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Embassytown Hardcover – May 17, 2011
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Embassytown: a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerser, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts - who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes. Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts. And that is impossible.
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If you haven't read Miéville before, you may want to start with The Kracken, which is a bit lighter work out on the brain, but definitely dive right in. My favorite is The City in the City - a little book with a big punch, but decide for yourself. He is habit forming.
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!
Far off into the future, where mankind has had, in what the book terms their diaspora, there’s this small colony on the edge of known space known as Embassytown. The most interesting aspect of this colony are the host species, known as the Ariekei. Their manner of Language is entirely unique to the novel’s universe. They can only speak what is true, what exists or has existed, what has happened. Rather than their language symbolizing anything, their Language IS what they’re speaking. Lying, therefore, is an impossibility, unheard of until the arrival of humanity. Even further complicating the matter, they speak in two voices and while humans can learn to understand them, only those specially trained and altered can speak to the Ariekei themselves. The concept is a bit complicated for me to explain — there isn’t anything like it in our world.
To help advance their Language and be able to express certain concepts more properly, the Ariekei make an effort to create similes. And this is what our main character, Avice Benner Cho (ABCs, anyone?) is. A living simile. The girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. She is an immerser, has traveled into the “Out” and has returned with her new linguist husband, Scile. But as a new Ambassador arrives, a catastrophic event occurs that changes the dynamics between the Ariekei and the humans forever.
I think that about summarizes the main points of the plot without giving too much away. It’s a complex novel, with Language being a central point to everything. If you’re not familiar enough with the intricacies and jargon that comes with linguistics, you might have a bad time. Though the Kindle dictionary function helped with that immensely, my intellectual pride dropped a considerable amount from how many times I actually had to use it.
But Language is not the only theme. You get a bit of politics, war, interpersonal conflict… It’s certainly not a one dimensional book. And if you’re like me, it will take some time to digest. But I found that I learned a lot, especially about the nature of language, lies, and the psychology of people under crisis situations. And the world building involved with this novel is absolutely stunning. Learning about the concepts of the immer, which the best way I can describe it as is a sort of “ocean” in space, was probably my favorite part of this future world.
My utter enjoyment of all of these topics mentioned ended in me rating the book as five stars. However…. There were a couple of points that rather frustrated me.
I HATED Avice. Absolutely loathed her. She takes pride in “floaking”, which is described as “the life-technique of aggregated skill, luck, laziness and chutzpah”. She is, at least to me, arrogant and seems to take advantage of her novelty of actually leaving the planet itself and being an “immerser”. At one point in the novel, she seems to have a superiority complex regarding the other similes, not wanting to initially have any sort of contact with them. This sort of attitude continuously grated on my nerves like that one annoying rich kid who gets by doing as little as possible and still ends up immensely successful. Yet she still is intelligent enough to actually be of some use if she, you know, ACTUALLY APPLIES HERSELF. She still does rate lower on my list of “Most Hated Central Character” than Raskolnikov. Oh god, that man made it impossible for me to finish Crime and Punishment because how much I absolutely hated him. Literary PTSD……
The other characters didn’t get as much fleshing out as I would have liked to see in them. In fact, one of the characters, her automaton friend than I can’t seem to recall the name of, was practically useless to the story line, other than showing the dynamics between human and machine. But then again, this tale is less about the characters and more about the overall world and language. Therefore, to me that is something I can overlook.
The last thing is, regardless of the descriptions Miéville gives on the host aliens, I had a really hard time visualizing them. Maybe it’s a deficiency in my imagination, I have no clue. They were utterly unlike any alien species I’ve ever encountered in television, movies, and the little bit of science fiction I have read. I even took it upon myself to look up artist renditions after I finished the novel. They’re absolutely fascinating creatures, I just wished I could have more fully recreated them in my mind at the time of reading.
Overall, I recommend this book if you’re looking into getting into a deep read with a complex, alien world and concepts that will take you quite a few pages to work out completely. It’s an arduous journey, but to me, it was worth it in the end. I am better for it. And I can assure you I’ll be reading more Miéville in the future. I have a physical copy of Perdido Street Station laying on my desk, actually… Tempting.