China Mieville's heady new novel harks back to the 1970s science fiction of Ursula Le Guin and Doris Lessing.
By Jeff VanderMeer for The Barnes & Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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Reminiscent of 1970s socio-political science fiction by the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Doris Lessing, China Miéville's often revelatory new novel Embassytown is three books in one: a tense political thriller; an amazing, sometimes brutal rhapsody on the uses of language; and a curiously flat account of civil war.
"Embassytown" follows hard on the heels of two other Miéville novels: the much-lauded philosophical police procedural cum fantasy "The City & The City" and the fun but overlong romp "Kraken." The new novel most closely resembles "The City & The City" in attempting to combine the grotesque physicality of The Weird with other genres – this time alien contact SF – while also engaging the reader at the level of Idea. As ever with such enterprises, it takes tremendous skill to make those ideas an organic part of story and of character. At times "Embassytown" attains mastery – and at times it does not.
The clinical yet compelling Avice Brenner Cho narrates this alien contact adventure. She is a native of Embassytown, which occupies an uneasy position as a human outpost on the planet of Arieka. The indigenous intelligent species, known as the Ariekei, have helped humans create a livable space that keeps out the planet's toxic atmosphere. Their civilization depends heavily on animals rather than inert machinery. Factories, buildings, and vehicles are all living bio-tech, as boldly visceral as anything in Miéville's Bas-Lag novels.
Avice belongs to two unique groups. First, she can help pilot ships through the immer, which allows travel to Embassytown and other far-flung enclaves. What is the immer? Miéville is typically inventive in describing it: "The immer's reaches don't correspond at all to the dimensions … of this space where we live. 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." That last bit slyly infuses an already language-besotted novel with some of Ferdinand Sassure's linguistic theorizing.
Second, the Ariekei inflicted a peculiar honor on Avice as a child, making her in essence a part of their language. She is asked to perform the actions that will allow the Ariekei to truthfully say the following: "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."
Why do the Ariekei need her for this? To radically simplify Miéville's intent, the Arieke language is hyper-literal; a comparison cannot exist unless it has a physical reality:
"Where to us each word means something, to the [Ariekei] each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that reference, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen…Everything in Language is a true claim. So they need the similes to compare things to, to make true things that aren't there yet, that they need to say."
Her strange experience, almost ritualistically staged, makes Avice a member of an exclusive club of fellow "similes," who, like a self-help group, meet to discuss the meaning of their transformation.