China Miéville’s Embassytown is a book of ideas, more than anything else. While it has decent characters and an interesting plot, it’s clear they they exist simply to further develop Miéville’s fascinating take on first contact and language.
Our narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is a pilot of sorts. As a child, she wanted to leave her home town and planet, showing a classic case of wanderlust. She only returns later because her husband is fascinated by the language of the aliens that Avice grew up with, the Ariekei. The narrative wanders back and forth between the present of the story and Avice’s past, slowly building a picture of life on the Ariekei planet. Like historical first contacts, the Ariekei become infected. This time, they are infected by the human version of their Language. They become addicted, and life on their planet screeches to a halt. The only alternative the Ariekei can see is to destroy their ability to hear and then drive the humans off their planet. By the end of this book, there’s enough action and derring-do to make up for the meandering first half.
The Ariekei possess sophisticated biotechnology, but the most interesting thing about them–to the humans at least–is their language. Their language must be spoken simultaneously by two mouths, with a single consciousness behind them. To me, part of the book can be read this way. One thread of the story pushes it forward. The other doubles back to clarify. And the Ariekei cannot lie. More than that, they cannot create similes without acting them out first. They cannot say anything that is not demonstrably so. It’s difficult to imagine, given the virtuosity that is possible in English. It had never occurred to me, but something as simple as a simile or a metaphor or a hyperbole or an understatement are species of lies. But think of all the meaning they can impart, all the richness they can give our expressions.
The Ariekei want that richness. They hold Festivals of Lies where they take it in turns to attempt to lie. It’s not until halfway through the book that one manages it. Surl’s small lie and the addictive speech of an ambassador spark more than just a physical war. They also spark an existential war about Language that, at times, takes on religious tones.
Like I said, this book is more about ideas than plot. It’s supposed to make you ponder about the implications of the Ariekei Language. It requires a certain amount of patience to get through to the end. The only criticism I have is that the book seems hollow to me. The characters are serviceable, but I didn’t really feel like I knew them by the end–Avice in particular. I spent more than 300 pages in her company, but she was just as much a cipher at the end as she was at the beginning. I’ve noticed this in Miéville’s previous book, Kraken. He’s very interested in ideas, and plot and characterization take a back seat. Avice is a terrific example of this. Until very near the end, Avice is an observer, an outsider. Consequently, you get to see the larger plot from the periphery and it was difficult for me to get invested in it. But I enjoyed it as an exploration of the possibilities of language.