A Review of China Miéville’s “Embassytown”
Note: During the Christmas 2021 holidays, I’ve decided to intersperse reviews of new books with reviews of books that have been on my TBR pile for some time. This is a tactic I attempted last Christmas as well. Consider it a gift to get a review of an older book — after all, it has been told to me that books have a long shelf-life. So, first up is a reading of China Miéville’s 2011 science-fiction/New Weird novel Embassytown.
I am a man of many confessions, so here’s one to add to the list: I bought China Miéville’s Embassytown when it was originally released in hardcover way back in 2011 but have only now gotten around to reading it. I was intrigued by a review that I read in Entertainment Weekly of the book back in the day but held off on actually cracking it open as I was …. I don’t know if scared is the right word, but I felt intimidated by it. I had previously read Miéville’s much-lauded and award-winning Perdido Street Station sometime before and found that I understood very little of it. While that novel was atmospheric and evocative, I found the narrative of Perdido Street Station hard to parse because the description of the setting was so foreign. In the end, I was disappointed because the book — and here’s a bit of a spoiler alert — turns into one big screed against rape, as if we didn’t know that was a bad thing. So I let the pages of Embassytown yellow in the light of the sun in my apartment until I recently rediscovered the book in a pile of other books (hardcovers all) that I hadn’t read.
I think I’m glad I waited this long to read Embassytown because it is a somewhat difficult book about language and diplomacy set in an alien world. I think the more mature you are and the more worldview that you have will contribute to any enjoyment of this book. It’s a story about a woman named Avice Brenner Cho who had an experience that was turned into a simile (yes, in language) for an alien audience known as the Ariekei on the planet Arieka. In short, this experience became codified in the alien mother tongue of the Ariekei, who are colloquially referred to as Hosts. That mother tongue is simply known (rather unimaginably) as Language. Language is spoken by the Hosts using two different mouths on their bodies, and when it is rendered in text here, it is displayed like a linguistic fraction. Anyhow, when Avice grows up, she becomes an immerser — a role that isn’t very well explained by the book but seems to have something to do with space travel. After time spent in the “out,” she returns to the planet and the main human city of Embassytown with her husband Scile. She can’t speak the alien language but has connections to the city’s ruling elite, the Ambassadors, who can speak Language because each Ambassador is actually two people — twins — connected to one mind. However, something goes amuck when a new Ambassador named EzRa gives his first speech, putting the Hosts into a euphoric frenzy, leading to a crisis of diplomacy. Can Avice, who is growing disenchanted with her husband, pull herself together and save the day from an impending catastrophe?
As you can probably tell, Embassytown is a complex book that is trying to be many different things. It wants to be a coming-of-age story. It wants to be a story about lost love. It wants to be a story about how language can be addictive. It wants to be … . And that’s interesting right there. In the book, much of the dialogue is cut off and is either filled in by another character or just simply trails off. It’s like the novel is trying to say that language is flawed and cannot convey the things we want to say. Thus, Embassytown — which won a Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2012 — is as deep as it is superficial. I’ll get to the flaws in a moment, but Miéville has truly created something unique and original with this book. It’s dizzying and beautiful to see just how much logic and thought went into the creation of this world. In fact, for a book about language, there are a lot of $100 words used —meaning that it could be handy to have a good-sized dictionary handy while reading this novel to fully understand it. In short, Embassytown might be unlike anything else you’ve read in fiction before. And that’s all the reason you might need to read it.
However, the problem with Embassytown is that Miéville sometimes skimps on the details. He’s too busy geeking out on the possibilities of the alien language he has created to properly describe the setting or what something like being an “immerser” really means. I suppose that the author wants you to read between the text a bit, but things really get confusing before you get to the explosive climax — which is set largely in the Hosts’ territory, which is inadequately explained as to how it looks like. (I guess that’s what being an “immerser” is all about — you simply just immerse yourself in the book and figure out what’s going on simply by osmosis.) Also, at least two — possibly three, if you include a minor security officer that Avice befriends — main characters at the start of the novel simply disappear only to show up very briefly at the end. For a book about language, parts of Embassytown don’t feel very carefully constructed — it just keeps throwing new plot twists at the reader. What’s more, I found Avice to be a bit of a holier-than-thou character, though she needs help sometimes in figuring out what’s going on. That might be three-dimensional, but I found this to be a jarring attribute of the read.
In the end, I found Embassytown to be merely average. While I did appreciate its originality, I found that a lot of the book was simply homework to trudge through. Some of the book, particularly its mid-section, will be quite boring to some readers unless you have a fetish for strange languages. And I think it’s telling that, so far, this is Miéville’s penultimate novel. He seemed to have lost interest in writing much fiction in the intervening 10 years since this work’s publication, seemingly turning his hand to non-fiction instead. I think there wasn’t room to go anywhere else after writing a book such as this, except to, well, “immerse” oneself in the real. That said, I’m glad I gave the book a chance, and am glad that I was patient before tackling this. I think, 10 years earlier, I would have hated the novel outright and probably wouldn’t have finished it. That would have been a waste of the cost of a hardcover book. But if you’re curious about this one, I’d recommend finding a copy in a used bin. There is much to be dazzled by in Embassytown, but it is not an easy read and may challenge most readers. That said, the sort of doomsday scenario outlined in this book makes it an interesting read in pandemic times, and the employment of language as used by diplomats to whip an audience into a frenzy foresaw the whole Trump as President era. So there are things here worthy of thinking about and could be read for thought as much as entertainment. It just might not be your cup of tea. I’m not sure if it was entirely mine.
China Miéville’s Embassytown was published by Del Ray on May 17, 2011.
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