I think it’s pretty safe to suggest that most readers love and are enthralled by the power of language to take us places we’ve never been and to understand old concepts in new ways. That transformative power of language is at the heart of China Mieville’s 2011 wonderfully creative science fiction novel, Embassytown.
The title refers to a human outpost on the edges of charted space, on the planet Arieka among its inhabitants, The Hosts. You know how sometimes aliens in science fiction seem an awful lot like humans, but maybe with head bumps? Not so with Mieville’s Hosts. The aliens in this story are alien.
The Hosts have a bioengineered world — their buildings and implements are often made of biomaterial — semi-living matter. Physically, the Hosts are vaguely insectoid and speak from two mouths simultaneously. Human speech (from one mouth) is gibberish to them. So being industrious, humans, who are interested in acquiring their technology, have bred special identical twins (Ambassadors) that are capable of mimicking Host speech.
The protagonist of the story, Alice Benner Cho, is a human that was born and raised on Arieka and has returned after a long time away. Cho is part of a circle of humans and Host intellectuals that try to push the boundaries of cross-species understanding. You see, Hosts can not express anything that is not tangible. The humans are trying to teach them to lie.
Now, if that sounds like a somewhat tame premise for a novel, it’s a testament to Mieville’s writing about how tense the ramp up to someone LYING actually is: part psychology, part anthropology, part philosophy, part political thriller.
This is all rolling along when a new Ambassador pair, Ez-Ra, appears. Ez-Ra are not identical twins, but unprecedentedly, can speak the Hosts’ language. Moreover, their speech is actually intoxicating to the Hosts. The subsequent addition of the Hosts to Ez-Ra’s speech not only blows open the tenuous human-Host relationship, but the very fabric of Host society.
Mieville expects a lot out of the reader in this novel. He has created a remarkable world, society, and vernacular but doesn’t spend a ton of time on exposition. The reader is forced to fit pieces in contextually as they go along, which can be frustrating as sometimes you’re not entirely clear what you’re supposed to “know” and what you’re not. This will annoy some readers and I’m pretty sure this was by the author’s design.
In the end, Embassytown is a complex, multi-tiered novel that confronts the reader with the power of words. From the personal impact they can have from those we love, to philosophical contemplations of truth, to their ability to transform a society. Words matter.
This was one of those books that I liked when I read it (almost a year ago), but I keep thinking about long it after having finished it. Embassytown won’t be for everyone, but I really liked it — best science-fiction novel I read in 2012.
Four stars out of five