China Mieville's heady new novel harks back to the 1970s science fiction of Ursula Le Guin and Doris Lessing.
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But that's not the only aspect of the Ariekei language crucial to the novel, nor even the most interesting, because daily trade and other communications depend on vat-grown human Ambassadors: perfectly paired twins who can perform both "the Cut and the Turn," the dual sounds without which the two-mouthed Ariekei do not recognize their own language. The result is a linguistic puzzle apparently unique in the universe, an enigma so deep it engrosses Avice's husband, a linguist named Scile, his obsession putting serious strain on their bond.Skip to next paragraph
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Miéville's ruminations on language are brilliant, as are explorations of the relationship between Avice and various Ambassador pairs, which deepen the political intrigue. Miéville also sets up an interesting factionalism within the Ariekei by presenting a sect of the aliens who use a Festival of Lies as a deadly serious gambit to change their civilization. The crisis that emerges is intensified by the author's cross-cutting between real-time and past events, a technique which results in a richly layered portrait of Embassytown and its inhabitants. The culmination of this effect occurs when Miéville documents the first meeting of the Arikei and a new Ambassador, EzRa, sent from the off-world central authority. Not only does EzRa represent a possible imperial gambit by the home government, but they also are not perfect twins. Indeed, they are quite mismatched, one "tall and thin" and the other "stocky, muscular and more than a hand shorter."
The effect on the Arikei when EzRa speaks to them sets off an irrevocable chain-reaction that threatens the existence of both Embassytown and the Arikei. Oddly, it's in this transformation of a place and a civilization that Miéville, who has for almost 200 pages wedded tension and characters to amazing extrapolation, loses his bearings.
For a long time after this event, Avice narrates, but slips from her role as central to the action. As a result, the text becomes less nuanced in places, fewer scenes protrude from summary, and other characters must come to Avice and relate particulars. Individual missions she undertakes – whether "traveling out of the city," making "our way to some nursery," dragooning "some of Embassytown's transit machines," or leaving the city "three times" contain a sameness that becomes repetitious and undermines innervating images of destruction. Characters like Scile drift out of the narrative, only to reappear less as people than as plot devices. An epidemic of suicides by Ambassadors isn't given sufficient initial explanation, nor does Avice adequately explain upfront why Embassytown is suddenly in such immediate danger. Tension leaks away like the rapidly degrading environment of Embassytown itself.
Nevertheless, toward the end, the novel largely regains its inner equilibrium. Avice again becomes more personally involved – her role as an Arieki "simile" proving to be key – and the uses of language re-enters the plot with renewed significance. A last desperate quest to rescue the situation contains real pathos, real sacrifice, and true narrative vigor. Embassytown, Arieka, and the Ariekei will never be the same again, but something meaningful may be salvaged.
"Embassytown" isn't a perfect novel – it is infuriatingly dull and plodding in places – but it's also original, sophisticated, bristling with subversive ideas, and filled with unforgettably alien images.
Jeff VanderMeer, author of "City of Saints and Madmen," regularly reviews books for The Barnes & Noble Review.