Embassytown is weird-fantasy rock star China Miéville’s tenth book in as many years, a streak scheduled to continue by one per year according to the Del Rey promo copy. At his recent reading at Public Assembly in Brooklyn, Miéville, though muscular and imposing with a nice helping of tattoos and metal rings in his ear, looked abashed sitting spot-lit on a stage at an erstwhile rock club. The room was full; a typically nerdy reading crowd with a smattering of fishnet and black tee subculture kids. These were his people.
“You realize none of us here are cool,” he said after referencing a childhood Dungeons & Dragons character, full of English self-deprecation but not without some ironic, well-deserved geek pride. Here was the man who invented Bas-Lag, one of the most original fantasy worlds of the decade, winning a train of fantasy awards including two Arthur C. Clarkes with Perdido Street Station in 2001 and Iron Council (2004). He became a kind of anti-Tolkein figurehead of a burgeoning class of “New Weird” fiction, though coming out in defense of Middle Earth’s legacy later on (“Don’t you traduce me, Grossman!” Miéville warned when moderator Lev Grossman attempted to rehash Miéville’s now infamous Tolkien rant). In 2009, he switched gears with The City and The City, an earthbound detective story with a fantastic twist. He changed it up again in 2010 with Kraken, a punchy novel about a missing giant squid in London. Kraken was received with enthusiasm, gaining fascinated write-ups in The New York Times and The Guardian and all over the blogosphere. In between, he published a YA novel, a non-fiction book about international law and stood for Parliament in his native UK. He has drawn some criticism for his more politically-charged books (particularly Iron Council) pushing his Socialist party affiliations, a claim he refutes by saying his books may reflect his leanings, but are not aimed to evangelize.
It seems only natural his follow-up would be Embassytown; a 350-page science fiction novel about linguistics.
“I’ve been a science fiction writer for 12 years and I’ve finally written a science fiction book,” Miéville told the crowd, when asked about his turn to “hard” SF. Though well-steeped in the classic SF canon, he scoffed at what he called “partisan” distinctions. “If you’re saying that sci-fi is about technology while fantasy is about magic, I hate to tell you, but faster-than-light drives are magic. You have no idea how they work.”
This essay contains some spoilers. As I complained at the Brooklyn reading, it is difficult to talk about this book without giving something away that might be fun to discover on one’s own. The slow reveal of Embassytown’s premise is something to savor, and I feel bad depriving others of that sense of awe that comes when you finally work out a detail from an earlier chapter. Miéville absolved me of this by saying he did not mind spoilers, so long as they were announced. So: Spoiler alert, code yellow. I won’t give away the ending, promise.
Like The City and The City—Embassytown starts out fairly opaque, and builds an intricate story as the premise becomes clear, chapter by chapter. A section of the “Proem” starts with this:
When I was seven years old I left Embassytown. Kissed my shiftparents and siblings goodbye. I returned when I was eleven: married; not rich but with savings and a bit of property; knowing how to fight, how to obey orders, how and when to disobey them; and how to immerse.
Which makes almost as little sense in context as it does here. We learn relatively quickly that of the “I” above is Avice Benner Cho, a young woman born in the backwater colony of Embassytown on the planet Arieka, at the fringes of the known universe. Avice is an “immerser,” an interplanetary sailor for hire, an occupation that has allowed her to flee her Podunk roots to ply her trade in the far-flung Terre empire. Avice’s universe is technologically far-advanced but emotionally and politically familiar, populated by human beings and plenty of “Exoterre” races.
An uneasy apartheid exists in Embassytown between the human settlers and the native creatures, known as “Hosts” out of a kind of squeamish respect. The Hosts are intelligent, exoskeletal creatures that speak simultaneously with two mouths, communicating in a (capital-L) Language so literal that it is impossible for them to lie, or even speak in the abstract. In the Hosts’ Language, signifier and signified are inseparable. They are a species without metaphor, lacking any relatable capacity for deceit or expressible imagination. Communication is possible only through human ambassadors bred in identical pairs. It is a co-existence based on “mutual misunderstanding.”
Having “escaped” the provincial life, the gregarious and endearing Avice enjoys bouncing around the universe in Miéville’s lyrical take on space travel, until she meets and marries Scile, a linguist obsessed with her home world’s communication problems. Against her previous inclinations, Scile persuades Avice to return home, where they enter the social/political sphere of Embassytown just as indigenous/colonial relations take a drastic turn for the worse.
Miéville told Lev Grossman and the Brooklyn crowd he has been thinking about two-mouthed aliens since he was eleven years old. A “typically geeky kid,” he was well acquainted with “golden age” science fiction, but was more inspired by the writers in the 70s and 80s who wrote in critical response to the Heinlein/Asimov styles, citing Ursula K. LeGuin and Robert Silverberg as influences, in addition to his “weird” Lovecraftian roots. This influence is apparent: we have sex without buxom blondes, advanced technology without labored explanations of how everything works. For a grownup interested in imagination and the metaphorical possibilities of invented worlds, it’s incredibly satisfying.
Miéville is annoyingly versatile and has made a career out of taking risks. Despite having created a fantasy world that inspired its own Bas-Lag role-playing game, he risks losing genre fans by including no eminently likeable heroes, few easy conventions to settle into. A very intelligent friend of mine who is a huge Game of Thrones fan told me he found Embassytown too cerebral and bogged down in theory. On the other hand, Miéville risks alienating non-SF audiences by sticking to his geek origins with foreign worlds and imaginary technology, even after the relative mainstream popularity of Kraken. He risks confusing his existing fans with a Bob Dylan-like refusal to keep to one sub-genre.
Embassytown is solid story telling, above all, full of the hard examination of physical and social grotesques in human life that has built Miéville a cult following in the past decade. In person, he asserted the primacy of narrative over world-building, which explains one possible reason why his ostensibly lucrative urban fantasy series stopped at three (he called it the Bas Lag “anti-trilogy”). Embassytown is good reading, on top of being fun SF, because it is Avice’s memoir. When asked for a specific detail about the Hosts’ evolution, Miéville suggested it as perhaps not important for him to define every tiny detail of alien physiology. Embassytown is a first-person narrative; the story of an individual born into this world that would not exist for us without her.
Then there is the loving conjecture on imagination, language, and symbols and a take on gender that reflects his progressive SF influences. Avice, like the heroine of The Scar, is an exciting protagonist, guide, and general badass. Her love affairs are driven by the complex desire of a 30-year-old with some life experience that transcends predictable attractions. There is an exploration of (spoiler alert!) sex with clones, but really, what’s the use of inventing your own world without having a little fun?
Both Miéville and Grossman referenced Ursula LeGuin as an influence, and fans of her Eckumenical novels will likely get along in Embassytown. The linguistic ideas behind the Hosts’ Language fascinate me as a layperson, particularly idea of the essentially “true” language, as spoken in Eden before the fall; and the relationship between abstraction and lying.
In true Miéville style, the book swiftly evolves into a guided anarchy of political machinations and human relationships that blend surprisingly well with the story in progress. Avice’s alliances shift, creatures and humans turn out to be more than expected. The man sure can tell a story; we just don’t realize it until we’ve finished.