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Embassytown: Alien linguistics, Language-drugs, and intrigue, oh my

Updated on July 17, 2011

China Mieville as an author is a master of two things: creating intricate and truly unique worlds, and tearing them to pieces. While many authors can do that first one, there are comparatively few it seems with the guts to really effectively do the second: authors want to protect their darlings, after all. In "Embassytown", his first science fiction novel, he shows off his mastery of both.

Humanity has spread out across the stars, changing into thousands upon millions of cultures across the galaxy. The setting of this novel, the planet Arieka, is one of the most remote locations humanity has moved to, and home to an alien race whose language is quite intriguing. Referred to as "Hosts" by the human residents of the colony of Embassytown, their language works as a sort of a channel for their thoughts. This means that they are utterly incapable of lying, that they cannot understand machines speaking their language (since machines don't have minds), and since their language requires two voices talking simultaneously, humans talking to them need to have minds utterly in sync. This has led to the creation of the Ambassadors, pairs of humans genetically designed to be exactly identical to their partners, who can talk to the aliens and negotiate for the unique bioengineering that the aliens use for nearly everything.

Another interesting quirk of the Hosts is that they like to create similes in order to better conceptualize the abstract, generally by doing something in the physical world that can then be referred to in Language. This happened to our main character, Avice Benner Cho, who as a child was compensated in order to create the simile "like the girl in pain who ate what was given to her." this allowed her to leave her world and travel the universe, only returning much later accompanied by her husband Scile, an offworlder linguist fascinated by the Hosts and their language.

As the novel opens, Bremen. the colonial power which controls Embassytown, has sent an Ambassador who is unusual in two respects: they are not native to Embassytown, and they are not identical: Ez and Ra, who make up the Ambassador EzRa, are two totally different people who seem to somehow be able to make the link necessary to properly speak Language. But when EzRa speaks for the first time to the Hosts, something unexpected happens, and all hell breaks loose.

The rest of the novel is devoted to trying to find out what happened, and to deal with the horrific consequences. As I mentioned, this is one of Mieville's strengths, as he perfectly captures the humans' bafflement at what's going on, followed by horror, panic, and despair as the world around them goes mad. Mieville is also amazing at pacing in this section of the book, as tiny, barely noticed events suddenly snowball into horror, chaos, and surprise paradigm shifts .

Avice is an interesting main character. She is a floaker, as she describes herself, a slang term for wheeler-dealer types who are able to make themselves essential to the workings of wherever they find themselves. This makes her quite resourceful, and good at figuring out both the manipulations of the bureaucrats and schemers who surround them, and circumventing them. This makes her great fun to read along with, even though she is most definitely not invincible, and in fact spends much of her time BSing. One caution, however, is that Mieville does not hold the reader's hand with how so very different from modern humanity Avice and her culture are: she doesn't bother to explain things that are obvious to her but would not be to the reader until much later in the book, for example.

This ties back in with the first statement I said about China Mieville. He has created a universe that is unbelievably creative and unique, and even though he only focuses on one planet, it feels real and incredibly detailed. I'd love to explore this universe more in later books, if Mieville is willing to indulge me.

The only major downside to the novel (aside from the already mentioned lack of handholding regarding how his universe functions) is the rather large importance of knowing how language is constructed and works to explain how the Hosts behave and the significance of the main conflicts of the story. You don't need to have taken in a class in semiotics or linguistics to understand the story, but it might help.

Overall, however, this is a inventive and fast-paced story that I really enjoyed. Avice is a fun viewpoint character, and the story depicts the destruction of a world in a way that felt very true. If you're weirded out by strangeness, this may not be your story, but if not, it is worth your time to check it out. I recommend it.

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