An exception was the crew, who stared frankly at the Ariekei they had never seen before. Across the room I saw my helmsman and I saw the expression on his face. Once I had heard a theory. It was an attempt to make sense of the fact that no matter how travelled people are, no matter how cosmopolitan, how biotically miscegenated from their homes, they can't be insouciant at the first sight of any exot race. The theory is that we're hardwired with the Terre biome, that every glimpse of anything not descended from the original backwater home, our bodies know we should not ever see.
In a future era, homo diaspora has taken to the stars and encountered a number of very different alien species. Embassytown exists to facilitate relationships with the Ariekei, an advanced race who look like something out of Lovecraft's nightmares. Despite their technological sophistication, the Ariekei lack a certain quality of imagination. For them, language and thought intertwine far beyond anything implied by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, though for reasons unique to the species. They cannot speak words that do not literally reference a thing. Through the eyes of our narrator, a human who is a simile in the Ariekei Language, we follow the chaos and conflict that develops when a human masters the ability to speak exactly as Embassytown's aliens Hosts do—- a human who can make statements that need not have any connection to reality. This is the premise of China Miéville's Embassytown, arguably the fantasist's first pure science fiction novel.
He has crafted, certainly, an impressive work. Other writers have imagined aliens with thought patterns and methods of communication that differ from ours, but rarely have they made the unknowable so convincing and comprehensible as Miéville manages. Biological tech has appeared in SF before, but few have examined its implications so believably. Even the crossing of an alien landscape contains plausible details often missing from other SF. Otherwordly fauna recognize humans as neither predator nor prey.
The author remains a remarkable wordsmith, particularly when he describes a city that "wasn't a city anymore," but "a collection of broken places separated by war without politics or acquisitions, so not really a war at all but something more pathological" filled with mutilated aliens, dead humans, "the stumps of hospitals," and biotech "gone incompetently feral." I've always been impressed with Miéville's ability to describe the fantastic as though he's looking out his window or walking down the street. The histories and geographies of his worlds simply exist to be referenced.
While he hasn't lost that ability, Embassytown, especially in its early chapters, grows at times ponderous and clumsy in its worldbuilding, teetering heavy with exposition and verbosity. Miéville will lose a few readers who lack interest in theories of language or who simply grow bored with the first hundred pages. In the middle of this book, then, we have a brilliant Miéville novel, thought-provoking and fascinating. Some readers will beg off before they get that far.
Other flaws may challenge the reader. For all of Embassytown's wild inventiveness, its characters, human and otherwise, feel curiously flat. They're believable, but they lack personal depth. The conclusion, too, rushes some of the conflicts and crises. Roughly a year separates this novel from the author's mind-bending The City and the City. Perhaps it simply wasn't enough time.
Nevertheless, Miéville remains a compelling writer whose work makes fascinating play of ideas. He's no literary author dabbling in genre and denying the results are SF or fantasy; he's a genre writer whose work the literati need to take seriously.
Author: China Miéville
ISBN: 0345524497, 978-0-345-52449-2, 978-0-345-52451-5 (e-book)
First published: 2011.