Book Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

This latest book by the British sci-fi phenom is a special blending of his superb urban fantasy world building techniques and a didactic pondering on what it means to speak and to be heard. Most of the book exists in a kind of inbetween state, it could be told in a short story and get all the plot in there pretty easily. But doing so would limit what makes Miéville such an interesting writer. Before this book he’s created several versions of London: Bas-Lag, a world that mixes old-school magic and new-school technology, the mixed cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, the place where all of London’s disused goods go to live a second life, and a London controlled by various factions and cults and religions, each praying to a different god and working towards a different apocalypse. Embassytown is the first book where he moves beyond alterations of London and into an entirely alien world. The planet is far on the outer edges of explored space, the natives are strange to the point where they don’t even recognize humans as beings, and the little human outpost in the middle of the alien city has come under siege by aliens craving a new drug.
There’s a complex situation going on (so complex that, should I put the book down for any given amount of time, it took a bit to readjust into such an alien landscape) involving the Hosts (aliens) which speak with two mouths and can only say absolute truths. They throw lying competitions to see who can get closest to telling a not-truth. They use humans and objects as similes to talk about other things. They can only communicate with humans through Ambassadors (twins that, through some technology, are able to sync their thoughts and speak with two voices to say one thing) until a new Ambassador shows up that isn’t twins and whose speech becomes a drug to the Hosts. After all of this gets set into motion – and it takes a bit to get there, and a bit to understand what’s going on in the first place – not much happens until the last 50 or so pages of the book. There’s a term Miéville invents for people that just kind of do what they need to do to get by, no more and no less, “floaking.” Our hero, Avice, a woman born on this alien outpost who gets away and returns for love, is a master floaker and as she goes so goes the narrative. The middle 150 pages meander as one person dies but is replaced and the situation just gets a bit worse every day. Of course, all of this floaking around serves a greater purpose, developing the idea of Language and language.
The fundamental difference between the humans and the Hosts is their inability to understand each other. This can, of course, operate as a metaphor for people’s general lack of communication but there is so much more Miéville wants to say. The Hosts speak Language with their dual mouths and similes like “The Girl Who was Hurt in Darkness and Ate What was Given to Her,” (this being Avice, who, as a child, was taken and beat and then fed because the Hosts can’t say something that isn’t explicitly true) and are trapped within this shell of absolute literalness. When a flawed speaker, the new Ambassador, is introduced and seemingly speaks with not one mind but two the Hosts are literally drugged. One of the best aspects of the book is how Miéville describes the descent of the Hosts into their addiction. Because the entire city is bioengineered to be partially living even the houses fall prey to the language-drug. If the people, Host and human alike, are to be saved there must be a paradigm shift away from the exacting nature of Language and into the glorious complexity of language. 
The book really comes into its own when Avice figures out that the similes must be transformed into metaphors. Instead of the Hosts being like the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her they must be the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her. It’s the difference between being “cool as ice” and “ice cold”. By drawing such attention to this seemingly insignificant idiosyncrasy of our language Miéville expounds in great detail how important it is to communicate and understand language. Everything means something and by paying attention to how we say something we can better utilize our language to mean exactly what we want to mean. Exactly because we can lie by saying we are an emotional wreck (taking the visceral reaction to a car accident and applying it to our inner self) we are able to say so much more than talking in plain truth would allow. That breakthrough is presented wonderfully in the book and works both intellectually and emotionally. The previous floaking allows for the full impact in both head and heart of the revelation and switch between simile and metaphor. 
While this book isn’t nearly as exciting as, say, Kraken nor as wild a ride as Perdido Street Station, I think that Mieville has something important to say which, for the first time, aligns perfectly with the created world and the characters and the emotions they stir within the reader. It’s the first time everything works, I’d say. I probably would, however, not go to it for a re-read any time soon. It doesn’t have the almost Indiana Jones-y nature which will propel the reader back into its world over and over again, unlike those two books I listed earlier in this paragraph. There’s just something missing which keeps this book from being his best, even though all the pieces work better than they have in his previous books. I’d probably call it “fun.”

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