Embassytown by China Miéville

China Miéville is probably best known for his imaginative fantasy work set in the same funky universe as the excellent Perdido Street Station. I really like what he is doing to re-invigorate the genre by pushing at it’s borders from the inside, but I’m most impressed with his work outside of it. For example I was absolutely blown away by the strange and subtly surreal detective story in City and the City. I was overjoyed to see him releasing a full blown SF novel – I was curious to see how his unique style and penchant for nonconformity and subtly oddball concepts will pan out in that sort of setting.

I am happy to report that Miéville and Science Fiction mix very, very well. Embassytown is positively excellent – well crafted, eloquent and deliciously strange. Granted, the author is not a techie like Charlie Stross or Vernor Vinge, so you can’t expect him to make insightful predictions on future of technology or the nature of technological progress. Miéville is interested in other things, namely aliens.


Embassytown - Book Cover

Here is my beef with aliens in SF literature: very few authors manage to pull them off well. They usually come in one of two garden varieties: human-like characters with weird names, or incomprehensible menaces beyond human understanding. The former group varies quite a bit with respect to shapes and sizes of its members, but they all have one thing in common. They think just like us, and can easily integrate into our society. They can empathize with us, understand our problems, and have remarkably similar cultures that include religions, political structures and etc..

This is one of the things that has always irked me about Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. His spider-like alien race was so remarkably human like, that it was hard for me to visualize them as spider-like creatures when reading the segments from their point of view. And yes, I know that he explains this as a translation bias but still – their society and culture was just so compatible with ours that it tested my suspension of disbelief sometimes.

The latter category usually features entities that are just beyond our comprehension and thus impossible to empathize or even communicate with. This makes them undeniably alien and strange, but because of their nature they usually can’t play a large part in the story. They can be some looming menace, approaching enemy or just a local presence that is treated by the characters like some force of nature.

Miéville’s aliens are positioned in between these two extremes. They are strange, they don’t think the way we do, but they are not incomprehensible. The entire novel revolves around communication barriers arising between humans, and a race of aliens for who are born into language. For them speech is an instinctive action, almost indistinguishable from thinking. They are unable to learn other language, and humans are only able to approximate theirs by breeding specially modified pairs of ambassadors who can imitate the alien sounds.

I don’t want to give too much away though, because the mystery of the alien language – how it works, how humans learned to speak it, and how the aliens incorporated the human visitors into their speech – is what makes this book so interesting. It is Miéville’s exploration of the relationship between language and consciousness.

The book starts kinda slow, with the author slowly unfolding mysteries of the small ambassadorial colony in them middle of an alien city. We learn about the daily life of the colonist, their interaction with the bizarre and mysterious hosts, their social and political structure through the eyes of a young citizen. About halfway through the novel the action picks up, when a voice of an unconventionally bred ambassador turns out to have very strange and unsettling effect on the aliens, completely changing the relationship between the natives and the colonists. There is intrigue, pressure builds up, and the whole thing ends in an action packed crescendo.

If you want to read a book with very well written, unique, strange and interesting aliens this is a novel for you. But it is not just a book about cool critters. Miéville’s prose is rich, eloquent and smart. His descriptions of the alien city, and the strange Embassy are vivid and picturesque. He really knows cities – how they work, how people live in them. Whether you are reading about New New Crobuzon, Beszel/Ul Quoma or Embassytown – Miéville delivers. He describes the fancy parts, the slums, the back alleys and the people who populate all these places. Cities are basically characters in his books – silent, motionless, passive, but not without a personality.

If I had to make a list of the most interesting, and most thought provoking books I have read this year, Embassytown would definitely be in the top ten. It has awesome aliens, interesting characters, a slowly unfolding mystery, and an action-packed finale. It is everything you could ask for in a good Science Fiction novel and more. I really hope Miéville will revisit the genre again, because I enjoyed this book much more than Perdido Street Station.

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9 Responses to Embassytown by China Miéville

  1. Victoria UKRAINE Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Need to get back to this one. I started on it some time ago and put it away in favor of A Fire upon the deep because it was way too slow.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Victoria:

    How is Fire Upon the Deep? It is actually in my current batch of books sitting on my desk waiting to be read.

    Also, Embassytown does pick up later on. It is kinda slow at first, but I don’t mind slow as long as it is interesting or builds toward something.

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  3. Victoria Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    I kinda have a love-hate relationship with this type of books because I mostly fail to recognize the supposed greatness of the transcended/ascended beings :) Fire upon the Deep does have really fun parts but other parts seemed plain ridiculous and unbelievable. Kilobytes in space cracked me up.

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  4. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ LMaciak: With regard to your two approaches to aliens, I’m wondering if you’ve read Manta’s Gift by Timothy Zahn. Zahn usually writes aliens biased towards the first kind, human-analogue aliens, but they’re usually stand-ins for humans anyway. Manta’s Gift puts a little more effort into exploring the aliens, their culture and psychology than his other books and I was wondering if you’d read it.

    Another thought though: Why is it that even when an author is constructing an ‘alien’ alien their communication method is nearly always some kind of speech? And if it’s not that, it’s some kind of psychic link? You’d think that if people were going to go through the trouble of having your characters have to overcome a language gap you’d take the opportunity to try a non-vocal communication means, especially since so many creatures on earth use non-vocal communications, such as dance or smell. I can imagine a species with an evolved tendril whose sole purpose was to mime its entire language through a complicated system of motions and wiggles.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    Nope, I have never read it. In fact I have never read anything by him, because I know him mostly as “that guy who wrote these Star Wars novels”. As a rule of thumb I try to stay away from novelizations and novels that use franchise licenses because in my experience they tend to be unequivocally bad. This is probably not fair to some of the writers, but – meh. I know the Thrawn trilogy by reputation, but I was never really tempted to read it.

    When I was in HS and we played Star Wars D6, we set our campaigns sometime before “A New Hope” – at the height of the imperial power because we enjoyed the totalitarian dystopian feel. So knowledge of what “officially” happened after Return of the Jedi was not required of me (yes, Zhan’s trilogy was the official version in my circles).

    Anyways, I looked him up and saw he got a Hugo for some original work (I think) but a lot of his output is licensed (Star Wars, Terminator, etc..)

    Anyways, to answer your question – Miéville addresses some of this stuff in his book. His universe has more than one alien species, and the characters mention, and sometimes glimpse other creatures but the author does not dwell on the too much, though he mentions that they are not humanoidal in shape and that they do have different forms of communication. Some use chemical messaging, some use gestures/skin pigmentation changes, others use sound. But their languages work similar to those of humans – they are learned, and they can be used to signify things.

    For example, a human can say – “look at this” and point. Most aliens have equivalent concepts in their languages. The mysterious Hosts from Embassytown do not. They are born into the language, and they do not have a concept of this/that. They do not point – they describe and reference things. Instead of saying “can you hand me that glass over there” their language would require a construct along the lines of “please pick up the half empty glass from the table in the corner, and give it to [alien-name]” or something like that. They are unable to understand pointing, or signifying this. They cannot comprehend metaphors, and they are incapable of lying.

    I don’t want to spoil much of the book, but interesting things happen to their minds when they are deafened and lose the ability to speak and hear their instinctive language.

    Oh, and telepathy does not exist in that universe. The ambassadors use mind-syncing implants to emulate it, but it only helps them sync up their brain waves so that they can speak the alien language in unison (requirement for them to understand it) but can’t use it to communicate. No species in that universe is known to have anything akin to a psychic link.

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  6. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    “Miéville addresses some of this stuff in his book.”

    This book is definitely going on my to-read list, then. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. jambarama Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    So I just finished the book. It was enjoyable, I ended up liking it quite a bit. It was thoughtful, it had very novel ideas, and it was complex without bogging down the reader with complexity. I also really liked that the protagonist was female, you don’t often get that in sci fi.

    I do have a few criticisms. I wish he’d have spent more time describing the universe and and I wish he’d narrowed the universe he was trying to describe. By the end of the book, he was using quite a few nouns which had no meaning for me. I couldn’t picture the hosts, what they looked like, how many appendages they had, what a giftwing looks like and where it is on the body. I thought Scile’s last action was ridiculous – it didn’t fit in with his theology (should have tried to shoot spanish first), it didn’t advance the plot, and it meant his character was almost completely irrelevant to the story. I thought the explanation as to why the god drug worked was really thin. Erhsul was a character without a function. The whole concept of the Immer was only tacitly relevant with the plot.

    I didn’t want everything spelled out, or everything tied together like Dickens. Many terms, left undefined, were clear – like “floaking.” I just wish he’d used & explored the universe he created more thoroughly, and cut down the bits that weren’t relevant to the story or understanding the universe. Overall it was very much worth reading, but I wish he’d had a more demanding editor.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ jambarama:

    Good points. I too thought that the discussion of Immer was a bit tangential to the rest of the book. I guess the Miéville could not resist the temptation of trying to invent his own original FTL method. Of course he could have just mentioned “hyperdrives” without elaborating exactly how they work and the story would still work.

    Then again, perhaps he was purposefully planting these ideas in there planning to expand upon them in the future. Kinda like he did for his Fantasy book cycle – with each book feeding off the plot hooks and ideas planted in previous ones.

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