China Miéville’s “Embassytown”


Usually, I steer clear of anything that becomes too popular. I imagine part of it is a knee-jerk reaction against popularity itself, especially considering how success and mass awareness can skew the perceived value of something – “Oh, you just have to watch/read/inhale this – everybody is doing it.” Quite a few times (usually with novels and films), it’s meant that I’ve dodged bullets – especially in the case of Dan Brown. Rarely is it that a popular product breaks through my barriers, and rarer yet that I am as impressed as I am told I will be.*

China Miéville did. Get through, that is. Then impress me.

I suppose it makes sense – after all, he has thrice won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.**

Embassytown is set on a far away planet – literally at the edge of (their) explored universe – where there are a particularly peculiar set of endemic lifeforms and their alien society, science and appearance. To my mind, the Hosts, or Ariekes, closely remind me of Lovecraft’s Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness, although appear notably less fungoid. The Hosts have two mouths, which leads to their Language having two voices, but most importantly, they are unable to lie. In order to communicate with them, the human settlers living in Embassytown have specially trained Ambassadors, and the arrival of an outsider Ambassador causes a most notable crisis.

The underlying concept of the Language itself is a very interesting one, and the narrative focus this brings is unlike anything else I’ve read. I expected it to be similar to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in that it deals with semiotics and the concepts of designation and meaning, but because of the science-fiction nature of the novel, Embassytown instead takes the ideas in a very different, and quite profound way.

I’m aware that a lot of what I am saying will make little sense – indeed, this is a theme of the novel. It’s something whose intricacies and twists I am particularly loath to give away, considering how well they are dealt with in the book.

I may not have read China Miéville before, but I definitely will again. Probably The Scar. Not only because it has a big fish on the cover…

* I just wasn’t that impressed with GRRM, especially when I’d requested something drab and gritty like REH’s Conan stories.

** That I can’t recall many other winners from the top of my head suggests just how laxly I follow awards…

China Miéville’s “Embassytown”

4 thoughts on “China Miéville’s “Embassytown”

  1. Martin Anslow says:

    Hadn’t heard of this, but sounds pretty immense. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open, can’t beat a bit of intelligent science fiction – aka *good* science fiction!

    1. archaism says:

      It’s a really good read – not only intelligent as a sci-fi piece but also as a text that deals with a pretty complex arena of literary theory.

      I was particularly impressed with the performative utterances towards the end of the book.

  2. Cap says:

    It’s a great read, and left me thoroughly uncomfortable. I don’t think any piece of fiction has assaulted my way of thinking to this extent since Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson; unfortunately, I’m not nearly eloquent enough to explain how.

  3. Cap says:

    Argh, also forgot to mention; for more Miéville, ‘The Scar’ is excellent, as is ‘Iron Council.’ ‘Perdido Street Station’ is brilliant, but also much less thought-provoking.

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