EMBASSYTOWN by China Mieville

Book Quote:

“There were two main ways the Ariekei who could lie a little could lie. …The liars I had thus far seen were slow-liars.

There was reputed to be another technique. It was more base and vivid, and by far harder. This was for the speaker to collapse, in their mind, even individual word-meanings, and simply to brute-utter all necessary sounds. To force out a statement. This was quick-lying: the spitting out of a tumble of phonemes before the untruth of their totality stole the speaker’s ability to think them.”

Book Review:

Review by Bill Brody  (MAY 17, 2011)

The core of Embassytown by China Mieville is an exploration of the nature of language in the context of the future on a far-distant solar system where humans interact with an alien species that speak a profoundly different language. This is a new book by the brilliantly inventive author of The City and the City, Perdido Street Station, Kraken and others. I have read four of his books now and one common thread is that they have a philosophical emphasis, and plunge us without much explanation into a radically different world than our own. Due to the strangeness of these worlds, the first part of each book is like visiting some foreign place without knowing much at all about the place, the people, and the customs. Initially clueless, we are rewarded with an unfolding appreciation of the environment. Complex philosophical and conceptual issues are the point of this body of work. Embassytown is no exception to this rule.

Embassytown takes place some distant time in the future when humans have spread to the stars. The science is pretty vague, but also isn’t really the point. This is space opera with a twist. Our latter-day heroine triumphs after incredible difficulties by heroism and the timely application of creative technology. Given Mieville’s wildly inventive mind, this is technology with a twist. We are forcefully reminded that language is a powerful tool and that its use is socially transmitted. Language is one of those significant enabling technologies along with the wheel, fire and the internet.

Embassytown showcases Mieville’s uncanny ability to create outré characters, situations and conceptual mash-ups. The most significant concept in the novel is the language spoken by the Ariekei, the natives of the planet on which the story takes place. Embassytown is the name of the human enclave on this planet. This language, unlike any others spoken by technologically advanced species, is one in which the only things that can be said at all are truths, sort of an embodiment of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philsophicus. Something untrue is simply not comprehended as language at all.

The Ariekei have two mouths, each with their own vocabulary and voice. Their speech is the two mouths working in synchrony. If two different people try to speak Ariekei it is incomprehensible; synthesized speech is heard as mere noise. What is required for comprehensible speech is that two intelligent voices must be simultaneous and so in tune with each other as to be of one mind. People have developed a breeding program to develop cloned pairs who can be trained to be comprehensible. When the planet of which Embassytown is a colony sends a new kind of ambassador composed of two very different individuals who can nevertheless be understood by the Ariekei, the result is a tragic addiction to this impossible speech, a la the media addiction in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Avice, our heroine, is an immerser, a navigator in something like the underbelly of the universe. She is known to the Ariekei as a simile, “the girl who ate what was given to her.” This is short for, “There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given to her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time.” Her word-self is spoken to describe irony, surprise and a kind of resentful fatalism. She became this simile when she was a child. Some Ariekei asked and paid handsomely that she be put into an old room, suffer some discomfort, and eat what she was given so that they had a particular fact, an actual event, the description of which could be used as a comprehensible figure of speech. We never learn exactly why they made this request, or how they came to be able to articulate their need, but the character of this simile and the fact that other humans living in Embassytown have been similarly employed to become figures of speech of one sort or another is crucial to the resolution of the plot. In other words a simile with conscious intent, our heroine, becomes the agent of resolution to this tale.

This space opera plays out in Chomsky land; in Whorf-Sapir land; in Wittgenstein space. We expect space warps and super ray guns when we pick up science fiction; instead we get language as technology mixed in with the philosophy of truth, lies and figures of speech. Mieville takes his technology seriously by focusing on that most important tool, language, and by asking the question: Can language even be language without lies? And, of course it is all enormously entertaining and mind-bending. Bravo!

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 56 readers
PUBLISHER: Del Rey (May 17, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bill Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on China Miéville
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The City & The City

Perdido Street Station


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May 17, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Speculative (Beyond Reality), y Award Winning Author

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