BY NICO VREELAND
Author: China Mieville
2011, Del Rey
Filed under: Sci-Fi
Embassytown is the second Mieville book I’ve read, and I liked it much more than the first—although I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve become accustomed to his style, or because his sensibility better suits this plot and premise.
Previously, I read The City & The City, an ill-conceived detective novel set in a weird city, undone by the incomprehensible motivations of its characters.
The motives of the characters in Embassytown likewise resist understanding. That’s because, as I’ve finally realized (or perhaps just accepted), China Mieville doesn’t give a shit about his characters, or why they do what they do. Mieville only cares about the weird ideas he dreams up; he only gives his novels plots and his characters names to make something like a canvas, on which his weird ideas can be displayed.
That means that if you look for narrative art in his books, you’ll be sorely disappointed, as I was when I read City. But if you approach his work as conceptual art, you might find it enjoyable, even if it’s largely meaningless. That’s what I found this second time around.
Right away, Embassytown hides its purpose: it’s narrated by Avice Benner Cho, a native Embassytowner. You might think that means the novel is about Avice, or at least has something to do with her thoughts or experiences. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Avice spends a quarter of the book exploring the galaxy, as part of a special class of traveler—but the specifics of that traveling also don’t matter to the core of the novel. When she returns to Embassytown, for unconvincing reasons, she’s there to “floak,” which means, quite literally, that she’s there to do as little as possible. In other words, she has nothing to do within the story: her job is to report events to the reader. You could easily replace Avice with a child or a dog or a motile plant: she is an uncharacter—unmemorable, unactionable, unlikeable (but also undislikeable).
That’s because, like every other individual in this book, Mieville doesn’t give a shit about Avice. He only gives a shit about the non-human natives of Embassytown, the Ariekei, which are like giant roaches with two mouths and a wing that they hear with. He doesn’t care about them as individuals, of course, but as a species, and especially as a species who, with their two mouths, speak a language unlike any in the universe. It’s called Language, and it consists of two simultaneous streams of words that no single human being can replicate (that’s just the tip of the iceberg).
Speaking in Language, the Ariekei cannot lie. They literally cannot say anything that isn’t true. They also cannot understand anything that isn’t Language spoken by a sentient consciousness. They perceive the humans staying on Embassytown as barely animate hunks of flesh. Those humans want, for unconvincing reasons, to communicate with the Ariekei, and so after decades or centuries they have created Ambassadors, who are specially raised pairs of genetically cloned people trained to speak Language as one entity.
Something like a plot begins to emerge when a new Ambassador comes to Embassytown: two regular people who can somehow together speak Language, which is a feat no un-cloned people have ever managed. Meanwhile, one of the Ariekei is slowly training himself to lie, which would be a disaster for the Ariekei and the rest of the universe.
Right about here is where the novel can fall apart if you question it too intensely. For instance, why does it matter if the Ariekei lie? Every other known race in the universe can lie. It seems like lying, and the concept of imagination, would only bring the Ariekei up to about a first-grade level of thought complexity. But for some reason, the humans see the prospect of Ariekei lying as the coming of the apocalypse. OK, then how can the Ariekei imagine things that don’t exist? In one instance, they need Avice to act something out so they can use that action as a simile in Language, but how do they know what they need her to do if they can’t even say it before she does it?
Embassytown teems with these kinds of questions, and the answers it offers are infrequent and thin. I’ve found it’s best to let the questions go and instead take each of Mieville’s weird ideas at face value and enjoy it for itself.
For instance, the Ariekei, in their old age, become brain-dead zombies. In a bygone age, these old zombies would function as mobile feeding stations for the Ariekei young, but somewhere in their history the Ariekei consciously decided to stop feeding their old to their young. So now, out of respect, they shepherd their mindless elderly around with them, until their bodies finally fall apart and they die.
Kind of a cool idea, right? It means nothing, and has nothing to do with the story, but it’s kind of a cool idea. It seems to indicate that the Ariekei are enlightened beings, even though they’re certainly not—they still let their children go through the developmental phase in which they fight and kill each other. The zombie elderly thing is just a cool idea. Ultimately, that’s all this novel is, and it seems that’s all Mieville does.
Interestingly, he does seem to attempt, in spurts, to create the struts and structure of a consistent fictional world, but he can’t seem to carry it off.
For instance, there’s the question: why are the humans on Embassytown in the first place? It took them many, many years to figure out Language, and many more years to learn to grow people in test tubes to speak it, and for what? Supposedly, the humans want the Ariekei’s “biorigged” technology which is described as better than human tech. But that’s a thin rationale, and Mieville knows it.
Late in the novel, he reveals with a flourish that the humans actually want Embassytown as a stopover point on the way to exploring the unknown parts of the universe. It’s unclear why they would need such a stopover point, though, and why it would be worth all the effort.
(It’s also obviously not a stopover point. It is, in fact the farthest backwater in the universe, with vessels landing so infrequently that each arrival warrants an enormous planet-wide festival.)
But still, it seems that Mieville knows that the initial premise for the existence of Embassytown is absurd, and he tries to shore it up, but only winds up with two absurd rationales.
There’s also the question, of course, of why the Ariekei would help the humans as much as they do, but Mieville carefully makes the Ariekei entirely inscrutable, so he doesn’t even need to worry about such things. Whenever questions about the Ariekei come up, the answer either isn’t known by humans, or Avice isn’t “minded to ask” why they do this or that (remember, after all, she’s just floaking along and couldn’t care less about the whys of the world).
In the end, Embassytown is something of an alien travelogue. You journey somewhere new, and witness bizarre things you’ve never dreamed of, but none it really means anything. Nothing here is relatable to a human life, but it does make you think in a bit of a weird way. What if language could be a drug? What if you could only hear sentient beings?
Mieville’s answers are like bizarre insect specimens under glass in a museum: interesting, often beautiful, but, to the average visitor, nothing more than curiosities. He excels at creating vivid, beautiful, fantastic worlds, and that’s clearly all he’s interested in doing.
Similar reads: The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer; The City & The City, by China Mieville