China Mieville's heady new novel harks back to the 1970s science fiction of Ursula Le Guin and Doris Lessing.
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.
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.
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.