EMBASSYTOWN is a story far greater than its 300 pages. It's an extremely well-paced, additive read about colonialism and diplomacy; about the truly alien worlds that await us beyond the stars; and about the acceptance of personal agency and responsibility. But it's also an exploration of language --- what it really means to us, and its consequences for how we understand the world and ourselves.
Embassytown is an outpost on the rim of space controlled by the interstellar human superpower Bremen. The town is a grotto on the Ariekene homeworld, a planet of beings who walk upon hooves, listen with body-length wings, and speak with a pair of synchronized mouths. The Ariekei are unique in the universe for their inability to speak or understand any language but their own, called Language. To the Ariekei, words aren't reflections or symbols of the world --- they are the world. Speech, thought and reality are one in the same. As pure thought, Language is only comprehensible when spoken by a living soul; computer-generated speech in Language is incomprehensible. And since Language is spoken with the mouths, humans can speak it no more than Ariekei can speak English. Humanity's voices in Embassytown are the Ambassadors, genetically-engineered empathic clones, crèche-raised and bound by tech, to speak as one voice with two mouths.
This is all background, introduced with surprising, beguiling grace in a 50-page "proem" narrated by Embassytown-born protagonist Avice. What follows is half a story of linguistic philosophy, half a descent into alien diplomacy going horribly awry. They are linked by two narratives: one looking backward to the past, the other telling the plot forward.
Further strangeness abounds. Neologisms are introduced with only context for explanation, which depict vivid aspects of the world the novel inhabits. It's a bizarre and beautiful one: a landscape of genetically engineered buildings and technology, dotted with cloned two-in-one people, lifelike automata, and shrewd, all-too-human bureaucrats --- all kowtowing to alien hosts whose motives and way of thinking are practically ineffable. And that's all just in this backwater corner of the universe. I can only hope author China Miéville sets more stories on imaginative territories like these, casually mentioned by space-faring Avice: there are races, you know, that communicate through gastric reflux.
Miéville forces us up against an utterly alien psychology. The Ariekei literally render objects and people into Language through traumatic ordeals, in order to expand their understanding of the universe. Through Ariekene eyes, we see their fascination of the human capacity to lie --- to speak that which is not the case (we are worthy teachers). But humanity is treated with equal alienation: Miéville renders advanced human civilization as a mix of far-flung post-humanism and good 'ol human nature made alien through alien encounter. In doing so, he's made something brilliant. EMBASSYTOWN is science fiction vision at its best: a portrait of a universe infused with wide-eyed wonder, otherworldly terror, and everything in between.
It is also a parable of just how wrong diplomacy and colonialism can go. But this isn't just shaming us for our essentialist paternalism in front of the natives. The book reveals how unknown we can be to ourselves and how totally unprepared we are to encounter truly unlike minds. A deficit of self-knowledge isn't a problem for the Ariekei, for whom each word is based in concrete reference to fact. But for us, free but doomed to speak, act and think in metaphor, we have a ways to go.
Still, there's not an ounce of doom and gloom here. Sure, Miéville knows how to ratchet up the suspense, and isn't shy about violence and the looming specter of disaster when he needs to be. But EMBASSYTOWN is a series of mysteries that inspire and delight, not reproach. Some are solved for us; others remain playfully silent, the investigations left to the reader. It's these mysteries that make Miéville's newest project such a joy to read. They are ideas that stick around, that dare us to consider the unknown.
Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on May 24, 2011