China Miéville’s latest genre-bending book, Embassytown, unites science fiction and heady wordplay in a universe literally constituted by language.
China Miéville is a member of that rare breed: a genre writer who has managed to attract significant attention from the more highfaluting “literary” set. He collects Arthur C. Clarke awards like Pez dispensers and still gets praised by the TLS, Radio 4 and the Guardian. It’s a blessed position, a once-in-a-lifetime overlap between two distinct audiences, like the parallel cities of his book The City & The City.
Miéville’s wide appeal would be less of a mystery if he didn’t embrace genre so whole-heartedly. His Bas-Lag novels–Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council–were hugely entertaining funhouses of strange creatures, nerdy neologisms and, best of all, genuinely exciting set pieces. It was the bombastic stunts that were missing in his next two adult novels, The City & The City and Kraken. The former was hinged on a terrific idea–hardboiled detective fiction in a Kafka-esque double reality–but the narrative voice was uninteresting and the mystery aspect didn’t quite work, and Kraken was a loose net of good ideas surrounded by empty space.
Miéville happily accepts the New Weird label, and there is no doubt that he has an uncanny talent for the alien, a knack for pinning little inventions onto grand schemes. In his latest novel, Embassytown, he follows his boldest idea yet, taking the broad concept of language and running with it past the interesting, through the ridiculous, and touching down somewhere near the mind-bending.
Embassytown is Miéville’s purest science fiction book. Narrated by a tough but reserved “immerser” (we’ll get to the words later) named Avice, the novel is set on a distant planet which is inhabited mainly by surreal indigenes called the Ariekei, or the Hosts. The Hosts are described as “cool, incomprehensible presences… subaltern gods, who sometimes watched us as if we were interesting, curious dust.” But they stay mainly in the city surrounding Embassytown, a vaguely utopian commune where there is hardly any violence (when someone is killed late in the novel Avice remarks, “We weren’t very used to murder”) and little social inequality, apart from the ruling Staff and Ambassadors. The hierarchy is there for a reason, however. The Ambassadors are the only people who can communicate with the Hosts.
Due to an evolutionary quirk, the Hosts experience no disconnect from their speech and their thoughts. There has to be a mind behind the language–or Language–in order for the Hosts to understand. There also needs to be two voices to replicate the two sound generators on their bodies. The Ambassadors, therefore, come in pairs, and are raised and tinkered with until they can speak Language–not just speak it, but communicate it, with their minds fully engaged.
Because of the seamless link between thoughts and speech, the Hosts cannot lie. But, unlike Swift’s Houyhnhnms, the Hosts don’t have any moral objection to lies. In fact they love it; they almost literally get off on it, holding a Festival of Lies where Ambassadors declaim blatant untruths and the Hosts try to imitate, becoming ecstatic when one of them describes something as “yellow-beige” rather than the more accurate “yellow.” In a beautiful touch, Avice as a young girl is taken by the Hosts and used as a simile. In order for a simile to work the Hosts have to make it actually happen, before they can compare anything to it. There are other people who get into the language as similes and they all meet up regularly. Some have to continue acting out their meaning, including “the man who swims with fishes every week.” That New Weird tag seems to be getting more appropriate.
The universe of Embassytown is stuffed with language, or described through linguistic theories. The “immer”–the sea-like subspace of the universe through which certain talented individuals can travel–is described, with a nod to linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, as the Langue to the visible universe’s Parole. The immer is the always and the visible (or the “manchmal”) is the sometimes. In the novel’s universe, there have actually been three universes, “Three different sometimes. But below all that… there’s only been one immer, one always.”
The central event is the arrival of the new Ambassador, a pair that seem to be too different to unify in Language. Yet when they speak the effect on the Hosts is even more extraordinary than the paroxysms of joy they experience during lying sessions. The new Ambassador changes Language, and the planet itself, forever.
It is easy to get oneself into rather painful contortions trying to explain it all, and for a good reason. It’s complex, tricky, and unfolds over 400 pages. Starting the novel is like entering an entirely new language web, dense even by Miéville’s usual standards: “Its surface sheened with saft that evanesced out from its crystal shielding in threads that degraded to nothing.” The knotty, sometimes gnomic sentences and the barrage of neologisms are unrelenting. It feels uncomfortable at first. But in this novel it serves a purpose, making us more aware of the words as we read them, sensitizing us to miscommunication and misunderstanding just as it disorients us.
Embassytown does not include the IMAX thrills of his early novels, and when action does break out it feels like it’s there to be got out of the way. The novel feeds on its own ideas: language, lies, power, international relations. The themes are the substance. If a trained linguist took a microscope to it maybe they’d find some gaffes, but it hardly matters. Embassytown is inventive and exciting, with tantalizing glimpses into the deeper realms of its universe (at one point “immer-stuff sharks”, swimming through subspace, are mentioned). I would like to go back there. Suddenly I don’t miss Bas-Lag so much.