Like many of my colleagues at Eleventh Stack, I’ve found myself enmeshed in George R. R. Martin’s mammoth fantasy series, Song of Ice and Fire, and basically ignoring all else (except poetry). One item, however, which I’ve read recently, while taking a break from all the boiled leather and endless sigils, gave some much-needed relief from the intense world of fantasy.
Miéville is not everyone’s cup of tea and even those who have liked one of his works have found others to be head-scratchers. Variety, at least for some readers, may be bad; I know sci fi genre readers who will never pick up another book by an author if once burnt.
This is not a twice shy crowd.
I, however, found myself nonplussed by books of Miéville’s that didn’t click with me. I liked one, Perdido Street Station (though not enough to continue with the series), so whenever he comes out with something new, I read the reviews and see if it’s for me. Twice I’ve done this and twice I’ve put the books aside.
Turns out that the third time was a charm.
Embassytown is one of the best science fiction books I’ve read in many a year, maybe a decade. Conceptually, it reminds me of my favorite speculative fiction writer, Samuel R. Delany. Yes, this is heady stuff, but also exciting stuff, a high end concept with a plot that matches it step for step. It goes something like this:
On a distant outpost in the far future, there is a strange race called the Ariekei, whose language only a handful of altered human beings can speak. These altered humans must speak completely different words in pairs, together, which heard simultaneously is the language of the Hosts or Ariekei. They are in fact, though two individual humans, named as one (i.e. EzCal, MagDa etc.) and throughout the novel are spoken of in the singular tense (i.e. “EzCal is …” ). The narrator, one of the human colonists, does not speak the language but has become a simile in the Ariekei language, which opens up another mode of communication between the two races.
Yup, that’s right, a human simile.
That’s the setup, complex enough as it seems. But there’s one more thing. Culturally, The Hosts have no conception of lying. Literally, they cannot tell a lie because they don’t know what it is. Until we teach them. And they become addicted.
And all hell breaks loose.
So, this is a book, a very intelligent book, about language, language and communication. And, oh, it happens to be science fiction.
Describing this wonderful book is difficult at best. However, someone with a more sophisticated point of view – science fiction Grandmaster Ursula Le Guin – has pronounced Embassytown “a fully achieved work of art” in her review for The Guardian. And if you think science fiction isn’t for you, isn’t “real,” doesn’t engage your soul and improve your life, listen to how Le Guin brings it home:
There are men right now who have never learned how to talk to women. How will we talk to somebody really different – aliens? The Ariekei of Embassytown are immensely unlike us. The problem of communication, the nature of language and of spoken truth, is the novel’s core.
Le Guin points to the opening prologue (click to read) to underscore Miéville’s sheer inventiveness. His neologisms, a standard trope of science fiction ‘otherness,’ are double down effective considering the novel’s all important linguistic theme. Rather than fumble along attempting to describe the nearly indescribable (make a movie out this, Spielberg), I’ll let Le Guin give the kind of first hand insight only a master purveyor could on another colleague’s triumph:
In Embassytown, his metaphor – which is in a sense metaphor itself – works on every level, providing compulsive narrative, splendid intellectual rigour and risk, moral sophistication, fine verbal fireworks and sideshows, and even the old-fashioned satisfaction of watching a protagonist become more of a person than she gave promise of being. And all along we thought she was only a simile . . .
Or, put another way, can you say metaphor?