Jerry Jr.'s Reviews > Embassytown

Embassytown by China Miéville
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's review
Aug 18, 2012

really liked it

You can know China Mieville’s work by the way his novels are packed with ideas. Sometimes the ideas are difficult, and sometimes the author does not condescend to explain them fully, and sometimes one disagrees with them profoundly, but the ideas are there, like gemstones scattered profligately. Yet even in comparison with Mieville’s other work, Embassytown feels peculiarly brainy and ambitious, as if it were intended more to produce fodder for grad school dissertations than a compelling story. And it does suffer somewhat from this burden.

Before I read Embassytown, I did not realize how important to Mieville’s prior, successful novels was a protagonist emotionally invested in the events going on around her or him, in whose passions the reader could find her or his own attachment to the frequently mysterious or obscure events going on in the story. Mieville’s heroes, a motley band of revolutionaries, dissidents and ne’er-do-wells, may not be the easiest to relate to, but usually their commitments are infectious to the reader, and propel the reader forward through whatever difficult ideas or plot contortions Mieville has in store. Even Bellis Coldwine, the icy protagonist of Mieville’s nautical fantasy masterpiece The Scar, has a fanatical committed to getting free and getting home that provides the reader a way into the story and an accessible motivation to continue with it. But Avice Benner Cho, the protagonist of Embassytown, seems just too remote. I’m not going to insult Mieville by claiming her inaccessibility is not by design, it’s remarked upon by herself and the other characters of Embassytown enough that it makes for a substantial theme and is somewhat important to the function she serves in the story, but that does not make the story and its subject matter easier for the reader to get through, or provide us with a reason to plod on.

And there are points in Embassytown where plodding is exactly what we are forced to do. This story about the difficulties of communicating with aliens that use two mouths in speech that produce distinct voices called the cut and the turn itself tells two distinct but interconnected stories years apart in Avice Benner Cho’s life on the planet Arieka. It’s not that the jumping back and forth in time is especially hard to understand, it’s clearly marked in chapters (Virginia Woolf, take note). Nor is it even necessarily that one has to understand the eventual denouement to one story to grasp the climactic solution to the other. It’s that the interruptions in the progression of both stories frustrations the development of a sense of tension or of progression in their respective crises. For too much of the novel we seem to be, like Cho, doing nothing in particular apart from waiting for something to happen.

Of course some of the difficulty also comes from the paucity of explanation for precisely what’s happening. One of the fascinating things about the way China Mieville writes science fiction is the absence of long expository paragraphs explaining the world that he’s created. Instead, his commitment to the dramatic integrity of his narrator is such that Cho rarely relates to us anything more about Arieka or its inhabitants in a given scene than what a contemporary person would feel necessary to say about a super-highway or a strip mall. Until specific facts become crucial to the plot, Mieville’s readers must wait in vain for full accounts of what’s being dealt with. The result, both inspiring and frustrating, is that it’s entirely possible for even an attentive reader to finish Embassytown not quite knowing what the main alien race therein actually looks like (the descriptors add up over time into something that fails to resolve itself to a single image: they’re equine, they have two sets of wings, parts of their bodies are like coral). Add to that their exotic technology that makes extensive use of the manipulation of biological structures as technology (products on this world are transported from one place to another using what Mieville calls “gullets” or “throats”) and there is another layer of difficulty. Add to that the fact that Mieville makes no bones about how human society has become so vastly different in this distant future that kinship structures work differently, whole new religions have emerged, and some technology has developed past the possibilities of 21st century understanding, and a reader can spend much of the novel out to sea, struggling to grasp the basics of the world and the future Mieville has constructed.

Critically, of course, this is a world and future that is undoubtedly worth understanding. The benefit of all this difficulty, the fruit that the reader gets for his or her labor, is that Embassytown feels more like the far future rather than a version of the present projected forward in time with some new imagined toys for the characters to play with. Likewise, the aliens seem truly and absolutely alien, and the crucial struggle to understand them gathers urgency from their sheer otherworldliness. Too often in science fiction, inscrutability is represented by the writer as a kind of blank slate. Here though, Ariekene life is given a richness: Mieville makes certain that though we may not understand the culture, the technology or the basics of life among these creatures, we understand that all that inaccessible complexity is there, maddeningly close but out of reach because of the failure to resolve the novel’s central problem of understanding

Moreover, Mieville has not just crafted this story as the presentation of some amusing trifles or thought experiments. The grad students and scholars who I am certain decades hence will be producing “Embassytown” dissertations by the bushel have much to chew on. The role of the referent in the process of signification, the logical relationship between a metaphor and a lie, and the whole constellation of issues around problems of comprehension, cultural difference, and power relationships between different peoples all emerge at various points in this story. And both strands of the plot revolve upon the ethical question of whether it’s right for one people to intervene in and fundamentally changing the culture of another, even though they do not understand that culture, both when it’s just to further their own notions or right and wrong, and when it becomes necessary for their own survival.

Though the focus on all these issues seems to render the characters to the background, Mieville remains a master at portraying subtle and pervasive menace and delivering occasioanl moments of pure, undiluted delight and horror. Mieville’s reference late in the story to a classic George Romero horror film is astonishing in the context of the story and the characters, going beyond any shallow pop culture knowingness to a bloodcurdling statement on the novel’s events and its core themes. And as frustrating as Cho can be as the observer through whose eyes we witness these events, dispassionate, remote, and uncommitted to few causes more specific than everyone’s survival, her own lack of affect is terribly significant in permitting the novel to have an almost clinical tone as it descends into horror. It’s both highly effective, and deeply unsettling.

Compared to all the foregoing, it seems insignificant to note that the novel ends in such a way as to permit sequels, or at least a continuing exploration of this future featuring different characters in the mode of Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels. In the end, I hope Mieville does return to the scenery he builds in Embassytown. Not just because so much of it is appealing—in how many science fiction novels would the “lighthouses” Mieville introduces be not just a minor plot detail but the whole point of the story?—but because we need more maddening, complicated and truly strange science fiction, and China Mieville is just the writer to give it to us.

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