218 of 236 people found the following review helpful
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.
47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
China Miéville's fertile imagination has always explored the interstices of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but this, his eighth novel, is more strongly tilted toward science fiction than its predecessors. On a planet dominated by aliens whose unique language demands a uniquely specialized form of communication, the isolated human community of Embassytown lives a life of benign neglect, having only occasional contact with the society of which it's a nominal colony and the natives on whom its livelihood depends. When that harmony is shattered by an impossible arrival and an unexpected discovery, Avice Benner Cho, positioned by fate at the nexus of several conflicting agendas, finds herself caught up in the tragic, violent birth of a new order.
Miéville uses theoretical questions about the nature of language as a jumping-off point, but doesn't explore them in any rigorous way; this is not so much a novel of ideas as of images. As ever, the author excels at portraying an urban existence that's alien and yet based in universal aspects of city life. Embassytown is first seen through a child's eyes, as flashbacks detail Avice's early years, the games and myths that spring up in the lives of children surrounded by strangers, whether those strangers belong to a different ethnic group or a different species. No awkward exposition blunts the mystery of Avice's city, and readers not familiar with the immersive quality of novels like this one may find themselves lost. But before too much time passes, Miéville weaves seemingly-disparate threads together into a deeply satisfying moment of revelation. At that point, the novel truly takes off.
In its first half, chapters detailing Avice's complicated history with the different powers of Embassytown alternate with ones set on the evening when everything changes. These overlapping sections are perfectly paced, revealing narrative secrets at a rate that prevents the reader from becoming bored with either plotline or losing sight of the big picture. The science fiction notions that emerge are not particularly novel, but there are enough of them that the combination remains distinctive, and Miéville describes these familiar ideas with flair, finding the awe and terror in what might otherwise be clinical concepts, especially in the later sections, where the flashbacks end and the particular nature of the novel's aliens leads to a truly horrific outbreak of chaos.
The characters of Embassytown often lack individual depth; their histories are unexplored and their motivations treated as unknown and possibly unknowable, while Avice's laconic voice conceals personality rather than revealing it. Frustrating though it can be, this distance lends them a certain strange grandeur, the counter-intuitive dignity of minimalist fiction, and its shortcomings are offset by Miéville's rich rendering of the different factions at work in the life of any city. It's not as simple as humans vs. aliens, colonists vs. homeworlders, or any such binary. Feuds and clashing ideologies of which even the well-connected Avice can have only the dimmest idea drive competing factions, creating an impression of greater complexity than a three hundred fifty-page novel can offer, and there are no easy answers about which groups and actions are morally justified. Likewise, Miéville's robust world-building makes Embassytown feel like a real place, one whose dark nooks and crannies can only be glimpsed on a single visit.
Wars are fought not to preserve the past but to define the future. Miéville understands this, and his novel captures the compromised, compromising life of a city in transition. In spite of the cruelty, fear, loss, and destruction that it describes, Embassytown is first and foremost a portrait of strength and survival, of the adaptations demanded by hardship and the price they bring with them. And, for all its futuristic wonders, it is ultimately a novel about how communication between different cultures produces changes on all sides, and therefore remarkably contemporary. Embassytown excels both as gripping, imaginative science fiction and as a carefully thought out meditation on the nature of cities.
38 of 43 people found the following review helpful
I read science fiction to be entertained and to stretch my understanding of ideas I might never otherwise consider. Embassytown gave me a huge dose of both. China Mieville wrote a stimulating, entertaining story of the importance of language. He did that by introducing an alien culture totally out of sync with the way in which human beings communicate - even though both species communicate through sound.
The protagonist, Avice, grew up in the one human town - Embassytown - on the alien's planet. The town was an outpost of a human-dominated world and not a large place to live. Mieville does a good job of grounding the reader in the culture of the synergy between humans and aliens by allowing Avice to tell certain important parts of her childhood.
The story begins in a time of rapid and traumatic change that threatens to destroy the aliens' world and Embassytown. The snowballing events pressure breakthroughs that offer changes as devastating as the ones at the beginning of the story.
I had two problems with the advanced proofs that I received for review. (The book is due to be released in May.) First, about 50-to-75 pages near the center of the book slowed down to the point of slogging through mud. (Mieville spends too many pages getting through the times when any action is taking place out of Avice's sight.) Second, one of the subplots that seemed to be important several times in the book - Avice's relationship with Ehrsul - ended strangely, even for sci-fi. Those are the only reasons that I rated the book with four stars instead of five.
With all truly well written science fiction stories, the first reading is for orientation to a new world and to make the paradigm shifts necessary to understanding the plot. The second reading brings out the nuances and the delights of finding all the subtleties the author includes in the book. Embassytown passed the first-reading test with high marks. I anticipate that Embassytown will carry me through the second reading with equal aplomb.
I highly recommend Embassytown.
43 of 54 people found the following review helpful
Embassytown is a Bremen colony on a planet bordering the farthest known reaches of space. The world is a strange mishmash of biological and technological species. Almost everything is part engineered and part living (architecture, flora, fauna, beings). Time is measured in kilohours. The relationship between the locals, their alien neighbors, and the Bremen Empire is tenuous. Embassytown is a bit of a back-water colony that largely exists under the radar of the ruling Empire on its distant planet - at least that's how it appears. The strange alien race that has accepted the Embassytowners into its midst is the Ariekei. Their speech, or "Language", is unique in that it is comprised of two things spoken simultaneously. The local leaders of the colony, the Ambassadors, are the only ones who can communicate with the "Hosts" or Ariekei. Ambassadors are two people bred and engineered so that they can be of one mind and speak simultaneously in "Language". "Language" is also unique in that it is literal and truthful. There is no symbolism in the language. Only what is can be spoken.
Avice Benner Cho, the narrator, was born and raised in Embassytown. She becomes an Immerser (someone who travels through space in the Immer - the timeless dimension in which the universe exists). During her travels, she meets and marries a linguist who is enamored with "Language". Together they return to Embassytown so he can study the strange language and they find themselves immersed in political and cultural upheaval.
To create the setting, the novel starts in two threads ("formerly" and "latterday") that finally meet and proceed to the book's conclusion. It is told entirely through the experience of Avice who is ultimately an impotent and uninteresting heroine. The narrative is revealed in endless summarizing and opining by the main character whose opinions count for very little. The reader doesn't know her. She's flat and empty - no values, no ambition, no wit, no passion, no intelligence. She just rides the wave of events and tells the reader about them and how she felt.
Two primary things occur that threaten the future of the Ariekei and Embassytown. First, a group of Ariekei struggle to learn to lie and achieve a momentous breakthrough. Second, when the Ariekei hear broken "Language" (simultaneous speech by an Ambassador that is not completely sympathetically linked), it has a narcotic affect on them. They become addicts and need the fix that only hearing the broken language anew can provide. These two occurrences threaten to destroy the civilization.
The work is imaginative (not dazzlingly so) but it lacks any grounding in characters that are interesting or with whom the reader empathizes. The novel comes off as a cold and calculated exploration of ideas lacking any emotional resonance. Imagination cannot substitute for characterization and this story suffers dreadfully as a result.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2011
China Mieville wrote a wonderful book called "Perdido Street Station", which described a fantastically rich universe that combined high tech, low tech, steampunk, magic, other dimensions, and practically everything else. Instantly people were addicted. 'We want more Perdido Street Station', they cried. WIth time the fans became restless, they began to mutter amongst themselves and become surly. While there were no overt signs of violence, the mood felt the implicit threat of the addict denied.
Then "Iron Council" came out. The fans were not pleased, and if anything the hostile murmuring increased.
"The Scar" seemed to calm things down. 'Yes it's like Perdido Street Station we like it', and all seemed calm.
But with time the effects of "The Scar" wore off, and the fans became restless again. China Mieville wrote "Kraken", not set in the Perdido Street Station universe but with a similar attempt at richness, but the reaction of the fans was muted, like a heroin addict given whiskey and a couple of tylenols. The grumblings were only briefly stilled, and have since grown louder and more ominous.
But now we have "embassytown", and the fans are rapturous once again, the addicts soaring on a fresh high. Strange factions have arisen amongst the fans. Some say 'we liked that Perdido Street Station one better', and others claim that no, "embassytown" is better, while still others plan to vote for Michelle Bachman. Ultimately the minds of the fans are alien and unknowable. We can only hope that Mieville can match this quality of work before the fans become too desperate again...
Bottom line: no this is not flawless literature. But if you like rich science fiction, populated with adult characters who are neither craven villains nor perfect saints, where superintelligent aliens are not outwitted by twelve year old boys, and you want a fix of Mievilles' almost sui generis ability to evoke in a single sentence a richness that most authors would require a full novel to develop, this may be one for you.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
There are different viewpoints as to what makes good science fiction but I think above all of these is that the story must challenge your reader to think and to think about a possible future whether it is one year or a million years from now. Miéville certainly makes us think but there are other standards I hold science fiction to as well.
Set in an unknown future when humanity is crossing the universe using technology that is both dangerous and almost magical, we see how we interact with a very different species. (Or perhaps it is a past since the standard belief of the humans in the novella is that the universe has been created destroyed and created anew at least two previous times)
The Ariekei are certainly quite different from humans and yet we find a way to communicate. In a sense this entire book is about communication, how necessary, dangerous, and yet flexible language is to a community and between cultures. That is one of the challenges of the book. So much of the alien language is used, the type setting is interesting and removes much change of this book ever becoming a film or even being read out loud, that we struggle to understand it along with our heroine. However it is not simply the Ariekei language that is foreign but the language of the humans which has so many new phrases, ideas and just simple words that you must read slowly to comprehend it well.
There are two types of readers of science fiction. Some want a fast-paced book that gets them involved and keeps them turning the pages of a book they can devour in a day or two. Some want a slow read that requires a lot of thinking and a lot of reflection if not rereading of passages. This novel is for the second audience type. I can read slow but given the amount of reading my PhD required and the book reviews I do a year, when I read for pleasure I want more fast paced, engaging storytelling myself. This took me a good five days to read and grasp mostly because I had to for this review not because I found our main character particularly interesting or accessible to me as a woman today.
It shouldn't be that way because by the end of the book you realize that Avice, our main character, is the one we should be seeing the world through. Unfortunately I couldn't really get connected to her probably because her world was so truly different from my own on some many levels. I'm sure some of you will feel very strongly toward her and thus find the reading quicker and more rewarding.
30 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2011
Almost every review I've read of this book has praised it as 'a groundbreaking book with unique meditations on the structure and nature of language.'
I don't think this is a groundbreaking book, not does it have unique meditations on the structure and nature of language. To be fair, I don't think China Mieville thinks either of these things either. This book is the logical outgrowth of a science fiction writer steeped in Saussure and Lacan. Anyone who has completed any sort of advanced humanities degree in the past thirty years has at some point been exposed to the notion of signifiers vs. signified. In fact, I would not be surprised if the basic idea of this novel occurred to Mieville while he was completing his own PhD in International Relations. The thinking is that of a graduate student steeped in abstruse theory.
So no, I don't think Mieville ever meant this to be understood as a personal philosophy or some sui generis contribution to the realm of ideas. The ideas are a half-century old. That said, they are deployed quite cleverly in places. The notion of making intention necessary to intelligible language is interesting, and the need to create similes to express new ideas, and the inability to lie, are all very nice. However, they are insufficient to sustain an entire book. Ultimately, the story failed me in two basic ways.
1) The impracticality of Language. Put simply, while having a language composed entirely of signifieds might be an attractive theoretical framework, the reason it remains theoretical is because it is not only impractical, but impossible. It's logical for symbolic language to pre-figure other sorts of language, because the structure of symbolic language is reflected even in the most primitive forms of communication - pointing to 'that', not pointing to 'this', etc. The notion that an alien race evolved in such a way that they have a language that is completely deficient in signifiers is fantastic. Even if we grant creative license and excuse such development, the author undermines himself at one point when he speaks of the second mouths of the Hosts as having been some form of early-warning distress organ. If the Hosts existed at a point in which their two mouths were not synchronized speech organs but were socialized enough to have developed distress calls to a group, then symbolic language must by necessity have pre-dated Language. Of course, I am surprised, given the ending he subjected the Ariekei to, that Mieville didn't briefly reference the 'end-of-history' linguistic thinking of William Benjamin, who posulated just this sort of apotheosis for man, marking the distinction between signifier and signified as our true fall. But perhaps Mieville knew when enough was enough.
2) The "isn't that nice" refrain. This is what I think results from Mieville realizing he had a thin idea to hang his story on, and deciding to festoon the edges of it with the fruits of his impressive imagination.
- Our viewpoint character Avice is a simile. The Ariekei could have chosen anyone, but they chose her. Isn't that nice?
- She also becomes an immerser. Immersers allow ships to travel somewhere very quickly and very strangely, but otherwise this has almost no direct bearing on the plot. Still, isn't that nice?
- Avice marries a nice boy and takes him to Embassytown, only to reveal himself as a psycholinguistic terrorist. Isn't that nice?
- Because she's a simile, Avice gets to hang out with the other cool similes, which gives her a front-row seat to their violent plans. Isn't that nice?
- There is a heavy-handed, presumably Terran empire called Bremen out there that turns out to have contributed to the plot in a completely dispensable way. Still, we have an overbearing, star-faring political entity in the background. Isn't that nice?
- There are things in the immer that seem to mark places that destroy ships. Something is Out There. Isn't that nice?
And so on. Mieville spends chapters outlining the cool aspects of immersing, but really, it has nothing to do with anything. The Bremen and the beacons are giant MacGuffins-In-Space, so it's best not to expect too much from them. The heroine is the nexus of the bloody universe, but you might as well overlook that.
So, fine. Characters not terribly interesting. Lots of peripheral bafflegab to weird up the scenery that amounts to a whole lot of not-much. The central premise just doesn't work. Mieville is one of my favorite modern writers, and if I'm disappointed, it's not because this is an experiment that failed, but one that wasn't near as much an experiment as some readers think it to be.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2012
Once again I've taxed my mind with China Mieville's words that are untranslatable, or seem germane, but are actually neologistical. If you read this weird sci-fi novel, have a lexicon handy! This book is filled with new sci-fi ideas that make it an enjoyable read. When have you read about buildings, machinery, or houses that are semi-sentient and when under stress try to grow ears? It's a common thing in Embassytown, or in the Arieka city that surrounds it. I have to give Mieville credit for having excellent adoxography for things or events that other writers wouldn't even amplify.
The first third of the novel flip-flops between past and present on the planet Arieka and the immer. The immer is some kind of sub space that a immerser travels through in space and time, if that makes any sense. The narrator of the book is Avice Benner Cho, who has just return from the immer to visit her birth place of Embassytown with her new husband Scile, a expert in languages. He wants to study the linguistics of the Ariekei, who surround the human compound. They are known as the Hosts and speak out of two mouths ( the cut and turn ) and only communicate with human Ambassadors. The Ambassadors are actually doppels that speak from one mind and two voices, otherwise the Hosts would only hear noise. This sounds like a normal story, right? Now keep in mind that a Host ( who looks like a large dual winged insect ) also requires similes to make comparisons to things that are unlike in order to communicate properly. Our narrator is one of the similes known as " The girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her "! I forgot to mention that these truly unusual Ariekei Hosts are also incapable of lying! Does the story have your interest yet?
The trouble begins when a new Ambassador, EzRa, arrives from the human's home planet of Bremen to become the new chief Ambassador of Embassaytown. At the Embassy reception, EzRa tells the Hosts " That it was a honor to meet them ". Suddenly everything changes! Years of peace and calm are gone. What happened and what did the Hosts hear? What was said that brings the Hosts to a high state of mulligrubs! This is where the essence of the story takes off, later to culminate in an interesting and unexpected end. The books I've read by Mieville are entertaining ,but with all the lacunae and peculiar vocabulary used, I'm always glad that the book is over. Is this good, or bad?
The Hosts are probably the weirdest aliens I've read about since Larry Niven's elephant like creators in the famous sci-fi novel,"Footfall". This is the first novel Mieville has done in science fiction, and I think it was a good effort. Maybe he should be hired to write the script for the next "Star Trek" movie. I have to tell the reader while I recommend reading this novel, I warn you It's going to be a arduous task!
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2011
I was very much looking forward to this book. China Mieville has got to be one of the smartest genre authors out there. I found myself thinking, wow this is one smart dude. He is in fact one smart dude, and like many of his other novels Embassytown is themed somewhat around the multi-dimensional life-form that is a city. (Another great sci-fi novel about a city is John Shirley's Classic 'City Come a Walkin')
I was excited because the idea of Mieville who has written mostly steampunk-ish fantasy or otherwise surrealist new weird fiction doing hard Sci-fi sounded great. From page one Mieville creates a strange landscape of the far future in way that reminds me of 'Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursala Leguin or 'Crucible of Time' by John Brunner. Were talking seriously speculative fiction, all three novels are in such alien worlds it is sometimes easy to forgot a human wrote the book at all.
It is the tale of a city know as Embassytown on a planet colonized by humans. The planet is home to a species called the Ariekei who speak a unique language that only a few genetically altered humans are able to speak. To speak it they have to be cloned and two doppel humans have to speak it together, these ambassadors eventually because a important part of the Ariekei culture. The hosts become addicted to the sound of their voices, and some ambassadors die, others come into power and the novel explores the social fabric of this alien society.
Some of the things I respect about this book are the very things that frustrated me about it. I am a quick reader and I slogged through this 352 pages over weeks. I often had to re-read paragraphs over and over, especially during the first quarter of the book that felt more like a anthropologist's memoir that a narrative. Of course in the universe of this novel, thousands of years into the future with humanity spread out across the universe Language and terminology itself would be alien to us. Mieville throws us in to the deep end without swimming lesson here. I learned those terms quickly enough, as a brief example deep space is referred to as "The Out," and space Travelers are "Immersers." The novel is written as if you already know that, I am not complaining I liked that choice and to a serious genre reading this is not that new of a concept.
Unlike Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness I felt the "gee-whiz" factor of the ideas constantly got in the way of the story. I felt like I was so busy trying to figure out what the author was trying to say about language and decipher the ideas that I had trouble following the narrative.
It would be easy to read this novel and think that it was simply a exploration of the power of language. It is that, but the novel also explores the concept of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. I think there are amazing elements to this novel, but I can't give it more than three stars out of five because of what a struggle I had keeping my interest. I respect China Mieville enough that I think there is a strong possibility that I am just not smart enough to follow some of the concepts, but I feel he could have kept the story closer to the surface and it would have been a better novel.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2012
This is my first exposure to the writing of China Mieville and I am so blown away. This is best SciFi I have read in a very long time. A mesmerizing story populated with fascinating characters - human, alien and machine - set (mostly) on a planet at the very edge of the known universe in the very distant future.
The story is told in a nonlinear fashion by an Immerser named Avice. It is as though you are eavesdropping as she tells her very personal story to a contemporary who is familiar with all the futuristic vocabulary and alien terminology being used. Nothing is explained, so at first it is a little confusing, but eventually the reader begins to pick up meaning from context. The challenge to find meaning in Avice's words is especially significant since the story centers around "Language." "Language" is the singularly unique language of the "hosts" who are native to the planet where the Embassytown colony (where Avice was born) is located. A language that even the Ambassadors who were specifically cloned and educated to translate for the hosts don't completely understand. Not really.
I just can't find the words to express how amazing this novel is. It is incredibly well-written, full of suspense, peppered with action, and has many layers of meaning. Highly recommended for any SciFi fan and for anyone with an interest in language.
I also I highly recommend experiencing this novel as an audio book. Susan Duerden's narration was exceptional. I am certain that my enjoyment of "Embassytown" was significantly enhanced by her performance.