Embassytown by China Mieville

Note: This post may look like it contains spoilers, but rest assured, it doesn’t. This is not a review. This is a book I do not consider myself adept to review. But I do want to mention it on the blog, if only as a recommendation, and spend maybe a moment here dwelling on its genius. There is so much to say about Embassytown that I wouldn’t know where to begin. The world Mieville has created is intense and nearly disorienting in its detail. I have a feeling that just its basic premise would suffice to make you want to read it. Because if it does, you’re in for a hell of a ride. I hope it does…

Concept: In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet called Arieka. On the planet of Arieka, humans and other exotic extraterrestrials co-exist with the indigenous Ariekei. The Ariekei are bizarre looking creatures with two wings, many hairy legs and two mouths which they use together to speak. The language of the Ariekei, simply called Language is unique in many ways and comprises speech units that are like two words spoken at once, one with each mouth.

In Language, unlike in our languages, there is complete non-arbitrary sound-meaning correlation, in that:

For humans, say red and it’s the reh and the eh and the duh combined, those phonemes in context, that communicate the colour. That is not how it is for the Ariekei. The sounds aren’t where the meaning lives. Language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen. 

For the Ariekei, a word that is not meant is only noise. So anything that is unknown to the Ariekei cannot be said, because it cannot be meant. With their perfectly referential language, the Ariekei cannot lie, or even speculate. The closest they can come to making allusions is by inducting humans into Language to function as rhetorical devices: making them undergo bizarre ordeals to turn them into human similes that then become part of Language. Lying is a thrill to the Ariekei, who compete at Festivals of Lies to see who can most closely approximate speaking an untruth, an act which is considered impossible and also, highly taboo. 
Embassytown describes a revolution. It’s the story of Avice Brenner Cho, a human simile, who is “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given her.” It is the story of how the simile turns into a metaphor. Of how the Ariekei learn to symbolise, how the Ariekei learn to write, and how they learn to lie. It is a political fable about the power of words. 

My reaction: Normally I like to keep this blog gif-free, but this is hard to resist. His expression does perfectly capture my reaction to this book. I’ve read it thrice over, cover to cover, since December, and I’m blown away…

On language: As a new linguistics student and a long-time language enthusiast, I am delighted by Embassytown as a rumination on human language. These are rough notes I’ve made in my diary, often in the last dull minutes of my morphology class, mulling over the book that a part of me hasn’t stopped mulling over in months:
Embassytown is sort of an evolutionary story, as the Ariekei go from being vessels of their language to creatures who possess the capacity of self-aware expression. Does lying make us human? A strangely fitting detail in the book is that it is when the Ariekei learn to lie that they learn to write, scratching primitive marks on the ground, even as Avice pictures them soon holding pens in their giftwings. It begs the question – when did humans go from describing what they saw to predicting what they didn’t or couldn’t actually witness? 
It is fascinating that once the Ariekei understand lies, they can no longer tell the truth like they used to. It changes their perspective of the world, of language, and in a biblical fashion, there appears a shift in their understanding of right and wrong. Embassytown puts forth the most obvious and difficult questions of truth and morality. What, really, is left of the meaning of the word truth without the concept of a lie. 
On weird fiction: Apparently Mieville insists on his writing being labelled as weird fiction. That brings to mind Lovecraft, above all others. Weird is a genre I associate, on an instinct, with fantasy. Kraken would fit that description, it was a strange book that I never particularly enjoyed. Embassytown, if I had to, I would say, is classic old-fashioned science fiction; even though I haven’t read enough sci-fi to make that distinction, I have an intuition about this, it has a feel. A linguistics thriller, I saw it called somewhere – what a delicious description. One of my pet words on this blog is genre-defying. Embassytown, rather, is genre-defining, I’d say, a highly recommended read for those of us who love earnest stories that take themselves seriously. 

(from Reveling in Genre: An Interview with China Mieville)
There’s simultaneously something rigorous and something playful in genre. It’s about the positing of something impossible—whether not-yet-possible or never-possible—and then taking that impossibility and granting it its own terms and systematicity. It’s carnivalesque in its impossibility and overturning of reality, but it’s rationalist in that it pretends it is real. And it’s that second element which I think those who dip their toes in the SF pond so often forget. They think sf is “about” analogies, and metaphors, and so on. I refute that—I think that those are inevitable components, but it’s the surrendering to the impossible, the weird, that characterizes genre. Those flirting with SF don’t surrender to it; they distance themselves from it, and have a neon sub-text saying, “It’s okay, this isn’t really about spaceships or aliens, it’s about real life,” not understanding that it can be both, and would do the latter better if it was serious about the former

On book reviews: Every once in a while I come across a book that leaves me breathless, heady, asking questions, wanting more. It is at times like these that a part of me is thankful for places like Goodreads and blogs, where I find other passionate responses to stories and get to share mine. A part of me is also anxious, this is the part that has to summon all my thoughts to one place, organize and flesh them out with coherence before committing words to post. Surely I couldn’t possibly do justice to a great book and I’m wary of the idea of me commenting as if an expert on a work of genius. And then I remind myself that Tabula Rasa is a book review blog only for the convenience of the term, when actually it is a book appreciation blog. Thus reassured, I proceed to gush, and swoon, and rant, and end up with posts, like this, that are typically disorganized but on the whole, heartfelt.

8 thoughts on “Embassytown by China Mieville”

  1. I felt like reading the book was almost learning a new language by immersion, and I enjoyed the experience. I found I didn't care at all about any of the characters or really anything that happened to them. There were times when I felt there was something important happening that impacted the characters/plot and that I _should_ care, but I didn't. It was a strange feeling to enjoy the experience of reading the book while not caring at all about characters or plot. That was a first for me. I usually get wrapped up in what's going on.


  2. Awesome review Priya. You make me want to read this again because I get the feeling that I will enjoy it more a second time 'round, paying attention to specific elements overlooked during my first reading. Incredibly dense and full of complexity, I found it difficult to absorb it all. Just wrapping my head around the story was challenging enough, let alone the layered subtext.

    This is Easily one of the most unique and crazy novels I've ever read, putting to shame the majority of alien contact narratives. I agree with you that the way he explores language and linguistics is absolutely fascinating. For instance, the protagonist's name Avice Benner Cho as a metaphor for the ABC's is a nice touch.

    I don't think many people would dispute categorizing Embassytown as science-fiction even though Mieville would deny it. The dude definitely has a creative imagination that is out of this world and he has the writing abilities to back it up.

    Divers and Sundry, I couldn't agree with you more. There is bit too much narrative distance for my liking too even though Mieville has his reasons for doing so–to create that sense of disorientation and perplexity in the reader as experienced by the protagonist when encountering the language barrier of the Ariekei.

    I wrote a brief review of this novel that can be found on my blog here: literaturefrenzy.blogspot.ca/2014/10/mini-reviews-1-retribution-falls.html but yours puts mine to shame. Hopefully I can go back and write a better review at a later date.


  3. Divers and Sundry – I didn't think of that really, but it's true. The plot didn't matter so much to me either, I was more focussed on discovering the world. I finished the book in December and it was a little overwhelming, so I went back and reread hoping to understand it better – I'm guessing a second read would make you more concerned about what's going on. But overall, I suppose you're right – it's just not a book driven wholly by its plot, but also, not its characters either! That's an interesting way to look at it…

    Jason – Thank you. Mine is not so much a review as an awestruck rant, but that's all I seem to be able to manage. Mieville gives us such tiny glimpses into his world that my first read, way back in December, was spent only on making sense of the concepts and terminology. I'm afraid I didn't notice the ABCs metaphor, but I love how he's a little cheeky when coining all the names: the miabs (messages in the bottle,) and the immer and the manchmal (the German learner in me did a little dance there!)

    I do think it is a book that deserves more than a single read to be best appreciated. I just had to reread it then, and the narrative distance you've mentioned was a little less the next time around. I found myself caring for the people (and aliens) more.

    You're absolutely right, it is a crazy book. But you can just tell how much work has been put into it. And for all its complexity, I never lost interest. That's what made it most fascinating for me. Thanks for stopping by, hopefully I'll get to read more than a mini-review of this on your site some day. 🙂


  4. I've wanted to read Mieville for ages! I love your review, and I can see how strongly you feel about this book. It happens to me too, sometimes, to be so blown away by a work of fiction that I feel my words cannot fully express my admiration.
    I like the ABC reference, I get all excited when I come up on things like that in books, especially ones related to names.


  5. Thanks, Delia. I've only read one other book by Mieville, but I do of course think Embassytown is a good place to start reading him. And as you can see from the comments, I'm not the only one awed by the book. I'll be curious to see what you make of it!


  6. I haven't read anything by Mieville, but am interested in reading Embassytown after reading this post. Any book that has you reading it over and over again in such a short time makes me very curious! It sounds like a book that shouldn't be missed and I love books that make me think. Thanks for sharing!


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