on 12 October 2011
In this book a world is created then torn apart. In this respect it reminded me a bit of Perdido Street Station, which I found more unnerving (terrifying, giant moths) and in the end more melancholy. The major difference is that Embassytown is a far more fragile settlement, it's a human settlement that relies entirely on the cooperation and technology of the native alien Hosts (Ariekes). The story is told entirely in first person by Avice Benner Cho, a woman from Embassytown who was one of few inhabitants to leave and go out to other planets. The first part alternates between present events and flashbacks so that Avice and the world she grew up in are introduced to the reader.
Once we are familiar with Embassytown and how it works -its links with the Host aliens, its bubble of breathable air, its upper class of Ambassadors (fully identical, linked, doppels/twins)- a paradigm shift happens and everything goes to pot. The society that was built up faces a major catastrophe and descends into desperation and barbarism and war. The book is about the people who carry on trying to keep things running in the face of likely destruction. It's about how there will still be factions and politicking even in the face of disaster.
I'd been looking forward to this for a while. It is at first sight something of a departure from Miéville's last two books, in being, perhaps more overtly "science fictiony" that them (which will maybe please some of those who didn't like The City & the City and Kraken?)
Set on a human colony, on an alien planet, right at the end of everywhere, it is narrated by Avice, a cool-headed space sailor who has returned to show her new husband her very odd home world. The aliens whose world Avice was born on are very.. alien, something Miéville conveys well by not describing them. It's not just their physiology that is strange, or their technology of "biorigging", making buildings, machines, everything from live flesh. The oddest thing is their language - or as it is rendered, Language. It would be a shame, and spoil some of the careful revelation that Mieville uses to draw his reader in, to say much about how it is produced or what humans need to do to speak it, but one feature he makes clear from the start is that the natives of this planet - the Host - cannot lie. Their Language does not allow it. So when a cult of would-be liars springs up, it is a matter of concern, and the repercussions of this seem to be shaping up to the climax of the book - until Miéville deftly twists his plot and everything changes. The crisis we thought was coming is suddenly unimportant, and a much worse threat arises.
This is a compelling book, stuffed with vivid language, meaty concepts (the idea of "immer", a space-beyond-space, underlying the Universe and allowing navigation; the Hosts' technology; the colonial politics of Embassytown and its distant masters in Bremen; the strange society of the Ambassadors, those who can speak to the Hosts; the Hosts themselves; characters who are living similes - the Hosts cannot lie, their language can only refer to what is true, what has happened, so if they need a new figure of speech it has to be acted out, made concrete; the mysterious Lighthouses - enough in this new universe for a string of books). But the central concern is the nature and magic of language, of truth, of lies.
Avice herself can seem a rather distant, cold narrator. Only towards the end of the book does she drive the plot to any degree. In large part, this mirrors the split between the unknowable Hosts and the humans, or that between the human "commoners" and the privileged Ambassadors and their Staff. Avice is an outsider, looking in - as of course are we. This is, I think, is where the book shows some similarities with its immediate predecessors - I found echoes especially of The City & the City here (while Kraken has perhaps some analogues in the sheer exuberance of the Host and their world and there are even parallels with Un Lun Dun, both the way things fall apart and in the malignity of bureaucrats and rulers.
This is a beautiful book, not an easy read but easy to read, thought provoking, lavish in what it gives the reader, a great gift from China Miéville to his readers. I think it's the best thing I've read so far this year.
on 16 August 2012
As the title of this novel suggests, it is set in a special place, where different peoples meet. However, it is soon clear that the 'people' who meet are somewhat more different than might be expected. The slew of newly-coined words and phrases immediately signals science fiction. We are ushered into a strange universe. 'Real' space is not real. What is real is an underlying void called the Immer. Locations in 'real' space do not in any way match up to locations in the Immer. The planet Embassytown is on, Arieka, is nowheresville in 'real' space but in the Immer it is on the border between human and alien space.
We learn all this from one Avice, an 'Immerser', a human trained in coping with the stresses of Immer travel. Avice grew up in Embassytown and the whole novel is recounted by her. One of the things we learn about her is a that an unpleasant event happened to her, while she was still young. Arieka is inhabited by the Ariekene. No direct description of them is ever given, because there seem to be no parallels between their forms, and those shared by Terran life. They are called 'Hosts' by the humans. The Hosts are not backward: they have technologies that the Terrans covet. But one thing above all others makes them totally alien. They communicate using something called 'Langauge'. It is not language as we understand it. Hosts have two 'mouths' (or more accurately 'apertures') and both 'speak' together. Host's names are shown in the text as name1/name2 for 'individual' Hosts. This strange biology results in a Language which cannot express anything other than truth. The unpleasant event that Avice was involved in was orchestrated to get Hosts to experience the concept of 'likeness'. They can use it as a simile later, to compare and contrast with other experiences. For the Hosts this is a mildly addictive piece of fun. One Host in particular, for fun, tries to take things further and edge towards being able to lie...
This all sounds rather Edenic. And it is until the creation of 'Ambassadors', pairs of twinned humans linked like Hosts. They are ostensibly there to better communicate with the Hosts. But what happens is a descent into chaos. Language is used as a means of oppression. Avice has to use deliberately oblique language in her recounting of events so as not directly state things (like that there seems to be a 'black ops' team based in Embassytown which is trying to de-stabilise the Ariekene world). Finally, Avice is instrumental in stymying this clandestine colonisation effort, by devising yet another twist in the nature of language...
By any means of accounting, this is a remarkable novel. There are some pretty obvious political 'messages' emblazoned in it, but they fail to take away the sheer alieness of this novel, generated by all the different meanings and usage of 'language' it plays with
on 8 June 2011
This feels like the penultimate draft of what could have been a really good book, but it isn't quite 'there' yet. It's difficult to get into, and feels as if a couple of different attempts at starting the novel have been integrated, not wholly successfully, into what we have here. Is it going to be about immer? Is it going to be about the Festival of Lies? As ever, it's a hugely intelligent and interesting work, I just wish, in fact, that Mieville would write more slowly instead of producing a book a year as he is at the moment.
on 19 May 2011
I'd best get this first bit out the way and say that to try and describe `Embassytown' to anyone who hasn't read it yet it going to be hard work. Not because the book is completely flummoxing, though I will admit I had a pen and notepad to hand for the first 100 pages or so but that could simply be me, but because there are so many strands and themes and, well, `things' encompassed in it that to try to define its 432 pages in one set of thoughts is going to be pretty tough. I could simply say that I am not the biggest sci-fi fan and yet I finished it and I really rather liked it, but that wouldn't be enough would it. So here goes...
In another world, Areika the home of many life forms, we follow the story of Avice. Avice has returned to her homeland of Embassytown after spending many years as an immerser in the `immer', a substance or lack of substance that can send you from star to star "the sea of space and time below the everyday". As she returns at the bequest of her new husband Scile, a man of language, this leads her to look back from her childhood onwards and an event with The Hosts, a species who cannot lie, that made her literally become a story in the Areika consciousness that helps them bend the truth in the future. However on her return she finds that the homeland she knows is changing under the new rule of the Ambassador EzRa and something sinister has started and that something truly awful lies ahead, but in order to stop it Avice is going to have to do something that is almost impossible.
That is possibly the easiest, though by no means best, way of trying to describe the way the book starts. It's hard to say more without giving away too much plot or discussing how Mieville throws in some unexpected, and often rather weird, twists as the book moves on. The thing is there are so many more strands to the book and for me the main one was the fact this is a book that is in some ways Mieville's ode to language. The fact Avice actually becomes a story, or in fact a `simile', I found fascinating, and this happens before the main story really gets started. I liked the fact that language could almost be a religion, though the book is also a tale of revolution.
You see I am still left feeling that I haven't actually done `Embassytown' any favours of explained it well enough to do the book justice. I am sure it won't be for everyone, and indeed the blurb does seem to miss out how much language is almost worshipped in this novel which could be a selling point, but if someone like me who knows very little about science fiction could get so deeply immersed in it then surely it's got to be good, right?
on 14 November 2015
I got this out of the library yesterday afternoon.
According to a quote inscribed across the front cover, "Embassytown is a fully achieved work of art" - per Ursula K LeGuin of the Guardian.
I read 60 pages of it last night. I couldn't find any story in it, and found it incomprehensible. I gave up on it. I will return it to the library this afternoon and try to find some better book to read.
Far from it being a "fully achieved work of art", it seemed half-baked and a bit crap.
Judging by the condition of the paperback (which has been out of the library a fair few times) no one else got very far with it either. Pages beyond the first few leaves were pristine and unturned.
This writer needs to decide if he has a story and, if so, secondly, decide to get it across to the reader rather than keep it to himself. I don't have unlimited time or patience.
on 17 February 2015
China Mieville is one of those writers where I have read a lot of his work without ever thinking of myself as a fan of his. He is undoubtedly talented, however I sometimes find his ornate use of language, and the level of detail he piles into books such as Perdito Street Station and The Scar, gets in the way of telling a good story.
It’s ironic then, that I really liked Embassytown, a book where one of the major themes is language itself.
The main character is Avice, a space pilot who has returned home to the planet of Arieka, where a colony of human live with the permission of the Hosts, a truly alien species that are only half-understood by the colonists. What follows is a tragedy of unexpected consequences, where in an effort to understand the Hosts better, ambassadors from Earth precipitate a crisis which puts the Hosts and the colonists in danger.
There are 2 main themes here. First is the Fall, where humanity is the serpent in the Garden of Eden who have unintentionally corrupted the Hosts by their ability to lie. The second is colonialism, in particular China Mieville seems to have used the Opium Wars as a template for the crisis, with some Hosts turning on humanity in the hope of wiping out the source of their corruption.
I think I liked this book because it is more of a ‘proper’ Science Fiction book than his other work, and was concise without any padding. If I was to criticise it, I didn’t find the ending particularly surprising and I wish that Avice had been a more active character.
The Hosts themselves were a fascinating creation, which reminded me in some ways of the ‘Great Old Ones’ from the Cthulhu Mythos, the hints about the Immer were intriguing. Would love to find out more about that if he ever gets round to a sequel.
on 24 November 2014
Hmmm, where to start... There's very interesting central idea to Embassytown, relating to humanity's struggle to communicate with another species so alien that that they have to specially breed pairs of individuals capable of being understood by them, and there's a decent stab at world-building a reasonably plausible far-future intergalactic society.
Beyond that however, this book is full of flaws. The first half of the novel's a mess - verbose prose liberally sprinkled with unexplained neologisms take the text to verges of unreadability in places, and that's before the narrative splits into 2 alternating timelines (for no apparent reason except to further prolong the amount of pages before anything of interest actually happens).
Our main heroine is a shell of a person. She has lots of sex with men, women and doppelgangers as the book progresses, but it would have been far more interesting to go into her actual feelings about what she is witnessing, which almost never happens - I didn't feel I actually got to know this character at all beyond a list of things that happened to her, which is a bit of an issue in a first-person novel.
And then there's the second half, where other Amazon reviews here have suggested things improve drastically. Not for me it didn't, the style certainly becomes easier to read when things actually start to happen, however without going into spoilerific specifics, it's pretty much a Mieville revolution-by-numbers that will feel all too familiar to those who've read his vastly superior Bas-Lag trilogy.
I think there could have been a really good book here with a different structure and another couple of re-writes, but as it is I feel a good premise was wasted on a pretty limp story, and even had the conclusion pulled a massive rabbit out of the hat, I wouldn't have been invested enough in the characters to care.
on 11 August 2012
Well, this one was a chore, no question about it. Had I not been reading this during my trip through the Southern Balkans and had access to my collection, I would never have finished reading this novel. It's been a while since I've been this underwhelmed by the work of a quality author.
Oddly enough, at first I was thoroughly captivated by the premise of the book. The first portion of Embassytown had me enthralled and I felt that this one could potentially make me miss out a couple of nights of drinking and mingling with fellow travelers. But the middle part slowed down to an atrocious crawl, boring me out of my mind. It got to be so bad at one point that I considered quitting. Only the fact that this was written by China Miéville kept me plodding on.
Here's the blurb:
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.
As I mentioned, I found the whole premise based on language to be fascinating at first. Miéville does an awesome job when it comes to setting the mood. As is usually his wont, Embassytown and its environs take on a life of their own, almost becoming characters in their own right.
The two main themes appear to be language and colonization. I feel that Miéville did a good job with the introduction of those concepts within the narrative and how closely the themes are linked in the overall plot. Trouble is, the execution throughout as the tale progresses was clumsy and uneven, killing what seemed to be a number of engrossing storylines as the plot goes nowhere for about 150 pages.
I don't believe that it was due to the fact that the project was too ambitious. Miéville starts the novel with panache and the story immediately captures your imagination. The author also brings this book to a satisfying end, so the novel is not all bad. But for some unfathomable reason, Miéville sort of gets lost in the middle portion of Embassytown and it takes forever for him to take control once more. I have a feeling that the entire premise would have worked better as a conceptual exploration of themes. The novelization of said themes, at least within the pages of Embassytown, didn't quite work the way Miéville probably envisioned them to. God knows it left this reader totally underwhelmed. . .
The characterization was also an issue. Avice as a first-person narrator could not convey the depth of the themes explored in this book. Surprisingly, though this is a first-person narrative, we learned very little about the main protagonist. I for one could not care less about her. Hence, witnessing events unfolding through her eyes likely didn't help at all. Still, it's weird how captivating her narrative could be at the beginning, as Miéville paved the way for what was to come, and then become so uninteresting as we reach the middle part of the novel.
The pace left a lot to be desired. As mentioned, everything flows well in the first hundred pages or so. But then for some unknown reason, the middle portion of Embassytown kills the momentum of the book. And the novel never gets its rhythm back. Miéville closes the show with style, but the damage was done.
In the end, it's not just a pacing issue. As a whole, I felt that the characters, the various plotlines, and the oh-so-important language aspects were decidedly underdeveloped. The premise and the early parts of Embassytown made it look like a brilliant work. Sadly, the lack of execution and the underdeveloped facets of this novel prevented Embassytown from being as good as it was meant to be.
Disappointing and at times frustrating. . .
on 18 April 2012
Embassytown is based around a strong central concept, that of a race who cannot lie, and effectively explores what it would be like for such a civilisation to encounter humanity. It is beautifully written, tautly plotted and Mieville explores his big idea thoroughly and logically. I enjoyed reading it and found it compelling.
Overall, though, it didn't quite convince. The premise is a little unconvincing - it's hard to see what conditions would lead an organism like that to evolve, and the additional idea that they have two voices that must speak simultaneously is also a little forced (but essential to the plot). Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, I don't think it quite achieves its ambition. Themes of communication run throughout the story, and the way the book is written feels as if the author thinks he is building to a big philosophical point about the nature of language. In the end, he doesn't quite pull it off. The resolution is neatly done, and ties up the plot threads well - but doesn't quite carry the weight of what has gone before.
At heart, this books is a ripping sci-fi yarn that's been thoroughly thought out, but the language leads you to expect that it has higher ambitions, which it doesn't quite fulfil. The ending left me feeling a little empty. I found it considerably more satisfying than Adam Roberts' Stone (which also attempts a Big Idea and, for me, fails to pull it off), but nowhere near as much fun as the more thoughtful Iain M. Banks novels (say, Excession or Matter).