Thursday, June 9, 2011

Embassytown by China Miéville

The enthralling new novel from the award-winning author of Kraken and The City & The City

Embassytown: a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe.
Avice is an immerser, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts - who cannot lie.
Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.
Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts.
And that is impossible.


For some reason, science fiction novels are never considered for prizes such as the Booker.  There is a whispered notion that sci-fi can never be ‘literary’ enough.  This is, in my opinion, pretentious hogwash!

I have just finished reading a novel worthy of such a Booker nomination – Embassytown by China Miéville. This is the author’s ninth full length book and is an excellent piece of writing. A really good book makes one think about what one is reading; constantly offering fresh but rewarding challenges. Embassytown does exactly that.

Set in some distant indeterminate future on the planet of Arieka, this great read is about a town’s struggle to come to grips with a very alien language and the race that speaks it. It is about language; and how it defines a culture so completely. It’s about truth and lies and the grey area between where it overlaps and merges and the paradox that is language. It is about politics and hidden agendas; revolutions and unlikely heroes. It’s about people unwilling to accept drastic change; and how that can tear apart and create new societies. In short, it could be a very accurate reflection of our modern world and applies (in its own way) to the present. Is that not tremendous literature?

Language is an integral theme of the book – and this is noticeable from the first page. Miéville explores language in order to convey the alienness of the environment. His use of words such as ‘immer’ for space means that people don’t fly or travel into space – they immerse. Other colourful vocabulary used are words like ‘trid’ or ‘miab’. The reader needs to pay attention in order to decipher these terms, and for me, it creates a realistic edge to the story. Imagine living in the time of Charles Dickens, and writing a novel set in 2011. Phrases such as ‘logging on to the internet’, or ‘google it’ would be fanciful and incomprehensible.

However, Miéville ensures that the reader is not lost by placing them in context which yields their meaning. One gets a very good idea of what he is depicting whilst still leaving much to the imagination.

Language plays an even bigger role concerning the native inhabitants of the planet. The very alien Ariekei have such a unique way of speaking that they cannot lie. They can only talk of that which they know and can conceive – it is a literal language that has no room for untruths. It is not that they do not lie – they cannot. This is the crux of Embassytown – because whist interacting with humans, the aliens begin to understand the concept of lying which will be the catalyst for an incredible change in not only the way they think, but the way they speak language.

The book has an intriguing cast of characters, as you’d expect in a sci-fi tale. The Ariekei of Embassytown provide a different spin on what the conventional alien should be like. The human characters are at once familiar and foreign. There is much to get used to, such as the Ambassadors who are referred to as one person but are, in fact two – a necessity which allows them to speak to the alien Ariekei. There is much politicking, as various factions attempt to exert control, even in dire circumstances. The social dilemmas faced on both sides (human and alien) are dealt with in a way which the reader will recognise as very plausible indeed.

Do not be put off by the strangeness of the book. This is well worth the read. Sci-fi it may be, but the observations about society and individuals are so applicable to our own everyday life. Ursula le Guin, when reviewing Miéville’s latest work, said: Embassytown is a fully achieved work of art.” That it most certainly is. Take my word for it.

Visit China Miéville’s Website

See the Guardian Review

Review by Bradley Lutz


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