CBRIII Maneuver #27 – Embassytown
Profile: Sci-fi, Speculative Fiction, Linguistics
Summary: From goodreads.com “In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.
Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.
When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.”
After Action Report:
You might think that a contemporary speculative fiction fan, such as myself, would have read all of China Miéville’s considerable bibliography. This is not the case. I can’t count the times I’ve picked up one of his books and put it down again for one reason or another. His books are also surprisingly hard to find in big-box bookstores. I figured it was high time that changed.
Embassytown isn’t quite like any novel I’ve ever read. It is a rambling story about both evolution and revolution and possesses many of the tropes you would expect from those genres. But it is also a cutting examination of communication, language and how we think. Through the lens of a truly alien psychology, the humans of Embassytown are exposed to the mechanics of their own minds. The fusion of story and linguistic commentary is inexpert, but still enjoyable, as long as you’re willing to put a little thought into what you’re reading.
The narrative line follows Avice, an Immerser, capable of withstanding the non-Euclidean strangeness of the hyperspace called the Immer. Her talent grants her escape from the provincial planet of Arieka, but the book mostly glosses over this period of her life, picking up again at her return to Embassytown with her new husband Scile, a linguist. The narrative line then splits in two, alternating chapters between the events immediately after her return, and the inciting incident of the main plotline some time later. The meat of the plot happens here and we also start to get a picture of the strange Hosts/Ariekei and just how bizarre they are.
The Ariekei’s language, called simply Language, is untranslatable due to the empathic nature of the alien species. They are incapable of discerning meaning from sounds when the speaker doesn’t have a sentient mind behind it. Because this speech requires two mouths and a united mind, Embassytown started creating Ambassadors from monozygotic twins, conjoined by technology to share aspects of their minds and thus enabled to speak a close approximation of Language. To make matters more complicated, the Ariekei are incapable of lying or even conceiving of something too far beyond their experience.
The bulk of the book deals with the dissonance between two cultures, humans with our flexible, metaphoric and idiomatic language, and the literal, truthful Language of the Ariekei. The immediate and obvious comparison is with the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” where despite the perfect translation of the words being spoken by both species, Picard and Dathon are unable to understand each other. The language of the Tamarians is almost the precise opposite of Language. It is composed entirely of metaphor and references to stories. But the resulting cultural disconnect is similar.
Miéville’s exploration of this subject is extensive. Where many Sci-Fi authors avoid the problems of interspecies communication and comparative psychology in the interests of the narrative, Miéville uses it as a key aspect of the plot. While the science fiction elements of Embassytown are exceptionally ‘soft,’ his depiction of a truly alien society is probably the ‘hardest’ I have ever read. If we do find life out in the stars, the chances of it resembling us in the slightest are functionally zero. It is refreshing to see this fact reflected in a novel.
Embassytown is not an easy read. Don’t expect to breeze through it. It is an above average story in an excellent book in that much of what I found enjoyable in Embassytown was wrapped up in its observations and commentary. If you like that sort of thing, then this is a great choice.