Jennifer's Reviews > Embassytown

Embassytown by China Miéville
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's review
Dec 02, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: science-fiction
Read from December 17, 2011 to January 30, 2012

This book is really hard to review... however it was much more difficult to read, for me.

Clearly a lot of people really like this book. I myself took it from the library because of so many exciting reviews, and because I was feeling in the mood for some real quality, challenging, conceptual science fiction - which all the reviews seem to purport this book to be. I invested months of my reading life to this book... plodding through the disconnected first part of the book (because there is going to be a payoff for all the confusing, disjointed stuff, right? RIGHT??!)... reading a few pages at night before sighing and turning off the light (something I never do, I am a stay-up-all-night-just-one-more-page kind of girl). Basically, I had faith. And this book, while it was not inherently awful and obviously works for some people, just did not have a payoff that was worth my faith or my effort.

To very, very briefly summarize the plot of the book - Embassytown is a human outpost on a colonial world, where there is a previously existing sentient race. The humans in Embassytown must live there on the sufferance of the Ariekei, insect-like creatures who breathe different air and cannot speak anything like a language we can interpret/understand. There are lots of politics somewhere in the book, driving some of the characters' decisions, but not in any real, relatable way. The narration comes from Avice Benner Cho, an Embassytowner who has left the world to become some sort of interplanetary travel crew member, who has returned to witness the events that will become the thrust of the book. The narration, always in past tense, flips back and forth between different periods in Avice's life, as she relates facts and opinions about Embassytown, the Ariekei, and the revolution that occurs.

I guess it sounds pretty straightforward when I describe here what the book is about. But, I have only described the plot, and this book is not really about its plot very much. I am not sure how to put this... the plot/story/characters of this book have been purposefully obscured by words, concepts, and ideas that are deliberately imprecise and confusing. There are so many unsaid ideas in the first part of the book, the reader has to work really hard to grasp what the hell is happening. And I am OK with that, I don't mind working... I just didn't feel like the payoff was there in the end. The book was weighed down for me with its heavy emphasis on linguistic theory, metaphysics, cognitive theory, and I couldn't climb out of that murk. And, just for what it's worth, I have an undergraduate degree in philosophy and took linguistic courses as electives in college. So you can see why I might have thought this book would work for me. But, it really really didn't.

The crux of my complaint was that this nontraditional approach to storytelling, while dabbling heavily in the themes that make science fiction truly epic and wonderful (exploring otherness, interstellar colonization, exploration), was lacking in the human element that grounds such epic science fiction back within the human experience that is a critical element of our relating to it. Basically, Mieville had all this stuff going on, people dying, races being transformed by cognitive revolutions, and I just didn't care. The narrator, Avice, was an observer for most of the book - not only an observer, but a pretty dispassionate one. She doesn't really know or care to know what's going on, so a lot of what's related has this casual tone, that just failed completely to engage me in the story. When Avice finally did become involved in the plot, meaning she actually acts as an agent of change instead of just witnessing it, it was just too late for me. I suppose this choice of narrator had to have been a deliberate one on Mieville's part, as clearly this book is thoughtfully constructed... it just didn't work for me.

The book felt bloated and self-important to me - it's a book of ideas! social revolution! a language you can't pronounce, speak, or understand! Essentially, this book is too cool for me. My own opinion is that Mieville should have picked one or two of the cool ideas he had for this book, and explored those in a way that allowed me (a human - sadly, I know) to relate to them and feel moved, excited, or in any way inclined to give a damn about them. And saved some of the other ones for another book. As it is, I don't know that I will read any more of his books.

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Reading Progress

12/17/2011 page 43
12/21/2011 page 52
15.0% "It's not a bad book for all that I am barely reading it, I'm just too busy to read much lately!"
12/28/2011 page 229
66.0% "This is the slowest I have read a book in awhile..."
01/17/2012 page 306
88.0% "I am not a quitter... I am not a quitter... this book is so frustrating! I just don't care what happens!"
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