Embassytown is the second book I have read by China Miéville (the first one was the great The City And The City). Those who expect a fast-paced, action-packed space opera kinda of science-fiction will be deeply disappointed. Embassytown does have the basic ingredients of a science-fiction novel: humans on a alien planet whose inhabitants – the Hosts – tolerate them along with some trade but there is no symbiosis here.
The Hosts – the Ariekei – have a strange language that only pairs of modified humans – the Ambassadors – can speak. The humans live in proximity to the Ariekei city (in which they cannot breathe), in an area called Embassytown. The only communication between humans and Hosts goes through the Ambassadors. Embassytown is itself a human colony of another human world, Bremen, with whom politics are tense and complex.
But the key to the novel is the Hosts’ language. So, brush up on your Saussure (signifier / signified), or Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations or Levi-Strauss. The Hosts’ language is thought. The two are not separate. Language does not signify, it is. It is language and referent at the same time. Which is why the Hosts cannot lie because their language makes it impossible to say something that is not. This language is spoken at two levels (cut / turn), which is why it takes two modified humans speaking it at the same time to be understood by the Hosts. A single human speaking the language sounds to the Hosts like meat making unintelligible sounds.
And to convey ideas, sometimes, humans are used as similes, that is, literally experiencing what the Hosts want a simile for. The main character of the book, Avice Benner Cho, an Embassytonian native, is such a simile. She has also traveled beyond Arieke and has just come back.
Now, setting the context for all this, in addition to Avice’s biography takes about half the book. I suspect a lot of people have given up before reaching the point where the “action” starts, with the unprecedented arrival of two non-Embassytown-born Ambassadors from Bremen (actually, a modified human pair = one Ambassador, and they all have double names such as CalVin, EzRa, MagDa, etc.).
It turns out that when the way the new Ambassador speaks Language is like a drug to the Ariekei. They get addicted to it, let their civilization go to waste and otherwise behave like complete junkies. This might become a source of power for the humans but they rely on Ariekei for food and supplies so, their lives are at stake too. And the Hosts are constantly demanding their fix of EzRa speech and the humans provide. And then one of the humans that is part of EzRa commits suicide. What now? What happens to the addicted Hosts? What happens to the humans who can only hope to be rescued by Bremen and what… leave the Hosts to a slow and painful death?
And so both humans and Ariekei try to separately find a solution: a new drug-Ambassador for the humans, a way to be immune to the infected speech for Hosts, even if it involves horrible mutilation. This leads to the culmination of the conflict and the unraveling of Bremen political machinations, as well as some not-very-pretty truth about the way Embassytown gets its Ambassadors.
So, as I said, I am sure that a lot of people will be bored and give up on the book fairly early on. Another aspect of the book that might be off-putting is that the Ariekei remain resolutely alien throughout the story. Miéville does not try to humanize them or anthropomorphize them. And the human characters have no more real comprehension of their Hosts as the reader does.
And then, there is the main character herself. As she returns to Embassytown after years of space travel, she is determined to remain distant, so it might be hard for a reader to “engage” with a character who wants to remain detached from her environment. In the end, though, she has to get in deep. But the reader should not expect big emotional pay-offs from the book and I am sure this will frustrate a lot of readers.
Overall, then, this is a demanding book. No doubt about it. The long developments on being socialized in Embassytown, and learning the limits between the two civilizations, as well as the detours into Language may make the book an obstacle course for anyone expecting typical scifi adventure.. But ultimately though, this is a fascinating tale.
And I’m with Ursula Le Guin (read her whole review if you haven’t yet):
“The picture of a society shaken, shattered, wrecked to the foundation by a universal drug addiction infecting even the houses, even the farms, for they are all biologically akin, is apocalyptic vision on the grand scale – curiously beautiful, alien in every vivid detail, yet psychologically and socially only too familiar. Science fiction, like all fiction, is a way of talking about who we are.”
Sociologist me could not agree more.