(2011) China Mieville, MacMillan, £17.99, hrdbk, 405 pp, ISBN 978-0-230-75076-0
Who does this whipper-snapper Carlos Ruiz Zafon think he is with his blurb on the front cover of China Mieville’s new novel Embassytown? He’s only the author of six novels, while this is China’s eighth, with a short story collection in his oeuvre as well, not to mention that the seven previous novels have garnered a number of Clarke awards, and the odd Hugo, World Fantasy, British Fantasy and British Science Fiction award , all of which might be sitting on a groaning mantelpiece. (Editor: And indeed we at SF2 Concatenation cited his novels as one of the best of the year for 2009). I fancy this is going to pick up a few awards as well as Mieville continues to forge new ground after writing a children’s novel, a fantastical detective novel and a fantasy novel that I found quite barkingly mad, if a little over the top – well, a lot actually, but very entertaining it was. That was Kraken and this is Embassytown and entertaining is not a word I could easily apply to it. Pay attention, class, especially you in the back. You have to have your thinking caps on, and prepare for the long haul, but the deeper you go into the bowels of Embassytown – certainly past the first 100 pages – the more you will be rewarded. Strangely, despite the very different tone and subject matter, nay styles of his last four books, this is almost a return to the tone of the earlier Bas La books, and I did hear that he wrote this before some of his more recent efforts and has come back to it, lucky for us, and in a way this is this novel’s time. The expectations, and hopes that Mieville will produce another in the Bas-La sequence have fallen away given his recent output, and this is no urban fantasy, instead it is a book about two alien species trying to communicate and understand each other.
In the future, Bremen have a colony on the distant planet of Arieka and Embassytown is that human part within the Ariekei’s only city. The Ariekei are a strange looking bunch – a mixture of insect and horse, and are known as the Hosts, willingly sharing their resources with the humans. There are some slight problems in that humans cannot replicate their speech, given that the Ariekei have two mouths and use them both at once, so the only way to communicate is through twinned modified humans known as Ambassadors who have been specially trained and altered to do this task. Returning to the planet, along with her husband, is Avice Benner Cho who was born on Arieka and is pretty unique because she was a pilot of the Immer, or rather an Immerser, able to travel through the faster-than-light shortcuts of the universe, and has survived mentally unscathed from her experiences and adventures. In fact, the novel opens with a fairly weighty section as Avice gives us a whistle-stop tour of her life, the universe and Embassytown. Avice is also pretty unique because she exists within the Arieka language as they cannot speak about something that has not happened, is not true, and is not something that they have witnessed. They cannot lie, and they cannot speculate. In order to grasp a concept they use humans as similes, to do, or act out things, and as a little girl Avice ate something which caused her pain, therefore she becomes 'the girl who was hurt and ate what was given to her'. Language therefore is crucially important. Words count, so be careful what you say. Even the Hosts hold 'lie festivals' where they try to outdo each other by saying untrue sentences. That’s just example of Mieville’s wonderful invention, not only between characters, but in Embassytown itself which in a Jeff Vandermeer Ambergris way, is alive. Antibodies move about. Trees grow meat. Houses have walls of skin. The city is eerie and unsettling, and wonderfully bizarre. Mieville has also created his own measurement of time – megahours and kilohours. He has also come up with words for human, and alien and ships and slower than light travel, and so on, like I say pay attention because this novel picks up speed as it goes along when a new Ambassador arrives in the city with a different way of saying things, and pretty soon the Hosts are hooked on telling untruths and the whole relationship between the Arieka and the humans is going down the pan, and… Well, that would be telling, no spoilers here, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Mieville weaving in more than nod to a current literary, and cinematic obsession. Work it out for yourself. Buy this book, read it, you will enjoy it. Honest. Mieville moves on with something new and unique. I’m going to see him at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival and fully expect (like he did when he appeared two years ago) that he will reading from next year’s book. Who knows it might even be something in the universe of the Immer, but I doubt it.
See also Robert's take on Embassytown.
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