Thursday, July 14, 2011

Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown is that rare breed of science fiction novel that has greater depth than first meets the eye. The central metaphor of the novel, that language both describes and prescribes our experience of the world, expands out in all directions.  Language circumscribing identity. Language as intoxicant. Language as a noose that can hang the unwary.

Embassytown is a mostly human community within a larger alien city on a planet in a remote star system. It’s a fragile community, dependent on resources from the host aliens. Even the air of Embassytown is artificially maintained to be breathable for the humans. In order to bridge a confounding communication gap with the two-mouthed alien hosts, the Ariekei, the humans engineer pairs of humans who think alike and speak in overlapping sentences, finishing each other’s thoughts. The twin Ambassadors are able to negotiate the Ariekei language and successfully communicate, where single humans who speak the same words are ignored as non-sentient by the Ariekei. The story concerns a bewildering breakdown in communication between the human Ambassadors and the Ariekei. Chaos overtakes the Ariekei. Political and social structures collapse in Embassytown and the tenuous existence of the human community is threatened.

In the face of disaster, stunning conceptual breakthroughs are required to allow even a tiny trickle of communication. This is a thrilling novel about the nature of language and communication, and a gritty and unsentimental depiction of societal breakdown.

The first-person narrator, Avice Benner Cho, a human, was born in Embassytown, has traveled to many star systems, which is rare among those at the isolated outpost, and returned home. She has both insider and outsider status within the small, cloistered political power structure. Sometimes annoyingly self-absorbed, and relegated to observer status early on, Cho becomes entwined in key events as the story progresses. She is the most complete and memorable character in any Miéville novel I have read.

Embassytown is the fourth and best of China Miéville’s novels that I have read. Each novel has been more accomplished than the preceding one: Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), The City & The City (2009), and now Embassytown (2011).

Embassytown could well have been not just a classic of science fiction; it could have been a breakout novel to a wider audience. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be held back from much of the success that it might have earned by a slow start. Miéville dwells on back-story for far too long. The back-story does not end until page 162 (U.S. edition) out of a total of 345 pages. Miéville interleaves a few chapters of the main story to entice the reader. Each time the author returns to the back-story the momentum is lost. Much of the back story eventually proves relevant as the story plays out. Yet, how many who haven’t read Miéville before, and don’t trust that their patience will be rewarded, will keep reading long enough to appreciate the book?

While the first half of the book is in need of significant pruning, the second half of the novel is excellent and perhaps too condensed, the story a bit rushed. Still, this is a brilliant book and it is one of the best science fiction novels of the year.

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