China Miéville, Embassytown

I just finished China Miéville’s latest offering Embassytown, and although I wish for aesthetic reasons that I had reviewed more books in between this and Kraken, you’ll have to suck it up. The good news is that this book shows Miéville at the top of his game once again, with something completely serious. The City & The City, his now third-to-latest book, I think kind of got away from what he was trying to do with. Kraken, while a good read in its own right, was probably also a little too much fun to write for the reasons I have described, and even in its most enjoyable moments there was a little too much of China Miéville, fantasy geek rather than China Miéville, author to be taken seriously for literary merits. Others may disagree with me, but I am putting Embassytown as the best non-Bas Lag book he has, and maybe with a little more thought, it might be second only to Iron Council. I say this because we see him at his best both in dealing with the problems of the genre in its own right, and at the same time being uncompromisingly political, which I imagine is a very hard balance to strike.

Embassytown is science fiction rather than fantasy, which most of his novels have been at least partially rooted in. It remains a sad reality that many readers and writers of today will not touch this genre with a ten-lightyear long pole. Even one of the greatest scifi writers, a man by the name of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., found it necessary midway through his career to renounce the label to achieve mainstream success, though we might note that his books changed little in subject matter afterwards. Iain Banks, world-renowned author of The Wasp Factory, adopted the middle initial “M” to publish his acclaimed “Culture” series of science fiction novels, to assuage his agent’s fear that he might become less respectable were his name associated with them by the wider reading public. And though Philip K. Dick remains the standard bearer of scifi and has been accepted by at least part of academia, the highest arbiter of what counts as literature, most often he is described as having transcended the limits of the genre in some way or another. Miéville is completely unabashed about his genre roots, and if you give him a chance, will prove that good genre writing is at the same level – or possibly higher – than good “mainstream” writing.

Here we are placed in our own future, although a very distant one in which humans have moved beyond the Earth and become homo diaspora. The ability to travel long distances over short periods of time in space is done through the “immer,” something which although never described precisely is probably regions of our own universe in which the traditional laws do not apply rather than a “hyperspace.” Governments of course stretch over solar systems now, and the biggest power we are told of is named Bremen, which seems to have some characteristics of the early modern commercial empires such as Britain, the Netherlands and Portugal. Mankind still speaks a version of global English (called “Anglo-Ubik”) as its lingua franca, we remain driven by the imperative of economic accumulation, and still worship our current deities though in altered forms to account for realms beyond the Earth such as “Christ Pharoketon.” Like all of Miéville’s books, and much of scifi/fantasy lit in general, this book relies on a slow buildup to create the world in the reader’s mind. At some points, the world of the future is just as alien to us as the world of the Hosts (below) are to future humans. If you keep with it as I did, though, you will be very well rewarded. Oh, and aliens do exist- there are at least several species mentioned in the book that have become somewhat normal to humans, and live beside us.

One species that definitely is not normal are the Ariekeians, a species called the “Hosts” by the humans living on their planet for the greater part of the book. The Hosts have a completely alien physiology (I imagine one as two identical bald emus joined at the hip for some reason). More importantly, they have a language, called “Language” for lack of a better word, that is an integral part of their minds. Miéville has previously delighted language nerds such as myself with Bellis Coldwine’s descriptions of the guttaral, rasping tongue spoken by the zombies of High Cromlech, the sailor’s pidgin of Armada, and the scholarly, Sanskrit-like High Kettai from The Scar, but here he takes it to a whole new level.

Language is spoken by both mouths at once, and as if that weren’t confusing enough, the Ariekeians don’t understand anything as language in which there are not two beings with complete empathy speaking simultaneously, which requires humans to adapt creatively by genetically engineering identical twins called “Ambassadors” to communicate with them. Furthermore, Language in its original form is a strictly innate tongue – meaning, it does not have lies, metaphors, nor anything that does not exactly correspond to something existing in reality as the Hosts see it. At the beginning of the novel they have just started to invent similes by getting humans to perform certain actions and then referring to that action in speech. Our narrator, Avice Benner Cho, during her childhood received the dubious honor of becoming a simile in Language – she is “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her.” That the Hosts would understand such a thing and want to refer to it should give us an idea of how different they are. There are no real relationships between the humans in their corner of Ariekeia called “Embassytown” and the Hosts, save for that the Hosts provide bio-engineered food and other supplies as the humans need them. The life if the Ariekeians remains incomprehensible to humans (in a manner reminiscent of the planet Solaris in the novel of Stanislaw Lem by the same name) – until one day.

What happens I will do my best not to ruin completely for you. I have already said that the Hosts are incapable of lying, until the humans arrive. With the aid of a new kind of Ambassador, the Hosts become irretrievably addicted to a form of untruth spoken in Language, which has a similar destructive effect on their minds and productive capacities as heroin might for us. Through a series of accidents that once you have read the book seems inevitable, what follows is an all-out war between the Hosts and “Terre” that takes on the trappings of a distinctly anti-colonial rebellion. This is where Miéville really comes into his own. I have linked to his talk on “Marxism and Monsters” in my review of Kraken, and anyone wanting to understand Embassytown would do well to listen to that talk first. The attack of the Hosts takes something from both modern imaginings of an insurgent working class as in George Romero’s zombie movies (in case you didn’t get this, Miéville is kind enough to have the Terre watch old zombie flicks and imagine themselves in the same position) and colonial images of the attacking barbarians, such as in the Sepoy Mutiny and numerous African rebellions. It really helps to have knowledge of what he is trying to do in, for instance, these passages, which describe the attacking Hosts:

Above all it was their discipline that was absurd, impossible, the way without words groups would peel off from the main slow body, coordinated into snatch squads that tore through strange country and took apart our rangers, or recruited new Ariekei troops by ripping their flesh… The solipsism of those that had torn out their own fanwings seemed impenetrable… they were thousands who’d closed all windows in and out of themselves, cut off Language, become monads filled with murder. (278-84)

A good, timely passage for those of us, whether liberal or conservative, atheist or fundamentalist Christian, who imagine Muslim fanatics in Iraq or Palestine running to blow up the nearest civilian and himself to please their bloody God and receive his 72 virgins. No. The Ariekeians were fucked with on a massive scale by the humans, and by Bremen specifically. Near the middle of the book the economic importance of Embassytown to Bremen becomes clear, and also that it didn’t particularly matter to it whether a whole species became junkies or was destroyed. While you have to be looking out for this sometimes, since our narrator is a human, by the end even she acknowledges that the massacre of the humans was a generous act by one generation of Ariekeians to the next, who would be born into Language without having to suffer drug addiction or subjection by an alien species. How about that – a scifi Battle of Algiers. Highly recommended.

Literary qualities 4/5, Social qualities 5/5

China Miéville, Embassytown. New York: Del Rey, 2011. $26

Similar books: Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies

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Filed under Literature, Politics, Reading journal

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