BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The distant space colony Embassytown is threatened by war when a new Ambassador arrives with a new take on an alien language.
PROS: The world building and creativity that we’ve come to expect of Miéville.
CONS: Characters are thin; sometimes gives too much of a good thing.
BOTTOM LINE: Miéville’s first foray into science fiction is a mixed bag, full of wonderful ideas but a bit to chilly to allow the reader to fully invest.
Science fiction has always been a genre of ideas. The grand masters of the form, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, etc, were visionaries and prospectors, staking claim on the future with not more than their wits and imaginations. It is by the measure of ideas that lauded fantasy author China Miéville’s first step into science fiction is a remarkable one.
Embassytown takes place on the planet Arieka, a distant Bremen colony world natively populated by a non space-faring species, the Ariekei, known locally as The Hosts. Embassytown is a bubble within the great Ariekein city, set aside by the Hosts and pumped full of breathable air by their bio-technological creations. The Ariekein city is built by and from this “biorigging” and is the principle object of trade between the two species.
The problem of diplomatic relations between humanity and the Hosts comes down to language, or Language as humans have dubbed their speech. The Hosts are unable to speak casually. Language is less concerned with the sounds made in the action of speaking as the mind that speaks. For this reason, Embassytowners are forced to develop Ambassadors, specialized twins, linked together in order to speak with the twin mouths of the Ariekei.
Avice Benner Cho, immerser and former Embassytowner and narrator of the story, represents another peculiar aspect of Ariekei Language in that she is a simile. The Hosts of Embassytown have created many similes, situations created and acted out by humans in order to facilitate the growth of Language. For the Ariekei, a simile is not an abstract comparison, it must be literally true. Avice is the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given her. Her status as an expat and expression endears her to a young linguist, Scile, out in the wider universe. When the pair marry, Scile is able to convince her to return to her former home so that he can study the Hosts up close.
To this point, Embassytown is as rich and visceral as any of Miéville’s other works. We are delighted to be swept along into this alien place, see its inner workings, and meet the people who make it go. The concept of Language, that words are things rather than symbols representing things, is wonderfully subversive, a bold idea that, as an underpinning, could allow for a great story to bloom over top. The problem is not the idea. It’s the characters. The book is written in the first person from Avice’s point of view but we rarely are given insight into her state of mind, or emotions, or idiosyncrasies. Frequently she simply acts as a sounding board to explain mysteries rather than engaging with them. Plenty of the other characters suffer from the same flaw. Bren, a cleaved former Ambassador, has a point of view, but not a personality. Scile as well. The closest thing Avice has to a friend in Embassytown, an automa called Ehrsul, is the most emotive creature in the book, artificial as she is.
Events in Embassytown take a turn when Bremen sends its own Ambassador, EzRa. Rather than the doppels of the homegrown Ambassadors, EzRa are two distinct people lashed together with advanced technology in order to speak with one mind. The affect on the Ariekei when they hear EzRa’s speech is dramatic and starts the Hosts down a path that could eventually destroy the entire world.
But again, even in the face of impending doom, Avice and her supporting cast glide from one intellectual decision to another, never exposing themselves as emotional creatures. Even the sulky Ez is subdued by his less emotive peers. It all adds up to the characters being sprites, moving through the story to meet its ends but rarely their own.
Miéville is known for his settings, Bas Lag, Un-London, Besz’el and Ul Qoma, and Embassytown is another classic. The city this time is within a city of monsters. The Ariekei have bio-engineered a living city that suffers the same fate as its masters. One almost wishes this were a point more integrated into the plot as the Hosts devolve and re-evolve, but it is spectacular none the less. Also intriguing is the faster than light travel mechanism. Immer is the space between spaces, a universal underworld stranger than is comfortable by the homo diaspora that now crawl the galaxy. Avice herself is trained as an immerser, one trained to deal with the disorienting nature of the immer and rock star of the space faring.
Miéville’s prose, as ever, is illuminating, his vocabulary unmatched, sending even the best read of us searching for the dictionary, but as a package, Embassytown is uneven. Parts of it are so compelling it ranks among the best in recent science fiction. Other bits get overlong and the relentless banter about the implications of certain aspects of Language start to feel manufactured. The book is stretched to the limit on the idea and in the places where a little humanity would help tie things together, we are left wanting.
Embassytown succeeds more often than it fails, however. It is impossible not to recommend this book if simply because of the weight of the imagination behind it. The setting is complete, the idea is compelling, and the world too aching for good science fiction. Though not an instant classic as many had hoped, Embassytown is good entertainment and that’s enough.