Embassytown – Review
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: Del Rey
Originally published: 2011
Genre: Science fiction
The dice landed on: 5
Did I finish?: Yes.
Do I like the cover?: I’m not wild about any of the ones I’ve seen online.
In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak. Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language. When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties: to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak—but which speaks through her, whether she likes it or not.
This was a really interesting book. For me, good science fiction has always been books that grapples with ideas that challenge my mind, and Embassytown is not for people who don’t want to be challenged. Neither is it for people who don’t want to face new words and familiar words used in unfamiliar ways.
The Ariekei and humanity not only speaks different languages, but their whole thinking process is different. So, while the Ariekei cannot lie in their own language, but desperately wants to learn, the human ambassadors that speak Language can both speak truth and lies in it. China Miéville is exploring how language shapes societies, and what happens when the language stops being useful, and maybe even becomes harmful, the way it is. On Arieka this happens suddenly and with dire consequences.
The reason I’m not giving Embassytown full marks is that there’s a few characters in it that I’d have liked to know better. They are central enough to what’s going on for me to want to know a little more about their motivations. But this is only a small reservation. Embassytown is a seriously good novel of ideas with a bit of planetary romance thrown in. And I really, really like the ending.