July 12, 2011

Book review: "Embassytown," by China Mieville

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Embassytown, by China Mieville

By China Mieville
Del Rey / Random House

If I were to list my ten favorite living writers on the planet right now, undoubtedly one of them would be China Mieville, an endlessly inventive author for whom the term "New Weird" seems precisely to have been invented (and I mean literally -- it was his acquaintance Jeff VanderMeer who coined the term, largely in an attempt to describe writers like Mieville in an age before Lost and other high-profile New Weird projects). But let me also confess that I am only a recent Mieville fan, and have only gotten so far to read such titles as The City & The City (a more subdued and politically inspired tale than the stuff that made him famous) and Kraken (which is the opposite, much funnier and more straightforward than his usual work), when in fact what he's mostly known for is such WTF mind-messer-uppers as Perdido Street Station from the beginning of his career. So fangirls, then, will be happy to hear that Mieville has returned to his "what the hell are you talking about" roots with his latest, the major new release Embassytown; because while the deceptive American hardbound cover unfortunately makes this look like a cheap spy thriller or other pat genre piece, it turns out to be anything but, in reality a deeply moving headscratcher in the spirit of 1960s "New Age" science-fiction (heady, unexpected, emotional, drenched in sex) that relies on its utterly unique and surprise-filled plotline not just for its extra-great thrills but indeed to convey even the overall theme of the entire story. And so that makes it difficult to do even a simple write-up of it like today's, because a big part of the book's pleasure (indeed, a main reason for it even existing) is of you never quite understanding what exactly is going on or why the characters are acting the way they are; and so that's why I'll be treading lightly in my own write-up, and why I caution those who are interested in reading the book to put off reading peer reviews at Amazon and the like until after finishing it themselves.

Like I said, it's definitely a hardcore SF tale this time, much more than the genre-blurring titles he's recently become known for; set on the outer edge of the known universe, thousands of years after humans become space colonizers, it takes place on a planet of non-humanoid alien creatures, in cities full of "living architecture" made out of actual biological material, with a special neighborhood full of breathable air just for the several thousand humans maintaining a frontier outpost there, courtesy of the much more numerous aliens in return for things like technology exchanges and the like. But there's something unique in the entire universe to these particular aliens, known to humans as the Ariekei; not only are they double-mouthed, and not only does their language consist of differing noises coming from each mouth in sync, but the very way they even absorb language is by mingling it with the living essences of a single organism, meaning that while humans can translate and understand what the Ariekei are saying, the Ariekei cannot understand the humans back, even when two humans spend years learning how to pronounce the double-mouthed Ariekei words simultaneously. And thus as an experiment does this colony try literally growing clones specifically for the purpose of interspecies communication, not only raising them in an intensely conjoined environment but even performing surgical procedures and implanting biotech that will help unite their minds even more. And thus over the decades has a sort of aristocracy developed within "Embassytown," with these double-minded "Ambassadors" and the bureaucracy that has grown around them being the only ones to even interact anymore with the Ariekei; and indeed, it's impossible for the Ariekei to even envision the existence of sentient creatures who don't speak their language, in that Ariekei "Language" with a capital L is as integral and unconscious a part of their existence as breathing or digesting. (And this is not to even mention yet another side-effect that is to have much bigger consequences in our story -- that since Ariekei communication is essentially from one inner brain directly to another, it makes it physically impossible for them to lie, any more than we can state a known lie to ourselves and sincerely believe it, not without being considered insane.)

Such a milieu brilliantly lets Mieville touch metaphorically on all kinds of issues in our real world, without any of them necessarily being what the book is "about," one of the main pleasures in even reading this deeply confusing yet deeply rewarding story; it is partly about the clashes that arise when two very different cultures meet, partly about the frustrations and joys of language and translation (a pet subject of Mieville's, who is just as famous for being a globetrotting political activist as he is an author), partly about the history of colonialism in Mieville's native Britain, while not really directly addressing any of these things. In fact, if anything could be called the book's main theme, much like Stanislav Lem's Solaris that might be the sheer arrogance of humans in thinking that we will eventually be able to fully understand anything once we put enough minds to it, and the unending amount of trouble we are constantly causing ourselves by rushing forward with badly made plans, based on a complete misinterpretation of the events going on around us. Because that's the big chunk of this story I can't tell you anything about, is all the ways the situation on this planet quickly degenerates over the course of the novel, based on a whole series of misunderstandings between the Ariekei and the humans, who even among just their own species are facing a slow deterioration these days in the relationship between this technocratic colony and their far-flung imperial masters, a growing tension that merely adds fuel to the fire starting to flame up between them and the actual aliens. And while I'm hesitant about revealing much more about the story than this (everything I've now mentioned is all learned in the first few chapters), let's just say that by the time this infinitely expansive story is over, Mieville has explored such subjects as drug addiction, religion, the social contract that makes a civilized society function in the first place, the intricacies of language that form these contracts, and how all these topics have been exploited by empires over the centuries in order to control colonial populations (and especially in the case of Britain's shameful "Opium Wars" of the mid-1800s, when their navy deliberately caused millions of Chinese to get hooked on drugs in order to make them more reliant on imported British goods, an event never explicitly mentioned in this novel but that hangs like a black cloud over nearly every page).

Now, to be sure, there are problems with Embassytown as well, bigger and more basic problems than have been evident in his more recent books, most of them curiously enough being technical in nature; to cite just one example, Mieville starts the novel by alternating between "present" and flashback "past" chapters, but then with the flashback storyline petering out about a third of the way through, and with the narrator justifying it with the throwaway phrase, "I just realized that I don't want to tell my story this way anymore," which feels much more like Mieville the author deciding that he doesn't want to tell the story that way anymore, and being too lazy to go back and fix it now that he's a third of the way through. (Also, I'm not sure if Mieville is guilty of this in his earlier work, but here he ends his story with this really ponderous, overly explanatory, Ayn-Rand-style political monologue that essentially wraps everything up in a neat little bow, disappointing given how obtuse and morally ambiguous he starts things out, and especially disappointing when he even has the narrator acknowledge all this, stating "I was in love with the sound of my own voice back then" as a cheap rationalization for the problem existing, instead of simply fixing the problem before publication.) If you can get past those things, though, you're left with an endlessly fascinating manuscript, one that will undoubtedly be getting a Hugo nod at this point next summer and that is definitely good enough to theoretically win it, a more thought-provoking and mindful tale than what you usually see in genre actioners (and make no mistake, there's a plethora of both action and sauciness in Embassytown, including a disturbingly erotic examination of what it might be like to have an ongoing sexual relationship with two genetically modified clones at once). For sure it's not for everyone, but definitely is just the ticket for lexicographers, semionauts, fans of Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin, and others who like their beach reads to be dense, layered, fantastical and memorable. It comes recommended in that spirit.

Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.4 for science-fiction fans

Read even more about Embassytown: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:05 PM, July 12, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |