China Mieville’s “Embassytown”–The mindbending adventure and danger of language

Though it may seem odd or simply untrue to say, there’s a good chance that at some point in our Terran history, self-expression and dialogue with others were among the most dangerous forms of activity possible.  Maybe it could justifiably be said that they still are.  This is not simply due to the possibility of being misunderstood, but also because of how language can cause us to go beyond our own limitations and into unknown, uncharted mental and emotional territory.  In China Miéville’s sci-fi masterpiece Embassytown, a whole way of life is riding on dialogues with the indigenes of the planet of Dagostin, the Ariekes, or the Hosts, as they are called by the humans who have come there to live, and as they are also referred to by the “exoterres” the Kedis and the Shur’asis as well.

This book is a challenge to read, not only because there is at least one new vocabulary term or concept to be mastered on each page, but because the author leaves one to put the pieces together himself or herself, with only a few subtle hints here and there.  Some of the new conceptual territory includes the notion that age is measured not in Terran days, months, weeks, or years, but in something called kilohours.  The children are not brought up by their birth parents and may never even see them, but instead are brought up by a series of “shiftparents,” who look after them in turn.  The buildings and devices?  Many of them are not built, but grown, to be called biorigging and other such terms, and they are largely produced by the Hosts, who trade them with the humans in exchange for favors and considerations I will get to in a moment.  The air in Embassytown is not breathable by humans, so a special atmosphere is created with the help of the Hosts for their guests.  One step outside with lungs open, and the humans begin to sicken and die.

Embassytown is technically an outpost of Bremen, which is officially in charge of what happens, yet is in fact a little out of touch, as it turns out, with some of the most dangerous events to its own supremacy.  Yet in the tale told by Avice Benner Cho, a female human born in Embassytown, who has been an immerser (a crew member of space ships), it’s neither the elements which seem strange to us in the science fiction nor the encounters per se with the Hosts, the Ariekes, which pose the danger.  It’s language itself which not only ends up being the real challenge to the humans, but which is also the “main character” of the story.  But you want things in an orderly fashion, don’t you?  So I’ll give a bit of how the story goes at the beginning.

Avice is remembering her childhood and past in sections called “Formerly,” and is telling things which have happened in a more recent time, the “middle distance” of the story, in the sections called “Latterday.” It’s only halfway through the book that the action becomes simply sequential.  One of the first things that happens early on is that a friend of her, Yohn, becomes ill because of a childish game the young humans play, which consists in seeing how far out of human bounds and into the Hosts’ section they can go to leave a mark and come back.  Yohn accidentally breathes the inimical natural atmosphere, and a strange “cleaved” human named “Bren,” a middle-aged man, who is an acquaintance of the Hosts, helps the Hosts retrieve him.  Avice is asked to comfort Yohn while he is ill.  Avice doesn’t know exactly what “cleaved” means until much later in the book, or why Bren is avoided by other humans, but the children giggle at him and are in awe of him as well.

Not long after this, the Hosts ask to “borrow” Avice to make a simile of her for their Language.  This is Language with a capital “L,” because to the Hosts, Language and thought are simultaneous, and they apparently cannot lie.  It simply is not in their nature, as it seems.  When they want to be able to say that something is “like” something else, or that someone did something “as” something or someone else did, they first have to have an actual instance of the person or event having been or happened as they describe, so that they can make the comparison.  In order that they can say “like the human girl who ate what was given her,” they first have to borrow Avice to construct the factual sentence “There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a long time.”  They therefore cause her a minimum of pain and give her something to eat in an old deserted restaurant; after that, she becomes a simile and is part of their Language rehearsals from time to time.  As it later turns out, there are humans who represent other tropes and parts of speech as well.  But first, before Avice becomes aware of them, or perhaps it’s only before the reader is told about them, she becomes an immerser, a crew member for space voyages, and is admired when she voyages and returns for the questionable activity of “floaking,” a sort of goofing off and hanging out which is a kind of glamour cast by immersers over the people who admire them for their piratical abilities.

The story progresses, and we learn that humans can only communicate with Hosts by using Ambassadors, two cloned humans who speak different words at the same exact instant, which is what the Hosts understand, and is how they speak.  But the Hosts initially perceive these two humans as one, and don’t have any conception of individuality.  In fact, they are unable to lie, and are simultaneously thrilled and fascinated by listening to humans construct lies, from simple lies such as telling them that something is red which is blue, or perhaps saying something ridiculous, innane, or poetical, such as that birds swim in the ocean.  But even though Avice is used to things which would seem strange to most real-life contemporary humans, such as marrying her husband Scile in a “nonconnubial love match,” or having for a best friend Ehrsul, a trid (tri-d projection of a woman), when she becomes involved in an intrigue caused by the dominant Bremen’s plot to circumvent Embassytown’s status by sending an Ambassador from its own ranks (an Ambassador of a variety described in advance, mysteriously, as “impossible”–but I won’t ruin the suspense), her glamour as a “floaker” can only help her own so far.  Instead, she must throw in her lot with those who are trying to save Embassytown by a very unusual means of dealing with the Hosts, and again, it’s spoiler alert time.

Suffice it to say that this is a grand sci-fi adventure with structuralist and deconstructionist theories of language acquisition and usage, yet it’s also a great read that anyone, versed in language theories or not, can enjoy.  In fact, the very difference between a simile and a metaphor, between “referring” and “signifying,” is at stake, and Embassytown itself revitalizes and casts it own glamour over how we speak and relate to each other every day.  I hope all my readers will have a chance to finish this book, and will enjoy it as much as I did.  What more could one ask for as a reader, after all, but a sci-fi adventure thriller which takes its venue of play in the fields of language themselves?


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

6 responses to “China Mieville’s “Embassytown”–The mindbending adventure and danger of language

  1. D. James Fortescue

    Wow, that sounds like a very intense novel. I have heard of China’s work, as he has received some illustrious awards in his career.


    • I agree that it is intense. And though I used to read a lot of different sci-fi and fantasy when I was a teenager, with a predilection for Andre Norton, I have to say that this book by Mieville is my favorite sci-fi so far. It extends the boundaries of ordinary sci-fi, which just mainly concentrates on science and scientific discoveries and adventures with aliens, and makes the adventure with aliens a linguistic one, which is right up my alley. Please do read it if you have time and get a chance, I can promise you won’t regret it. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about it.


      • D. James Fortescue

        As I enjoyed my reading of your previous suggestion (Eva Luna), I will keep Mr Mieville in mind should I see him in the book exchange and/or book store.


  2. The other book of his I’ve read, which is a contemporary-day dystopic fantasy of sorts, “The City and the City,” and which I’ve written a review on before now, is another good one. I don’t know what your political “take” is on Amazon, but you can order good used copies from them sometimes for as little as 1 cent to a few dollars (with shipping and handling added), and even though I blush for my political weakness, I do order from them a lot, because they are more affordable for me.


  3. This sounds like a pleasing challenge, it reminds me of that Star Trek episode when Picard and the alien were stuck on the planet and had to break language barriers with stories.

    I shall definitely have to have this one as well, your blog is going to cost me a lot of money methinks!


    • Yes, it is a human-to-alien-to-human language adventure, except that the narrator Avice says at one point that it’s not a case of supposed human insensitivity to other cultures which causes the problem (by which, she says, people usually actually mean that aliens are ridiculously oversensitive to what are unintentional linguistic slights). She points out that humans of a liberal persuasion often cast shame on themselves and others for supposedly being insensitive, when what they’re really saying is that the aliens are TOO sensitive. I think this is a pretty complex point about language, actually, even from human culture to human culture. I mean, how many perhaps apocryphal stories have you heard about Americans or Brits or French or some other Western culture supposedly offending someone of a third-world culture by inaccurate language use, when what the teller is really implying is that the third-world cultural individual is slow to understand or downright too sensitive or hostile, or whatever? The narrator of this story insists, to the contrary, that “aliens” almost certainly understand the difference between an intentional slight and an accidental mistranslation. I think this is a profound statement, somehow. Anyway, as to finding the book for sale, I actually read it on my library website of one of my local libraries. I wonder if you mightn’t find it even more easily there in Britain, since China Mieville lives and works in London. Good luck!


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