Review: Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan)


There is a lot of pressure if you happen to be the next novel by China Miéville. His books have already won him three Arthur C. Clarke Awards, a Hugo, a BSFA, and a World Fantasy Award as well as numerous award nominations. The last book, Kraken, though didn’t get the same level of critical acclaim (though was perhaps misunderstood especially when you are told about its filter of dialectical materialism and a struggle with religion).

The prior one, The City & The City, though did happen to win the awards mentioned (not the two other ACCAs obviously). How do you follow could follow without being set in Bas-Lag? You become China Miéville’s first undeniable SF novel.

Embassytown: a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerser, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts – who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes. Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts. And that is impossible.

If there was any doubt that Miéville was writing true SF this time the blurb certainly strongly implies that he’s using the dressings of  the SF genre. We have the immer that allows travel between the stars, the Hosts who are not only aliens but who cannot lie (another alien concept). But also the only communication between the humans and the Host is the use of Ambassadors, who are the only humans that can speak Language so most of the humans on Embassytown don’t fully understand what the Hosts true nature is though I’m not sure the Ambassadors do either.

Now Embassytown is hard novel to discuss. Miéville has set it up in such a way that the main character’s, Avice’s, understanding is linked to the readers. And to explain nature of Language, the Ambassadors or the Hosts themselves would pre-empt and perhaps prejudge the cumulative effect of Avice’s narrative.

But let’s start with a definition:

Avis a-vis as a girl’s name is pronounced AY-viss. It is of Old German origin. From a Norman French form of the Old German name Aveza, derived from a short form of names with “av”. The Latin “avis” means “bird”.

Why is the meaning of her name important? Well it is and it isn’t and your take will  greatly influence your view of Embassytown. Or to put it another way I bought a copy of Chambers Dictionary for my iPhone to enhance my pleasure by looking up some of the more exotic words China used especially as he has a tendency to play as with Avice’s name.

That isn’t to say that you won’t enjoy Embassytown but you will miss some of the subtleties. Miéville loves words (which isn’t as daft a statement as it sounds) and can use them in ways that can make you pause in wonder ( usually wondering what the word actually means). But if you’ve read any China before you’ll know that already. The love language is part of the texture of his writing.

In Embassytown he makes Language (with a capital L) an intragal part of the plot. But not only does he creates a new way of using it. Not only by having a race that cannot lie but also by having them see communication differently. It’s our use of language, which alters them and Avice is a big part of that change.

Avice is also the first main character of Miéville that I’ve read that deeply speaks an emotional as well as rational level. If there is one weakness in China’s writing is that the ideas can sometimes override internal journey of the character but not so with Avice. She’s at the centre of everything though she is not the centre of the change that comes to Embassytown she is our witness and our interpreter. She is also vital to the way situation their develops.

China manages to miss-step the reader at the start with all his evocative description from the child of Avice before she trains to leave Embassytown as ship’s crew into the immer and the rest of the universe. Miéville could have given us a space opera right there. It was more than plausible that Avice could have given us an unique take on space and alien life that China only hints at throughout.

But it is the homecoming and the nesting allows Miéville introduce us via a younger more naive Avice and to re-introduce us to Embassytown with a more experienced and distanced Avice. It also gives her a different status than she left with allowing us an insight into the inner-workings of the town, which is more complex than first explained through the eyes of a child.

The genre dressing that China uses like the biotech of the hosts. Most of which seems alive and sentient in its own way but still used a tool for a particular function. Apart from Language it is the other main way that Miéville shows us how alien the Hosts are.

When things change for Embassytown its quite a realistic reaction in the boundaries that Miéville laid out for this world and the way it works but strangely I didn’t find the solution as realistic though the outcome was smart and opens up more possibilities.

If you didn’t know that SF could discuss and theorise on the power and nature of language Embassytown will show you how it’s done. If you want a story where the main character has a chance to save the world Embassytown is for you too. Actually if you like intelligent writing genre or not read it, just have a dictionary handy.

Embassytown is going to take a lot of beating to take the crown of my book of the year.

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