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Embassytown by China Mieville

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A Goodreads entry that grew and grew, so I thought I would crosspost it here, despite it being neither steampunk nor Victorian.    There are some spoilers, but they are after a clearly-marked spoiler space.

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. 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, there would be significant communication and cultural barriers, and 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.



The 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 . . .


Written by Catherine Siemann

June 3, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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