For the first time, I am at enough of a loss on how to explain the synopsis of book that I will rely on the description found on the back cover of China Mieville’s Sci-Fi meditation on language, Embassytown.
“In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak. Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language. When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans an aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties: to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak–but which speak through her, whether she likes it or not.”
Ok, so that last sentence is a bit melodramatic, but sounds pretty straightforward, right? If only. You see, that’s not really what it’s about. It is about the role of language in society and what makes language communicable. The Ariekei’s language is called Language, and it is purely literal, only able to communicate what actually is or was, the complete antithesis of Anglo-Uruk, the English-language stand-in of the humans, which, like all human languages, is symbolic and able to communicate ideas and what ifs. Language relies on similes to make comparisons, but those similes must have happened to exist, and those comparisons must be true. So in order for the Ariekei to use a simile featuring Avice, they must actually do the action that the simile will contain to Avice to create the simile; after that, something can then be “like the girl who ate what was given to her.” The Ariekei can tell no lies.
It is this inability to lie that is exploited by the Embassytowners and that forms the basis of the book’s musings on language. Ultimately, Mieville would have us decide what is better: maintaining the purity of a language or allowing it to evolve, even if it means the dismantling of the culture built upon that earlier language? Language born of a thought or language born of thinking? It is disorienting to think about at times, and Mieville masterfully exploits that disorientation by utilizing English in a way that is not quite right…or not quite how we use it now on Earth in 2014. There were times reading the book where I did not fully understand a description or the way a word was used or the way a sentence was structured. The characters used new vocabularies connected to their colonial and alien world. Much of it I was able to figure out through context, but this was a world where I was not completely fluent in the English variant. The first few times I thought that I just knew way less vocabulary than I thought I did. Then I realized that Mieville had set his story “in the far future” on “a distant planet”; of course the language would have evolved between now and then just like it has evolved since English first came into being. Mieville was writing the way he envisioned English would have evolved. Brilliant, really.
I rarely tap into this genre of space Sci-Fi, but I enjoyed this book very much. While it clearly takes place on an alien planet, it almost has the feel of a Western at times, as Avice is an explorer of the frontier, an immerser who makes use of an immerser vocabulary that borrows quite a bit from those old Western frontier movies. It reminded me quite a bit of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a show best described as a space Western. Firefly also used language in a provocative way, replacing modern foul language with Mandarin Chinese, referencing the blending of Earth’s human cultures in the great equalizer, outer space. However, we’re not just dealing with space cowboys. Mieville creates richly woven characters, human and alien and android, all plotting their own political and social machinations. He also made me work harder reading than I’ve had to in a while, but in a completely satisfying and rewarding way. Finishing Embassytown made me feel the way I did in high school when I suddenly had a massive breakthrough of understanding on a particularly thorny text. It is an intellectual exercise in the best way.
The great thing about Embassytown is that it’s Sci-Fi but not in a super-inaccessible or stereotypical way. Even if you are not a “Sci-Fi” person, you may like this book. It transcends its genre and becomes good literature, plain and simple. I really am not sure if I described it and my thoughts accurately because the story and its purpose is so much more complex than the above synopsis makes it seem, but I absolutely encourage you all to read it. It’s cool. It’s different. It will make you think. And it’s definitely worth your time.