- File Type:
- Pan Macmillan
- Publication Date:
- 06 May 2011
- Science Fiction
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Beautiful. For a moment, after closing the book, I sat speechless and in awe. Wow. This is a truly amazing story. Where to start?Sometime far in the future, far away from Earth, which is only a distant rumour, a legend, in a city called Embassytown at the near-end of the universe lives Avice, an immerser, a traveller in the immer, the space above and below. The town lies on the planet Arieka and humans are not the only inhabitants out here. The natives, Hosts, live with and for the city, making and delivering everything needed. Only a few, Ambassadors, can speak their language and connect the two communities. And then a new Ambassador arrives and starts to speak – and nothing will be the same again. When a catastrophe is close to happening Avice knows that the only hope is to speak to the alien Hosts. But that is impossible.To say more would spoil it, but it is a fascinating, thrilling story with characters alien and wonderful, landscapes strange and nightmarish.The first few pages of the book were difficult to read – imagine a world so far in the future, so far away in space – language has changed, must change because there is so much new to be spoken. Think of our ancestors maybe only 500 years ago – will they understand you? No, of course not, and in the first chapter the reading is a little difficult because here we are being introduced to the *new* language as spoken by the books heroine. But soon we glide as easily through the landscape of the new English in the book as we do today in ours. And the new words and turns of phrase are so very clever, it wasn’t just the story I enjoyed, it was also the play with words and language and the associations that were being made by naming things. I don’t know how Mieville arrived at the decision when he made up names and words but I had certainly fun imagining. For example: *Immer* is a German word for always or ever – like the space it means here. *Immerser* is such a clever name for people who travel that space, arriving from the word *immer* and at the same time using the English *immerse*. Like in Mieville’s other books there are no holes in the plot or the descriptions of beings, landscapes or happenings, everything seems quite believable and smooth, even though if this ever will be made into a film CGI has to play the lead role. It is a story of hope and the future, of war and tragedy, love and hate, corruption and desperation and all the other things that happen everywhere were humans are involved. It is a book that plays with language exactly the way I enjoy so much, making up new words that have a clear link to their roots – real fun.Wherever China Mieville is going – I do like the direction and hope there is more to come. Soon.
This is an absolutely brilliant book that offers a fascinating, totally engrossing take on alien linguistics. Mieville offers up some big ideas that had me going, 'Whoa, that's REALLY neat!' at multiple points throughout the novel. Incredibly imaginative, fun and deeply thoughtful.
If you know me, and we talk about books, chances are pretty good you know I'm a fan of China Mieville's writing. Still, I haven't loved all his books equally. Embassytown, however, is not one of those mere four-star Mievilles. No, it's really, really good.First of all, as everyone says, it's a science fiction novel about linguistics, but it manages to remain compelling throughout. This is smart stuff. There's also a very interesting take on colonialism, which of course interplanetary travels are all about. I'm going to leave a spoiler space at the end and then say more.I've always wondered, if there was life on other planets, whether we might be such different orders of being that we would be incapable of perceiving each other. Certainly, communication and cultural barriers, language structures and basic assumptions, would be immensely different. It's been awhile since I've read Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God, but she addressed some of the cultural incomprehension effectively.Mieville, here, deals with the language, or rather, the Language, and the whole concept of how humans can possibly communicate with beings who process language in such different ways that signifiers mean nothing to them and that lying is impossible. Smart, challenging stuff.The book has its flaws. I'm not ordinarily one who chides Mieville for lack of characterization; as far as I'm concerned he's created indelible characters in a number of his books. Here, though, I don't have a very solid sense of most of the characters, except in terms of their functions and some basic characteristics of each. Also, Mieville can be an incredibly visual writer, but here there's a lack of description; I can imagine Embassytown and the surrounding Arieke world, but I can't really *see* it, not in the ways he usually shows things to his readers. However, that may be the point. Bas-Lag and the cities in The City and The City, not to mention Mieville's various takes on London, are solidly grounded in reality, even if it's simply the reality of the imagination. Embassytown may be beyond what narrator Avice can show us with the language we have.Now, please bail if you don't want to know.Seriously.SPOILERThe novel presents a tragedy, the downfall of the Ariekei people (the Hosts) and that what we don't realize until the very end is that our narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is actually on the wrong side. That is, the Ambassadors accidentally addict the Hosts to a particular performance of Language, but then deliberately continue to feed it, first for their continued survival, but then for their reshaping of the planet's society. (Opium Wars, anyone? Supplying Native Americans with whiskey?) And Avice is one of the colonists who does it. The "happy" ending, in which some of the colonists survive, to form a new society along with Hosts who have lost their Language, but learned to speak various "Anglo-" dialects, represents so many colonial histories. Avice compares the Embassytown of the conclusion to "deadwood planets and pioneer towns," consolidating the Old West metaphor. Avice's estranged husband, Scile, confined at the end to a prison/asylum for his support of the Ariekei resistors, is neither insane nor villainous; he's taken a morally correct position and he's lost. As Avice says, "he must think he's fallen among Lucifers." At the end of the novel, Language is on its way to being wiped out in the urban center, Ariekei collaborators are speaking forms of English and have learned to lie, and "drug" addiction is rampant.I haven't heard anyone talking about this, and it may be because the novel is so recent that most of what's out there are book reviews which necessarily can't give away the ending. But I think Mieville is also playing an interesting game with us. We're presented with Avice as a sympathetic narrator, and don't expect her to be implicit in the systematic destruction of a culture. And yet . . .
I’ve always thought of Mieville as more of a fantasy writer- not a fluffy unicorn type one, of course, grittier than that- than an SF one, so Embassytown was a surprise. Okay, every Mieville book is a surprise. But this one had a lot of the trappings of classic science fiction- space freighters that pass through a weird sort of dimension- the immer- to travel huge distances in relatively short time; an empire of sorts that colonizes worlds; non-humanoid aliens. The planet that the story takes place on has natives that speak a language with two mouths saying separate things at the same time and a biotech that does everything- everything is grown, from houses to transport. Even batteries are little animals. But the first person protagonist is human. Avice Benner Cho, born on the planet, is an Immerser, a person with the talent of guiding a freighter through the immer. She couldn’t wait to leave the planet, but now she’s home and she’s brought her husband, a student of language, who has become fascinated with the Ariekei and their language. While there is a plot that involves scheming ambassadors and the empire, the novel really revolves around the natives and their language. Most humans can learn to understand the Ariekei language, but one person can only ever speak half of it. And having two random people speak the two halves of the language doesn’t work. It turns out that only genetically engineered identical twins, who not only walk alike and talk alike but think alike and have special links implanted in their brains, can actually be heard by the Ariekei as speaking. And the Ariekei- usually known as the Hosts-, despite their advanced civilization, have restrictions in their language. They can’t lie. They have trouble with new concepts. There are things they really can’t talk about- almost, it seems, can’t think about. But there are some who push the envelope, who devise new figures of speech. These forward thinks create and work with similes (Avice herself was made into a simile by them), have lying contests. These folks are trouble. They reminded me very much of rebellious, avant garde students at a college. When they, along with plotters of multiple factions all collide- with Avice finding herself at the center of them- it looks like Ariekei is doomed. Can the the Hosts, the planet, the humans and exoterres living on the planet, be saved? While the story is a wonderful, multiply textured adventure, it goes deeper than that. It explores the colonial attitude of humans, and how language develops and shapes and is shaped by its speakers. But it doesn’t preach or go technical; the story just shows us how it works for these characters in their world. The world building is marvelous. The story is slow at times- the beginning seems superfluous but it really isn’t – but those slow times are spent explaining the world to us. The characters are a bit lacking; none of them, even Avice, have much depth. We really never know what drives any of them. But in a way, this seems to fit with what I remember of old school science fiction- I don’t really remember much of it being character driven or spending a great deal of time explaining characters emotions. While not my favorite Mieville (Un Lun Dun holds that title), it’s a solid second.
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