For the sake of completeness – I realise I never reposted this review (originally written for Global Comment) here. This version is slightly longer than the original.
When China Miéville’s The City and the City won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2010, there was some debate over whether or not the book was really science fiction. With his new book there can be no doubt. The City and the City was a crime novel set in a fictional part of Eastern Europe: Embassytown is set on another planet.
Arieka (the planet upon which the city of Embassytown is located) is home to a race of aliens known to Terran settlers as “the Hosts” or the Ariekei. What they look like is never very clear. Miéville’s previous books have often contained creatures that cannot be adequately described except through fleeting glimpses – notably the Slake Moths of Perdido Street Station and the Grindylows of The Scar. We do know that the Hosts have “fanwings” which aid in communication, and that they have two mouths.
This last is important because the language of the Ariekei is unique. Firstly, they cannot tell lies. In this language there is no real boundary between the signifier and signified; the word is the thing itself. It’s a clever inversion; two tongues but only one meaning rather the the other way around. This inability to lie makes the use of metaphor rather complicated — the thing to which the comparison is being made must already exist in the world. The Terran narrator of the book, Avice Benner Cho (her initials ABC) is a simile. She is “the girl who ate what was given to her”; a description vague enough to be of use in many contexts.
Secondly, this language relies not only on sounds but on the mind behind them. The two mouths must speak simultaneously, and they must mean what they say, but they must also be motivated by the same consciousness. Most Terrans cannot speak the language: two may speak simultaneously, but unless they share the same mind to the Ariekei it’s so much gibberish. Hence the importance of the Ambassadors, pairs of Terrans who are genetically identical, and raised solely for this purpose. The Ambassadors are seen not as two people but as a single entity; with names like CalEb and MagDa, their individual components only meriting half a name. The events of Embassytown are set off by the arrival of an Ambassador of an entirely different kind, whose voice affects the Hosts in unexpected ways.
This is a setting that allows Miéville to explore various ideas around language and consciousness. There is, for example, the strange place that lying assumes in Ariekei culture. The nature of Ariekei language (referred to throughout as capital L Language) renders it “incapable of formulating the uncertainties of monsters and gods”, and so the Hosts have no religion. However, they do have “festivals of lies” at which people compete in trying to use Language to tell falsehoods. Lying has taken on an almost religious significance here; something beyond Language, impossible and yet apparently conceivable. This raises the question of whether it is even possible for something to be “beyond words”, a notion contested early in the book by Avice’s partner Scile, a linguist. The possibility of a language in which word and thing are the same brings to mind the first sentence of the Bible. If the Ariekei think of lies in semi-religious terms, various Terrans regard Language as an almost pre-lapsarian means of communication, and one that must, by virtue of its unsulliedness be preserved.
Equally, there is the question of the mind (and since religion has become involved, the soul). Are Ambassadors made up of two separate people, or are they one? Does Avice’s friend Ehrsul, an “autom”, have a soul? Can the Ariekei recognise individual Terrans as sentient beings (and not strange, half-minded creatures)? And are even regular human minds ever really that unified?
The issue of colonialism is also raised in the relationship between the Hosts and the Bremen Empire to which most Embassytown residents belong. The Hosts have advanced biotechnology, while the Terrans have the ability to travel and trade, a relationship that seems egalitarian. Yet the Terrans are backed by the larger might of an empire. Later events bear out the existence of a power imbalance, with connections made between colonialism and drug addiction (it is easy here to make a connection with imperialism in Asia) and the Hosts confronting their status as postcolonial subjects.
But this is itself is a bit of a problem for me. Because once you begin to read Embassytown as a book (partly) about colonialism and religion (and if you don’t subscribe to this reading all this is irrelevant), we have a book in which aliens who have their wonderful, prelapsarian innocence destroyed stand in for the brown people and the humans who travel around the universe spreading their culture are the white people. I don’t know how this connotation could be avoided (by making the Terrans not Terran? By having the Ariekei have a more visible cultural impact on the various groups who visit their planet?) Miéville deals with a rather fraught set of questions better than most, but it’s there, and it makes me uncomfortable.
Miéville answers very few of the questions he poses, exploring ideas without coming down on any particular side. It can feel slightly scattershot – there are more questions and leaps of thought from one idea to another than there is deep engagement with any single idea. And yet there are times when this works. Science fiction is often praised for an ability to literalize metaphor, and this is very clearly more a novel of ideas than one where plot, setting and character are central. But here we have something different. So much of the structure of the universe of Embassytown is unknown even to the characters that inhabit it – we learn early on that this is not the first universe there has been, and about the “lighthouses” in the immer, created by unknown peoples. Some of the most fundamental questions about the universe remain unknown. Such a universe is one in which questions can be debated; not necessarily one in which they can be answered.
Miéville’s language has always been both elaborate and richly allusive, and in a book about language this is even more evident. He coins words like “shivabomb” and “pharotekton” without explaining them, and in working out their etymologies the reader is reminded of just how dependant on metaphor our own language is. A number of words are derived from German, since the “Bremen” empire is involved. The indescribable alternate space through which people travel vast distances through space is called the “immer”, German for “always”, while the space we habitually exist in is the “manchmal” or “sometimes”. But “immer” also allows for the word “immersion” to describe space travel.
It’s when the characters are talking about language that Miéville stumbles a little. I’m not sure the concept at the centre of the book (how Language works) holds up, but I was willing for the duration to suspend disbelief and treat it as an intellectual exercise rather than a matter crucial for the functioning of a plot. Avice’s circumstances make it seem natural that she should be able to speak knowledgeably about language (and I appreciate the author’s willingness to use critical terms). Yet some of her explanations seem rather unnecessary. “The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on.” Indeed, and it’s an apt analogy, but the reader who is familiar with such basic structuralist terms as “langue” and “parole” has probably figured this out. The linguist character, Scile, repeatedly explains things that the text is already making quite clear.
Yet Embassytown (mostly) works. It is unabashedly an intellectual exercise, and at times its characters seem rather lifeless. But it is bursting with ideas, language well used, and is occasionally a good story. These things make it easy to forgive much.