meeners's Reviews > Embassytown

Embassytown by China Miéville
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Jul 19, 2012

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bookshelves: sci-fi

WARNING: what follows is a horribly blob-like monster of a review that got out of my control to run amok among goodreads. actually it is not even a review, but a (VERY LONG) collection of thoughts centered around this book's epigraph, which is a quote from an essay by walter benjamin. quoting benjamin in a work of fiction is something like an extremely nerdy secret handshake for academics. it made me go WHAT!!!!! and then immediately look up china miéville on wikipedia, where i learned that the dude got a ph.d. in international relations and wrote his dissertation on "a marxist theory of international law." voilà: secret handshake!

the quote miéville uses is this one, from "on language as such and on the language of man": "The word must communicate something (other than itself)." it's a quite poetic sentence, and also exceedingly apt - doubly apt, as it's given to us in silent translation. as far as i understand it (note: not very far), benjamin's essay considers the inability of a language to speak (or to be) totality. totality is not a language but Language, truth without the need of meaning - what benjamin would call the divine; miéville, the alien.

benjamin, like miéville, identifies a transformatory power in the act of translation, wherein translation between languages is simultaneously the translation of them and therefore of the very contours of thought. only through this paradoxical (or dare i say . . . DIALOGICAL?!) process can the incommensurablity of language be exceeded or transcended, and the word made more true to itself. but while benjamin sees this as a teleology, with a pure "original" language sitting at the apex of time, miéville wrenches Language from its place in time and puts it in synchronic space. the way he does this is to put benjamin's theory into practice but from the perspective of the Hosts, who, until the humans came, knew only truth without meaning. and afterwards?

There were those Hosts who thought something better could have been said and better thoughts therefore thought, had I only been made to do other things than I had. That I could have been a better simile . . . But those critics of course couldn't say what those thoughts would have been, because they could not have them.

would benjamin have seen these changes in the Host language [lightbulb!! double meaning] as a corruption? i ask this question because in embassytown there's a character who calls the transformation of Language evil, and when you think about it, that is what following benjamin's logic to its limits gives you: the Fall. only in this case, evil is human; the devil is adam and eve. to be clear, i don't think miéville is trying to set up a parable or allegory. embassytown is praxis but it is also - crucially - a narrative, in its literary sense. if it seems like an allegory it's maybe because war feels so familiar to us, and inevitable. but war is not an allegory. war is its own thing, and it is brutal.

there's a lot of food for thought here, and it was a pleasure to see miéville's novel unfold in ways that felt, if inevitable, then at least never reductive. but i think i like best the prologue-of-sorts and the section called "proem" because the strangeness of the prose - like poetry: condensed, clipped, decoupled from context - plunges you into a fully formed world where you are the foreigner, you are the one speaking the foreign tongue. in general, embassytown is so cleverly structured that it is not too hard, after that initial shock, to get into the swing of things alongside the protagonist. but being the curmudgeonly reader that i am, i would have preferred miéville making it difficult for the reader throughout. (maybe this is why i kept thinking of ted chiang's "story of your life" with such nostalgic longing.) also, i feel uneasy over (view spoiler) still, i did enjoy this. it accomplishes admirably (and celebrates) what ursula k. le guin once said, in a beautiful turn of phrase that could serve as the epigraph to this book just as well as benjamin's: "The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words."


(appropriately enough, i first learned of embassytown through a review written by le guin in the guardian [here]. in there there's an offhand remark she makes - "There are men right now who have never learned how to talk to women. How will we talk to somebody really different – aliens?" - that has really stuck with me. it's such a simple and handy way for thinking about the problematic workings of gender in sf/f - in any codified genre, really, but because sf/f books often attempt to elucidate something about the known world by posing questions about the unknown, it can be easier to spot some of the more egregious systems of privilege that remain untouched and/or unnoticed by the author.

such as: why, in a book where the human race has presumably had a bajillion years to intermingle and change etc. before being flung out to the far corners of the universe, do the vast majority of the embassytown ambassadors have names like EzRa and CalVin and MagDa??! don't give me that bullcrap about the settlers wanting to "honor" their antecedents, china miéville. that excuse makes it even more depressing, actually. travel lightyears and hop across galaxies, and you STILL find entire planets where white people are privileged as the originators and subjects of history. uh, thanks but no bloody thanks.)
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