Embassytown

by China Miéville

Cover image

Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2011
Printing: 2012
ISBN: 0-345-52450-0
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 345

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Avice was born in Embassytown, an outpost colony on the very edge of human-explored space and home to one of the strangest and most incomprehensible alien (exoterre or exot in the terminology of the novel) races yet encountered. The Ariekei, whom Avice was raised to call Hosts, are not star-faring; in fact, they seem to have little interest in anything outside their world. But they have sophisticated organic technology and a capability to engineer life beyond anything that humans can do, which is enough to warrant a persistent colony (in a bubble of breathable air created by Ariekei biotechnology) and infrequent trade ships.

Embassytown starts as two interwoven threads of story. One follows the "present" of the arrival of a trade ship. Coming on the ship is a new Ambassador appointed by Embassytown's distant colonial power. The other thread sketches the story of Avice's childhood, her decision to become an immerser (starship crew), and her strange and nearly incomprehensible place within Host culture as a part of their language. By the time those stories meet, Miéville has shown the reader the deep strangeness of relations between human and Ariekei and given some hint of the contortions that humans have used to bridge the gap far enough to trade. He then turns the situation on its head in a dramatic, brutal, and tautly suspenseful story that never went where I expected it.

Since moving away from the New Crobuzon of Perdido Street Station and semi-sequels, Miéville seems to have been writing a tour of genres. This is the space opera, or perhaps the first contact, entry: a human civilization spread so far between the stars that Earth is a distant memory for most, aliens both comprehensible and bizarre, and a wonderfully inventive interstellar travel mechanism. But that's all just backdrop for a story about language, cognition, and communication between radically different perceptual frames.

The central puzzle of this story unfortunately works better the less that one tries to analyze it. Embassytown reminds me of Delany's Babel-17; similar to that book, the plot relies on a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Miéville does have the extra justification that he's writing about aliens with very non-human mindset, so to some extent he can get away with using a theory that isn't true of humans. But even taking that into account, the Ariekei's relationship with language has some aspects that are effectively magical and require quite a lot of suspension of disbelief. Miéville does at least give you this background fairly early in the book to give you an opportunity to acclimate before the plot starts poking at the language, but I had trouble not examining the (not particularly believable) mechanics too closely.

A related problem is that, as the plot develops (and I won't say more to avoid spoilers; this is the sort of book that delivers its suprises effectively and would suffer from spoilers), relationships with language change and develop in ways that I found a bit too easy. That's a slightly odd thing to say given how much effort and shattering change happens to bring about that development, but the more I thought about the plot, the more it felt like Miéville allowed change in ways that didn't fit the model of cognition that I think he'd previously built up. It doesn't hurt the story too badly, but it was a persistent niggle for me.

That said, when one does suspend disbelief, the story is tense and exciting and twists and changes in ways that kept me turning pages obsessively. There is a middle section that is emotionally difficult, since Miéville makes the readers sympathetic with both sides of an apparently irreconcilable conflict, but that just makes the payoff more satisfying. The end of the book is beautiful; it brought tears to my eyes, and did again when reviewing it for writing this review. I loved how characters that start the book as distant, cool, and incomprehensible develop through stages of pity and sympathy into admiration and amazement and respect.

But, beyond the care plot, the best thing about this book is Miéville's ability to construct universes with small comments and side descriptions. All the core action of the book takes place in or around Embassytown, but Miéville constructs a whole world of space travel and dark creatures beyond the bounds of normal space that's fascinating whenever it's mentioned. Some of his descriptions of space travel are like sailing; other parts reminded me slightly of Melissa Scott's Roads of Heaven, which has a method of space travel that is otherwise unique in my science fiction reading. Travel has nothing to do with physical distance and effortlessly spans galaxies by following the strange geography of the immer, and the throw-away details (like the beacons in the immer, or the age of constructs that space travelers have found) made me want to read several more books in this world.

Throughout, it's this same grasp of small, telling detail that makes the book so much fun. The slow reveal of the nature of politics in Embassytown at the start, timed beautifully with the interwoven main storyline. The adult misunderstanding of a childhood rhyming game which is both close but also obviously wrong since it doesn't properly rhyme, which I thought perfectly captured the nature of adult misunderstanding of child games. The way the Embassytown culture is constructed around occasional visits from trade ships. All the little details make sense and make the world feel rich and deep.

I had a few suspension of disbelief problems that meant this story didn't stand up quite as well as some of Miéville's previous work to further examination or thinking through after finishing reading. But, that said, it's tense, exciting, and very tightly written, continuing the precision and concision of more recent books such as The City & The City. Miéville is becoming a better writer over time, and given how good he was when he started, that's quite impressive.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-09-02

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21