Thursday, 21 August 2014

Embassytown by China Mieville

Wow, I am behind on reviews. I'm getting just now to books I finished over a week ago. Time to put my head down and try to clear a few off my desk. In that vein, China Mieville's Embassytown! This was my pick for this month's "moderator's choice" themed read in the SF group I'm part of.

I love China Mieville. I really do. The four of his books I've read so far have blown my mind, each in different ways. There is a fervent evangelicalism to my love. They're difficult books, often. Thought-provoking. Mind-bending.

So when I say that I didn't enjoy Embassytown quite as much as I have his other books, that should put it in context. I still liked it. I still found it created times when I needed to sit and think and try to underestand, and extrapolate on the ideas he was putting forward. But it didn't create that same excitement that, say, The City and the City, or Railsea, or Perdido Street Station, or even Un Lun Dun did. If you're wondering where to start with Mieville, maybe not here?

It's less dense a book than some of his others - the verbosity that, quite frankly, I loved, is not on as ostentatious a display here. In that way, it's a more standard science fiction book. But the content is as mind-bending as ever. This is one about language, about signifiers and platonic ideals, about perceptions of sentience. About a settlement on the verge of collapse, almost about to become one of the lost colonies like Roanoke, where the next shipment of goods would appear to find a demolished city, and no idea what went wrong. And at least one little point that I was interpreting as being about the eternal crystallized moment of colonialism. I'll explain what I mean. Give me a second.

This is why I love Mieville. I'm good with occasional brainless fun, don't get me wrong. But it's so much better when the book makes me think, makes me make ponder, walks with me, and inserts itself into research I'm doing (even though temperance fraternal lodges in the 19th century are miles away from science fiction, or even first contact between natives and Europeans.)

Brief plot synopsis, so I can explain where all these big ideas come from? Avice Benner Cho (her initials are undoubtedly not a mistake) grew up in Embassytown, where a small human settlement was an outpost for contact with the Ariekei, an entirely alien species (and we've run into other aliens before, none as different as they are.)

Communication with the Ariekei is virtually impossible. There are pairs of Diplomats who speak the language in unison, or rather, with one voice overlaying the other, different words, but this polyphony makes up Ariekei language. But more than that - it needs sentient speakers. Computers can't do it. That's because, somehow, when the Ariekei speak, they're not hearing sounds - they use sounds as access points to what seems almost like platonic ideals. The words are not signifiers, they are the things being spoken of.

Because of this, the Ariekei cannot lie. If they want to speak a new simile, they need to make it happen first. This happens to Avice, who becomes, in short form, "like the girl who ate what was given her." So who thought up the need for that simile?

This is mindbending enough, right? But then we get into how some Ariekei are trying to learn how to lie, and what that might do to society. To Avice's husband, who sees any deviation of the Ariekei from the moment of contact as downright evil.

(This is what I was talking about when I said the eternal crystallized moment of colonization. For a very long time, people took what they knew of Native American culture at the moment of contact as Native American culture, forever, and ever, amen. They were assumed to have been static. Why, change was something we did! They couldn't change! Now, of course, we know that Native American society was, just like European society, in the midst of almost constant change. There is no eternal now. There never was.)

Oh wait! That's not the main conflict of the book! That's just the set-up! Then we get into language as drug, of a contact society where devastation spreads like a disease, where the new human colonists are threatened, without backup, by the unwitting changes they have spread through Ariekei. Where do their responsibilities lie? Is this where their lives will end? Does it matter, compared to the entire Ariekei society?

I'm not going to get more specific than that. But this really is a very good book. I'm working myself into more enthusiasm just remembering it. There are so many ideas in this book, and none of them are easy or simplistic, although the story itself is relatively straightforward. 


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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