China Miéville’s latest (Embassytown) popped into my head on my last visit to the library. Glancing at the catalogue, I saw that there was one copy currently available at the branch — in the large print section.
So off I went to find the large print section, and there, beside a host of westerns, I found what I was looking for. I felt a little guilty at taking the copy of the book that was intended for those with worse eyesight than my own, but, I reasoned, it was only for a week.
I was skeptical that large print would make the reading experience any easier for me (my eyesight is fairly good), but having never read one before, I am now completely sold. Meaning practically leapt from the page to my brain and the chapters flew by. I doubt I’ll go out of my way to find large print books in future, but, if presented with the choice, I know which I’ll pick.
The world building in Embassytown is exceptional. Miéville has created a unique and compelling alien race, and, living alongside them in the eponymous city, a convincing consequent human society. In its potential as a canvas for Miéville to explore big ideas (about lots of things, but mostly language), it reminded me of the world(s) of LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. It reminded me of her work, too, in its humanism and its aspirational quality. I think it is not as ‘important’ as The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, and Miéville’s style is less literary and more divisive than LeGuin’s, but I am comfortable comparing this work to the other two.
Here is one thing: the Ariekei can speak only truth. More specifically, there is no division between the thing being referred to and the words used to refer to it — the two are exactly the same. Because reality and language are one, there is no conception of untruth for the Ariekei. Here is another: their language is spoken via two voices speaking simultaneously. This, humans are capable of replicating. But there’s more: each voice must stem from a single mind. Through some empathic magic (there’s a little fudging here, but that’s just fine — this isn’t hard sci-fi), the Ariekei can only perceive speech as language and not noise if there is a single mind giving simultaneous double voice to a thought.
The solution to this problem is the Ambassadors, who are able to communicate with the Ariekei and about whom I will say little more. The novel begins with the arrival of a new kind of Ambassador from the planet of which Embassytown is a colony.
The novel is told from the point of view of Avice, a quasi-celebrity resident of Embassytown. The first eight chapters (referred to as ‘latterday’) detail the events of the soirée at which the new Ambassador is presented to society and to the Ariekei, from the nice dresses to the trays of Fererro Rocher (not really!). These are interspersed with pseudo-chapters (referred to as ‘formerly’) detailing Avice’s early life in Embassytown, her life as a space sailor, and her return to her home planet. The remainder of the novel (starting at chapter nine) proceeds in a mostly linear fashion from the day afterward.
Perhaps needless to say, the arrival of the new Ambassador is the source of much narrative conflict. In fact, it would be truer to say that his arrival turns everything to absolute shit. Disaster and misery is heaped on horror and degradation as society collapses. After the intellectual delight that is the first half of the novel, this second act feels like it goes on a little too long. It does eventually transition into the third act though, when glimmers of hope start to emerge. This last section, approximately the last quarter of the novel, is brilliant. Though they make perfect sense within the parameters of the novel and the strange linguistic logic that Miéville has created, the problems that the characters face and the solutions that they generate defy description outside of that context. Suffice it to say that I found myself smiling, and smiling again, as Avice works with the Ariekei to overcome utter disaster.
The novel is written in the first person. Though this can sometimes be a bugbear to me (cf. Steph Swainson and Patrick Rothfuss), I felt like everything was right here. There was no self-conscious self reference; in fact, I don’t think we ever get a description of Avice (not that I feel I know her any less well for that). Not only did Miéville not fall into the traps of first-person writing, he makes the most of its strengths. Avice is an unreliable narrator – how could she not be? The human memory is a faulty tool and prone to biases of all kinds. She admits to forgetting details and the specifics of timelines, and to withholding information when she feels that revealing it later would make the story better.
Quite early on I was presented with the following: ‘It accreted itself from its surrounds, manifesting in the transient.’ This sentence is classic Miéville, and fits perfectly with the transgressive and fantastical physics and phenomenology that he loves to play with. It’s also a perfect example of the kind of sentence that cleaves those who love Miéville from those that loathe him. The novel is about language and the power of metaphor, but Miéville himself revels in language. There are all sorts of neologisms and even a whole new system for presenting language (necessitated by the bivocalisations of the Ariekei). My favourite innovation is his use of the term ‘Immer’, German for always, the matrix within which universes are born and die. It is within this Immer, contrasted with the Manchmal of reality, that ships can ‘immerse’ themselves (see what he did there…) to effect superluminal distance crossing.
So, in conclusion: Embassytown is an exemplar of soft science fiction. It is suberbly written (assuming you click with his style) and tells a perfectly original and compelling tale in an equally original and compelling universe (bar the third quartile where the misery (Dead Marshes-style) reaches dull proportions). Recommended.