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Hard Sci-Fi Emphasizing the Power and Beauty of Language? Yes, Please!
on April 28, 2011
I'm not actually a China Mieville fan. The entire "New Weird" genre just sort of confuses me, and I'm rarely impressed (to be fair, he's a fantastic writer). "Un Lun Dun" and "Kraken", particularly, didn't really leave favorable impressions. Still, I did love "King Rat" and "Perdido Street Station", and his other books were enjoyable. Also, it's stupid to not read anything else by a prolific author simply because two books weren't your thing. Add to that the fact that "Embassytown" is, at least superficially, hard-core science fiction...well, it was enough for me to take the plunge.
"Embassytown" is told through the eyes of Immerser Avice Benner Cho. She first chronicles her childhood on the planet Ariekei, giving us glimpses of Mieville's multi-layered world: most children don't grow up with their birth parents. They live in communal homes with multiple parents (much like counselors.) Humans share their world with "exots"--aliens (exoterres). But this isn't some two-dimensional Star Wars or silly Futurama-type melting pot. Exots are screened. With one important exception, exots can only settle on Ariekei if their sociologic and, to an extent, genetic makeup (they must have language, move comfortably in a human-run world, have similar thought processes, et cetera) is similar enough to allow integration with humans.
Humans do not own Ariekei, however. We are settlers, only living on the planet because beings known only as Hosts permit us to.
The Hosts protect themselves. While benevolent, especially toward children, they have a part of the planet only they can enter; humans can't breathe in their area. They circumvent the human similarity, as well (it's their planet, after all.) They speak a language only genetically engineered linguists can comprehend (these people are called Ambassadors.) They are not at all humanoid in appearance; they do not communicate like humans; and their sociologic match-up is questionable at the very best.
However, the human and exot population of Ariekei long struck a balance. They are always problems, but Embassytown is an almost disturbingly cordial society. The Hosts do their best for Ariekei, and the Ambassadors keep the peace and essentially run the society.
But when a new Ambassador arrives, the entire balance is thrown into jeopardy.
Now, the writing in "Embassytown" is fantastic. It does start slowly. There are pages and pages of childhood memories, but that serves two purposes: extensive, and subtle, world-building; and an understanding of a narrator who often takes a back seat to the story to follow.
The writing is lyrical and descriptive. During its leaner moments, Mieville recalls Ray Bradbury (which is only a plus as far as I'm concerned.) Some readers will probably describe it as "long-winded", but I think it matches the story perfectly. The narrative doesn't stop or bog itself down. There is simply a lot to tell, and Mieville tells it all.
The characters weren't as deep as I prefer. But again, this matches the story. While a rather bleak, hard-core science fiction novel, the crux of "Embassytown" is the beauty and power of language. It wasn't a parable, but the theme overtook the plot. At the same time, it doesn't wham you over the head. You're not having "language is a beautiful thing" screamed at you from every page. It is subtle. The story doesn't have a weak spot, and it doesn't stop. I think one of Mieville's greatest achievements is this flawless weaving of a theme and moral into the fabric of a novel.
This novel is, I thought, bleak, if far, far from hopeless. While it starts off comfortably as Avice describes her childhood, "Embassytown" swiftly darkens.
I'll be honest. This is my favorite of China Mieville's books. It is traditional science fiction infused with enough originality to make it unqiue. It carries a theme that is actually very dear to my heart. The writing is Mieville at his best, and the story itself is very different. I can already tell it isn't to everyone's taste, but I adored it, and eagerly suggest you give it a try.