

  4. Pingback: Embassytown – Susan Hated Literature

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