by China Miéville
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
China Miéville splashed onto the Science Fiction scene in 2000 with his novel Perdidio Street Station, introducing his world of Bas Lag in a tale so hyper-creative, erudite and convention bending that it spawned a new subgenre, dubbed by many as Weird Fiction.
Eleven years and six novels later, Miéville has left Bas Lag and Weird Fiction behind, but his erudition and hyper-creativity remain, and he wields them aptly in his new novel Embassytown, albeit not to the story’s ultimate benefit.
The human outpost Embassytown is on the far distant planet Arieka—accessible only by a dangerous trip through extra-dimensional space dubbed the immer—home to a diplomatic corps of specially cloned twins that are the only line of communication to the native Ariekei, whose unusual double-mouthed physiology makes their language unique in the known universe. Ariekene speech can only convey literal concepts, so Ariekei can’t lie. But they will occasionally expand their language with the help of human volunteers, who enact scenarios that will allow their alien Hosts to express previously inexpressible ideas.
Avice Benner Cho is one such human, who became part of the Ariekene language as child. After a young adulthood spent as an immer pilot in the “out,” Avice moves back to Embassytown with her linguist husband, where she enjoys mild celebrity status among the ambassadorial set. But when a group of Ariekei begin to obsessively study Avice and other en-languaged humans, it becomes evident that they’re trying to learn how to lie. And into this fractious environment arrives a new Ambassador pair who aren’t clones, and whose remarkable linguistic abilities are affecting the Ariekei in unforeseen ways. Avice suddenly finds herself swirling in a maelstrom of linguistic revolution and social upheaval.
In Embassytown, Miéville treads fearlessly into conceptually high and wonderfully cerebral Science Fictional terrain. But unfortunately, the author stumbles into one of the greater pitfalls of high-concept SF: wherein exploration of the Science Fictional premise ceases to be a means to an end, but becomes an end unto itself, the novel’s chief reason for existing.
This tendency to strip-mine a premise for maximum yield has become a hallmark of Miéville’s recent works, but the success of this approach has so far been mixed. It began with his final Bas Lag book Iron Council, which heralded Miéville’s transition to a more conventional style of Science Fiction. And nobody can deny its effectiveness in The City and The City, an unqualified triumph of a novel that marked the author’s first definitive step out of Weird Fiction and into the mainstream spotlight.
But for longtime Miéville fans, Embassytown in many ways represents a few steps back, as it suffers from many of the flaws that hampered Iron Council. Iron Council is, in a word, boring. Miéville buries his fantastical Bas Lag under a pile of political drama so slow and tedious that the book ends with the characters literally freezing in place.
And while Embassytown doesn’t come to quite the same grinding halt, it, too, sacrifices story to wallow in esoteric questions of politics and semantics. As a result, Avice and the rest of the characters in Embassytown are hard to warm up to, since they primarily exist as a means for Mielville to raise the many arcane questions necessary to conduct his grand thought experiment about the nature and function of language. Not that some of those questions aren’t intriguing, but Embassytown never arrives at any particularly interesting conclusions. In the end, the narrative is sacrificed on the altar Miéville’s relentlessly clinical linguistic dissertation.
High concepts are wonderful, but they don’t guarantee a good story; and while Embassytown does much to showcase China Miéville’s intelligence, unique imagination and considerable world-building prowess, it ultimately does very little to keep readers engaged.