Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > Embassytown

Embassytown by China Miéville
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
3427339
's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: science-fiction

“Now the Ariekei were learning to speak, and to think, and it hurt.”

I’m addicted to language; we all are.

While reading this book, I thought about language. I haven’t really thought about it from the standpoint of it not existing or that it is something to be discovered, like traces of gold in a California riverbed. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have language. The ability to express myself has served me well. Not that I haven’t said the wrong thing or said the right thing at the wrong time, but I usually have the ability to explain further and give what I say deeper meaning. I can change minds and can have my mind changed by exchanging words. Language is the foundation of who we are.

"Few people can speak the language of the Hosts (referred to only as "Language"), as it requires the orator to speak two words at once; those humans (Terre) who can are genetically-engineered twins known as Ambassadors, bred solely for this purpose. The Ambassadors speak with two mouths and one mind and as such can be understood by the Ariekei (who do not recognise any other form of communication)".---Wikipedia gave me some help sorting out the exact nature of how the Ariekei communicated. The humans refer to them as The Hosts, which is exactly what they are. They allow the humans to build a city named Embassytown.

I can remember the first time I went overseas and spent nine days in Italy. I didn’t know the language but always managed to find Italian people who spoke enough English for us to communicate with each other. After having nine days of barely speaking any English, certainly a lot less than what I was used to, my arrival at San Francisco Airport was, for lack of a better term, a system overload. My mind was so starved for the English language that all the filters or barriers that I normally have for sorting language were gone. My brain was attempting to listen to and process every ongoing English conversation that was within my range of hearing.

My cat...the weather was...I bought these new shoes...Do you like this coat?...Will they serve us a meal…What did he mean by that?

I was catching just pieces, most of them jumbled together as my mind was trying to sort each conversation, but without success.

My cat was new shoes like this mean.

It was like touching the edges of insanity.

The Ambassadors who are sent to interact with The Hosts are paired. They have two minds that make one voice. They are identical and kept that way. When one gets a scar that can’t be healed, the other is given an identical scar. They are rarely apart, and when circumstances do part them, they are lost in much the same way I’d feel if my left arm and leg just detached from my body and walked into the next room. Very interesting, I would think to myself, and then I would try to finish typing this review with one hand.

Our heroine is Avice Benner Cho, who is an immerser who has just returned to Embassytown after years of deep space exploration. She cannot speak to the Ariekei, but she has become a part of their language. They call her…”There was a girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her.” As things become more unstable between The Host and the colonists, Avice wants to evolve in their language. ”’I don’t want to be a simile anymore,’ I said.’I want to be a metaphor.’”

The interesting thing about Avice is that she really isn’t a hero. She is more like a professional traveller who sits in the hip cafes, eats the unusual food, sees the sights, goes to parties, and occasionally has a brief sexual encounter with someone interesting. She has been married several times. Sometimes to women, sometimes to men. In Embassytown, she has sex with ambassadors which... since each one is actually plural... means she is a very busy girl during those encounters. Her experiences while travelling have evolved her thinking about what is strange. One of her best friends is a digital presence that can move from one droid to another. Like us all, she does struggle with seeing things that go beyond just exotic, those things that go beyond a frame of reference of what we know. For us to be comfortable, new things have to have something about them that allows us to have at least a handle of understanding.

”Once I heard a theory. It was an attempt to make sense of the fact that no matter how travelled people are, no matter how cosmopolitan, how biotically miscegenated their homes, they can’t be insouciant at the first sight of an exot (slang for exotic) race. The theory is that we’re hardwired with the Terre Biome, that every glimpse of anything not descended from that original backwater home, our bodies know we should not ever see.”

The world that China Mieville creates in this book is in some ways vague, certainly unsettling. The world building takes a backseat to exploring the concept of languages and their value. Though he does give us glimpses of what this world looks like. ”When they regrew the city the Ariekei changed it. In this rebooted version the houses segmented into smaller dwellings and were interspersed with pillars like sweating trees. Of course there were still towers, still factories and hangars for the nurturing of young and of biorigging…. But the housescape we overlooked took on a more higgledy-piggledy aspect. The streets seemed steeper than they had been, and more various: the chitin gables, the conquistador-helmet curves newly intricate.”

As the Ariekei learn language from the Ambassadors, things take a sinister turn as segments of The Host population begin to become junkies. ”Ambassadors are orators, and those to whom their oration happens are oratees. Oratees are addicts. Strung out on an Ambassador's Language.”

Where my addiction to language happened over a long arc of time, comparable to beginning with marijuana to evolving to cocaine to finally needing heroin, The Host’s addiction begins with heroin and wants the next better thing than heroin…NOW.

Things get scary

”We knew the Ariekei would breach our defences. They entered the houses that edged our zone, found their ways to rear and side doors, large windows, to holes. Some came out of the front doors into our streets and tore apart what they found. Those with remnants of memory tried to get to the Embassy. They came at night. They were like monsters in the dark, like figures from children’s books.”

A war over a need for language.

I don’t know how else to say this...the book is brilliant, simply brilliant. I’ve been a long time fan of China Mieville and will eventually read everything he has ever written. The concepts he explores in this book had me thinking about my own relationship with language, with learning, with my addiction to hearing and being heard, to writing my thoughts and to reading what others have written.

I once knew a woman in Phoenix whose grandfather walked out to get the morning paper, poured some coffee, and flipped the paper open, like he does every morning, to start reading.

He couldn’t read.

He’d had a small targeted stroke during the night that erased his ability to read. The thought still sends a shiver down my back to think that I could lose the ability to read or the ability to speak or the ability to hear.

I’m a junkie for language.

You will have to have patience with this book. Mieville circles the plane over Embassytown and just drops his readers into the city. Shortly after stowing your parachute, you are going to feel out of kelter, exposed, behind a step, and will begin to feel nervous that you won’t catch up. You will. With every chapter, you will begin to know more pieces of the puzzle until you are eventually able to assemble a shimmering vision of this city, these people, and the situation which has lit the fuse to a powderkeg.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visithttp://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
167 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Embassytown.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

January 25, 2016 – Started Reading
January 25, 2016 – Shelved
February 10, 2016 – Shelved as: science-fiction
February 10, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-43 of 43 (43 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Fabian {Councillor} I have yet to read my first Miéville novel, although I have actually heard a lot about him. Very inspiring review, Jeffrey! I can especially relate to the points you make about human addiction to language. What would we be like without being able to communicate verbally?


Jeffrey Keeten Councillor wrote: "I have yet to read my first Miéville novel, although I have actually heard a lot about him. Very inspiring review, Jeffrey! I can especially relate to the points you make about human addiction to l..."

He is a very interesting writer. Lots to explore in a Mieville novel. As I was reading this book I kept thinking about how we are becoming more and more solitaire individuals, me included, and how that is actually a sign of de-evolution (In my opinion). Our language skills are shrinking and most people's vocabulary is becoming more simplistic. We are into short hand communication, but how much nuance is lost in the process. Thanks Councillor you will need to give China a try sometime.


message 3: by Mara (new) - added it

Mara Beautiful review, as per usual. Which would you recommend as a first foray into the China Mieville canon?


Michael Great job! Fair warning about parachuting in and constant sense of catch up. I identify most with that line you plucked: "I don’t want to be a simile anymore...I want to be a metaphor". So happy to have you on the case for helping to digest these weird and wonderful worlds. You bring things down to earth so well, like with the starting with heroin and then wanting more. And the terror raised over the Host's hunger for the core of language as a frame of reality. I began to wonder what would happen if they discovered metonymy.


message 5: by Cecily (last edited Feb 15, 2016 05:53AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cecily Well done. A sci-fi book that's really about language is a strange beast to read and review, but one that I love for much the same reason as you do.

I think it's really worthwhile to be uncomfortably reminded how essential language is to us, and what it's like to be without it - worst of all when it's back home, as you found!


message 6: by Cecily (last edited Feb 15, 2016 05:56AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cecily Jeffrey wrote: "I kept thinking about how we are becoming more and more solitaire individuals... Our language skills are shrinking and most people's vocabulary is becoming more simplistic..."

Is it, though? Or are we becoming multi-dialectical instead?

For myself, I use English in far more varieties now than ten or twenty years ago, without (I think) detriment to my knowledge of standard British English: technical documents, personal letters, texting, email, posting on forums, adverts... All require a different style of language. Furthermore, I'm far more aware of varieties of global English, as the language evolves and becomes ever richer as a result.


message 7: by Matthias (new) - added it

Matthias The thought still sends a shiver down my back to think that I could lose the ability to read or the ability to speak or the ability to hear.

!!!

I hglyu jestr vorsdlfust ??


Jeffrey Keeten Mara wrote: "Beautiful review, as per usual. Which would you recommend as a first foray into the China Mieville canon?"

Well his opus is probably Perdido Street Station so it would be hard for me to recommend anything else. The world building is incredible. Thanks Mara! I hope you enjoy Mieville. It is kind of interesting that he manages to be more accessible for a wider audience than say Jeff VanderMeer. I discovered both authors about the same time. Both writers have expanded and changed the genre. I think Mieville did a better job with promotion. Vandermeer's recent trilogy was an attempt to find a broader audience and I think it worked.


Jeffrey Keeten Michael wrote: "Great job! Fair warning about parachuting in and constant sense of catch up. I identify most with that line you plucked: "I don’t want to be a simile anymore...I want to be a metaphor". So happy to..."

The discovery of metonymy would be the next mind blowing experience for The Host. It might actually have calmed things down for a while as they worked on this new aspect of language.

I don't mind being dropped into books, but I know some readers just can't relax enough to allow themselves time to catch up. This book deserves a reread. I'd probably write a different review with each new read. I was somewhat disappointed in Kraken, but what a relief to see Mieville stretching himself again. I'm still blown away.

If ever there was a book that needed a bit of grounding by a reviewer for future readers this one qualifies. :-)


Jeffrey Keeten Cecily wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "I kept thinking about how we are becoming more and more solitaire individuals... Our language skills are shrinking and most people's vocabulary is becoming more simplistic..."

Is i..."


My wife has been a teacher for twenty+ years and she has seen a steady degrading of basic communication skills.

I'm in the process of interviewing a bunch of candidates, decently educated under thirties, who are struggling to express themselves even while talking about themselves in an interview. I sit there and wonder if the interview would go better if we could just text each other which is what young people seem most comfortable with. So I will have to respectfully disagree with your assessment that language and communication is improving. Now for yourself, if we think of a world that only includes Cecily, then yes you might possibly be right. I too feel that I have made the transition to keep up with the new language skills, but my brain is telling me that as we go this direction language will erode not enrich. I was taught language and how to use it ie how to have a conversation with someone one on one without electronics. I don't see new generations needing or wanting or valuing books or in-depth conversations. They want headlines, synopses and texts. Some might find this an evolution, but I find it to be devolution.

We had a marketing meeting this week and we were told that videos that used to be 2 minutes in length, fell to 30 seconds and now are at 8 seconds to promote say a new product. This is due to mosquito attention spans. I don't like not being able to fully explain things. We have to keep things on such a shallow level that it actual irritates the crap out of me, but this is the new world. The "enriched world" that you seem to feel exists is not my world.

I wanted to say what a good job you did with the review of this book. I know that took a long time to compile and write. Brilliant!


Jeffrey Keeten Matthias wrote: "The thought still sends a shiver down my back to think that I could lose the ability to read or the ability to speak or the ability to hear.

!!!

I hglyu jestr vorsdlfust ??"


Oh boy there goes another one. The good thing is about losing the ability to read is that you can relearn and just shelve it in a different section of your brain. :-)


message 12: by Matthias (new) - added it

Matthias Jeffrey wrote: "Matthias wrote: "The thought still sends a shiver down my back to think that I could lose the ability to read or the ability to speak or the ability to hear.

!!!

I hglyu jestr vorsdlfust ??"

Oh..."


Thank you for dignifying that ridiculous joke with an interesting reply! In all seriousness, great review Jeffrey! Yet again you manage to convey an enthousiasm for a particular field in such a way I feel I learnt something from it. Last time it was finance and investments, now language and linguistics. Your reviews are usually more about just the book and make your wealth of knowledge and interests more accessible to all.


Jeffrey Keeten Matthias wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "Matthias wrote: "The thought still sends a shiver down my back to think that I could lose the ability to read or the ability to speak or the ability to hear.

!!!

I hglyu jestr vo..."


Thank you Matthias! I do try to give a different perspective, an expanded perspective because for me reading a book is never just about that book. It is about all the threads of information that connect from my life or from past books I've read... to this book. It is impossible for me to separate my life from what I read. It is so cool that you sussed that out. :-)

From what I've seen you reading I think Mieville will be a good fit for you. I hope you get a chance to give him a look.


message 14: by Dan (new) - added it

Dan Schwent Pretty sweet review!


Jeffrey Keeten Dan wrote: "Pretty sweet review!"

Thanks Dan!!


message 16: by B the BookAddict (new)

B the BookAddict While I'm not sure I would read this book, Jeffrey, I was so taken by your personal insights and revelations. You are a 'word hero' to me!


message 17: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Great review Jeffery. You need to read some of his others now!


Jeffrey Keeten B the BookAddict wrote: "While I'm not sure I would read this book, Jeffrey, I was so taken by your personal insights and revelations. You are a 'word hero' to me!"

It is one of those funny quirks, but I always feel like my reviews are crap when I finish writing them. It is only later after I have posted them and read them with fresh eyes that I start to like them. This one though I liked when I finished it. Maybe my mind and my writing are starting to sync up finally. :-) Thanks Bette!


Jeffrey Keeten Paul wrote: "Great review Jeffery. You need to read some of his others now!"

You know I was just puzzling over the fact that this is the first China Mieville I've reviewed on GR, but it is the 8th I've read. The others were all read before I joined up. How is it possible that it has been three years or so since I read Mieville? All of his books would be challenging to review, but I could tell several of my friends had read this and not reviewed it which made me even more determined to write a good review. Thanks Paul! I've slotted more Mieville much sooner.


message 20: by B the BookAddict (new)

B the BookAddict Miéville has said he plans to write a novel in every genre. To this end, he has 'constructed an oeuvre' that is indebted to genre styles ranging from classic American Western (in Iron Council) to sea-quest (in The Scar) to detective noir (in The City & the City).


Jeffrey Keeten B the BookAddict wrote: "Miéville has said he plans to write a novel in every genre. To this end, he has 'constructed an oeuvre' that is indebted to genre styles ranging from classic American Western (in [book:Iron Council..."

I fully support his endeavor. I would hate to see a writer of his talents trapped in a genre. He should explore and conquer. I've read all three of those books and enjoyed them all to varying degrees.


message 22: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul The City & the City is one of my favourites, but really liked Railsea too. He has a habit of discarding genres like a spider discards a skin


Jeffrey Keeten Paul wrote: "The City & the City is one of my favourites, but really liked Railsea too. He has a habit of discarding genres like a spider discards a skin"

I haven't read Railsea yet, but I think that is my next one.


message 24: by Evan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Evan Leach Great review, Jeffrey! One of my goals for 2016 is to get caught up on Mieville's bibliography. My favorite of his books so far is The Scar, but all of them are incredibly inventive and have something to offer. Just finished Un Lun Dun very recently - next up is Kraken! But Embassytown is probably the book I'm most excited for out of all the Mievilles I've got left to read...


Jeffrey Keeten Evan wrote: "Great review, Jeffrey! One of my goals for 2016 is to get caught up on Mieville's bibliography. My favorite of his books so far is The Scar, but all of them are incredibly inventive an..."

I haven't read Un Lun Dun yet or Railsea or This Census-Taker or either of the short story collections, but I'm a step closer after finishing this one. I hope your quest is fulfilled Evan! Thanks!


message 26: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Mieville has been on my radar for a long time and I've been picking up his books when I find them on sale. I will NEED this one for sure. Just an absolutely fascinating review, Jeffrey.


Jeffrey Keeten Mike wrote: "Mieville has been on my radar for a long time and I've been picking up his books when I find them on sale. I will NEED this one for sure. Just an absolutely fascinating review, Jeffrey."

Thanks Mike! This one will prove well worth the time for you. I'm glad your amassing a shelf of his books. He is one of the most interesting writers out there right now.


message 28: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary Brilliant review, Jeffrey!


Jeffrey Keeten Gary wrote: "Brilliant review, Jeffrey!"

Thanks Gary!


message 30: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Perdido Street Station is worth reading, but it will mess with your head. Quite a lot.


Jeffrey Keeten Paul wrote: "Perdido Street Station is worth reading, but it will mess with your head. Quite a lot."

I'm a big fan of that book, but then I like my head messed with as long as it is by people I know are smarter than me. :-)


message 32: by Steve (new)

Steve If ol' Lucifer really had it in for you, Jeffrey, he's personalize a Hell for you where, like that stroke victim you mentioned, you'd lose the ability to read. And then, just to rub it in, he'd wave this book in front of you and tell you it would never be yours to behold.


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "If ol' Lucifer really had it in for you, Jeffrey, he's personalize a Hell for you where, like that stroke victim you mentioned, you'd lose the ability to read. And then, just to rub it in, he'd wav..."

Lucifer will definitely have some hooks to use on me.

Think about all the social media addicts that are showing up down there and realizing that Lucifer cut off the internet. I bet there are some ugly moments. :-)


message 34: by Steve (new)

Steve The horror. The horror.


message 35: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane What a great review. I did not realize that the Ariekei did not have a spoken language before Embassytown was created.


Jeffrey Keeten Jane wrote: "What a great review. I did not realize that the Ariekei did not have a spoken language before Embassytown was created."

Thanks Jane!


message 37: by lost (new)

lost @jeffrey keeten u are just awesome ur reviews are so good nice


Jeffrey Keeten shreya on twitter fb google+ instagram etc. wrote: "@jeffrey keeten u are just awesome ur reviews are so good nice"

Thank you Shreya!


message 39: by Hanneke (last edited Aug 26, 2018 05:30AM) (new) - added it

Hanneke Great review, Jeffrey. I see that I should really read a Mieville novel so I will start with this one. As you describe the almost impossible task to communicate with the aliens in this novel, it reminded me a bit of that SF novel of Michael Faber 'The Book of Strange New Things'. Their language sounded (quote): "like a field of brittle reeds and rain-sodden lettuces being cleared by a machete." Well, how will you ever communicate! So fascinating to ponder upon that!


Jeffrey Keeten Hanneke wrote: "Great review, Jeffrey. I see that I should really read a Mieville novel so I will start with this one. As you describe the almost impossible task to communicate with the aliens in this novel, it re..."

Mieville is terrific! He wil give you much to think about or if you were me to brood about. He is probably too brilliant for me to read, but I still enjoy letting him fill my mind with images I could never conjur any other way. I hope you enjoy him as much as I do.


message 41: by Hanneke (new) - added it

Hanneke I'll let you know, Jeffrey! Thanks for your enthousiastic review. I saw Mieville mentioned now and then, but had no idea what sort of an author he was. Your review made it clear I should read him!


Marty Fried Thanks for your review, excellent as always. I'm just getting started with this, and was feeling pretty lost, so your encouragement helps a lot to keep me going.


Jeffrey Keeten Marty wrote: "Thanks for your review, excellent as always. I'm just getting started with this, and was feeling pretty lost, so your encouragement helps a lot to keep me going."

Yes, hang in there Marty. It will start to becoming clearer as you read. It is certainly a complex, very alien society that Mieville has created here. You are most welcome.


back to top