Embassytown, by China Mieville
Warning: Very long, and might contain spoilers.
And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
“. . .You don’t need to. . .to link incommensurables. Unlike if you claim: ‘This is that.’ When it patently is not. That’s what we do. That what we call ‘reason,’ that exchange, that metaphor. That lying. The world becomes a lie. That’s what Surl Tesh-escher wants. To bring in a lie.” He spoke very calmly. “It wants to usher in evil.”
In the third, or adult, stage of their development, the Ariekene wake knowing Language, innately. There is no less-than-perfect feedback system. They don’t have to learn language in a complex social context. There is no need to struggle to decipher phonetics, facial expressions, tonal changes or physical non-verbal cues. Furthermore, the Ariekene can only speak things that are true. For these and other reasons humans consider the Ariekene Language unique in the galaxy.
It’s tempting to say that China Mieville’s Embassyville is about linguistics, because so much of it focuses on that topic. It’s about so much more, though; politics and art, power, addiction, innocence and wisdom, colonialism and what happens when different cultures engage.
Mieville gives us another interstitial first person narrator, not unlike Tyador in The City and The City, for Embassytown. Avice Benner Cho was born in Embassytown, the one bubble of human colonization on Arieka. Avice is an “immerser,” someone who helps shepherd the galactic ships through the disorienting space called the “immer.” As a child, before she ever left her home planet, Avice ran with a group of kids who tried to push the envelope of the aeoli, the literal bubble of breathable air around Embassytown, to cross the border into the Ariekene city, into the toxic atmosphere of the Hosts. Avice has gone off-world, but now returns with her husband, Scile, a linguist. As she did when she was a child, Avice shuttles across borders and between factions, an in-between person at a crucial moment in her planet’s history.
On Arieka, Avice has a modest measure of fame. When she was a child she was chosen by the Hosts to act out certain behavior. She is a simile. Avice is not the author of the simile, she is the thing itself—not Pablo Picasso, but a Picasso, not Beethoven, one of his sonatas.
The Ariekene have two mouths, and speak a dual-voiced language. Human settlers were quickly able to understand the Ariekene, but the Hosts could not understand humans. It takes a particular kind of human to manage the tonal and vocal needs of Language, and once the colonists in Embassytown realized this, they set about creating that kind of human. The only people who can speak to the Hosts are the genetically engineered Ambassadors.
Meiville takes his time unfolding the story. Scile, Avice’s husband, is particularly fascinated by the Festivals of Lies the Hosts hold, to which they invite the Ambassadors. Ambassadors, being human, can lie effortlessly. “I’m flying,” they’ll say, and the Ariekene, even knowing this is not true, will look skyward. They hold lying contests among themselves, and the contestants strain to lie. One contestant wins a round by calling a yellow object “yellow-beige.” It receives an ovation from its fellows.
Although they can apparently think of things that are not here-and-now true, the Hosts cannot articulate them, and this is why they must create similes like Avice in the material world, so that they can use that simile to talk about things in different ways.
Across the immer, the imperial government (never actually seen) is not happy that the power on Arieka rests solely with the Ambassadors, and they create an Ambassador of their own. The readers, who have observed the Festivals of Lies, understand immediately what happens when the Ariekene meet this new Ambassador, but it takes the citizens of Embassytown longer. As Avice puts it, “The sun came out, and the shops still sold things, and people went to work. It was a slow catastrophe.”
The collapse, when it comes, is actually shockingly swift. The last quarter of the book details the collapse of the human city, and tears aside the veil of denial Avice and her friends have clung to. Humans lives on Arieka solely by the largess of the Ariekene—even the air they breathe is provided by the bio-rigged meat machines the Hosts have created. And non-Ambassador humans, like Avice and Scile, are viewed as meat machines, not people, by the Ariekene.
As the city erodes away, Avice, somewhat surprisingly, stays with the Ambassadors, while Scile leaves, disappearing into a hostile countryside. Because of Scile’s scholarship, the books he left, and Avice’s access, as an article of Language, to the Ariekene, Avice actually understands more about Language than the Ambassadors do. In one way, it’s an outsider’s understanding; in another, as a simile, she is immersed in Language.
I was afraid that Scile had been written into the book just to give Avice access to scholarly knowledge, but Scile is a player with his own motives and his own philosophy. He projects innocence onto the Ariekene, and wants to keep their Language uncorrupted, as he defines that, whatever the cost.
The final quarter of the book is a swirl of warfare, strategy, and language—many kinds of language. In the midst of one desperate attempt to control things, Bren, a former Ambassador, reminds Avice, “We aren’t training a new Ambassador. We’re distilling a drug.”
In the midst of a quite serious book, Mieville still finds time for playfulness. The un-crewed ships that slip across the waves of the immer to wash up on Embassytown’s shore are called “miabs”, and the reason is explained a little farther on in the text. As things begin to implode, one of the Ambassadors watches old fictions of humans fighting off hordes of undead monsters and someone comments, “These ones are Georgian or Roman, I gather.” Bren and Avice comment on the phrase “bone-house” for human chest and later Avice, skulking through the ruined organic houses of the city, hides behind a house-bone. Avice nicknames one of the Ariekene “Spanish Dancer,” which is later shortened to Spanish, the name of a human language.
Mieville pitches this book—I’m using that term tonally—at literary readers, with a first person narrator who seems to be someone who is not powering the story, merely present and reporting on the events that happen around her. At the end, though, Avice declares that she is through being a simile; she wants to be a metaphor. Avice’s understanding midwifes the cataclysmic change in Ariekene consciousness.
There is so much at work here that some nuance of character gets lost. While I can imagine why Avice falls out of love with Scile, I never see the moment where she falls in love with him, and that would have added poignancy to the ending.
I think the pacing is a little off in Embassytown, and there is a lot of talking, but, after all, it’s a book about language. Mieville wanted to write about how the mind changes language and language changes the mind. He succeeded. He also wrote a good book about power and respect, about colonialism and self-determination. This is a book I will read again, knowing that each read will uncover something new to think about.