China Miéville's 'Embassytown': a galaxy where words, worlds and fates collide
China Miéville's new science-fiction novel, "Embassytown," is the innovative author's concoction of far-off worlds, semantic puzzles and misunderstandings of cosmic importance. Miéville will discuss his book with Stranger book editor Paul Constant Saturday, May 28, at Chop Suey on East Madison in Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
China MiévilleThe author of "Embassytown" will discuss his book with Stranger book editor Paul Constant at 7 p.m. Saturday at Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., Seattle. Tickets are $5 and are available through thestranger.com. Co-sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
Read "Embassytown" twice. China Miéville's new science-fiction novel is a rich concoction of multiple strangenesses, and it bears repeated savoring. Like the aliens on whose revolution "Embassytown" (Del Rey, 358 pp., $25) focuses, this book speaks simultaneously with more than one voice: It's both a far-future adventure into the weirdness of far-off worlds, and a mind-expanding philosophical excursion into the whatness of words.
The book opens with a cocktail party attended by humans and natives living on the planet Arieka, thrown to celebrate the arrival of Embassytown's latest Ambassador. The wait for this guest of honor is punctuated by several chapters in which Miéville's heroine, a human woman named Avice Benner Cho, narrates a back-and-forth reprise of Ariekene history and her life. Avice is an "immerser," a sailor of the non-Euclidean space that links human colonies on planets scattered across the galaxy and beyond.
Avice, after an uncomfortable initiation, has become what's known as a "living simile" in the speech of Arieka's natives, the Hosts. Hosts, as Ariekenes are known to the human colonists, are unable to lie. They can't even use metaphors. In order to talk about an idea they must know it to be factual, so as a child, Avice is subjected to a not-very-pleasant dining experience. After this the Hosts can truthfully say "a girl ate what was given her" and compare that concept with other things.
In addition to being ruled by truthfulness the Hosts display two other linguistic oddities: They utter complementary phrases at the same time with their two mouths, and they hear intentions instead of sounds. Artificial speech generators don't work, nor can human physiology reproduce the dual tracks of the Hosts' language.
Communication between humans and Hosts is managed through specially trained clone pairs whose two minds are made to approximate one — Ambassadors. But with the new Ambassador, an odd couple created by an off-planet political power, an end to this precarious setup arrives. The new Ambassador's two minds are out of sync with each other — closely matched enough that this Ambassador's utterances aren't just nonsense, but far enough out of step that the cognitive dissonance of what it says intoxicates the Hosts, acting like a sort of oratorial crack. All Arieka become addicted. Trade in Ariekene biological devices — oxygen generators, aircraft — is disrupted; food becomes scarce, then air, then safety, as armies of self-deafened Hosts massacre humans with whom they can no longer negotiate.
Though Miéville's seven previous novels and one story collection can all be classified as fantasy, "Embassytown" is rife with more strictly science-fictional concepts.
The author introduces several early on: rotating church-beacons, skittish power stations and neologisms like "shiftfather" and "miab" dot the opening pages liberally. These ideas aren't just fantastic visions; they're reasoned extrapolations from real-life forms of religion, technology and sociology. In patented genre fashion Miéville defines his terms on the fly and via context, so readers unused to this approach will probably want to revisit the book's first pages after they've absorbed these new words' meanings. And anyone who isn't a linguist will have at least a little difficulty absorbing the author's arguments about what can and can't be said, and why. None of these are reasons to skip "Embassytown;" all of them are reasons to read and reread it.
As Avice speeds across Arieka's continents trying to stop Hosts suddenly intent on eradicating their human guests, she is both a heroine hacking her way through airborne trees and scaring off bizarre predators, and a seat-of-the-pants theorist; both a rebel and a storyteller. Like her creator, she conveys truth with lies. Heard in harmony, read in repetition, lies and truth come together in "Embassytown" in unfamiliar yet ultimately satisfying ways.
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