30 November, 2011

'Embassytown' by China Mieville

If you're a big enough geek to think about the ethics of the Prime Directive outside of the times they actually discuss it on Star Trek, AND to wonder how that principle relates to breaching the language barrier once you have actually made contact with an alien species, you might come close to understanding how China Miéville came up with the premise of Embassytown.

Others (including the inimitable Ursula K. LeGuin) have already written detailed and thought-provoking reviews of this book, so I'll try not to reinvent the wheel here. But I will say that for me, I loved this book in spite of its flaws, because it's a spectacular piece of genre fiction that is no less literature for its being housed in the construct of sci-fi. Miéville has become known for sampling classic genres and giving them his own New Weird spin, and he's done it again here. This reads like a classic piece of science fiction writing, recognizable in form, yet entirely Miéville's own. And, fitting to the running message of the book, it is the language of it that makes it not only a brilliant meld of the classic and the modern, but a truly compelling and emotive story.

To set the scene for you: it is an indeterminate year, so far in the future that Earth is a distant memory but not yet a myth. Humans have colonized planets and learned to coexist in space with the many races that inhabit it. They travel from world to world via the immer, a sort of space-time that exists on a different dimension (frankly reminding me of Mrs. Whatsit's explanation of a tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time). Embassytown, then, is the one spot of human habitation on a world called Arieka, populated with aliens as unlike the humanoids of Star Trek and Stargate as it's possible to get. We are never given a cohesive physical description of the Ariekei (called the Hosts by their human neighbors), but we do remark on the way the humans interact with them: they don't. That is, most of them don't. Hosts speak with two mouths, their language made up of two coexisting streams of speech, which (clearly) humans are unable to replicate alone. So humans created the Ambassadors, sets of identical twins who can speak the Hosts' language with one mind, to communicate for them.

It takes a little while for the political landscape of Embassytown to become clear. Our narrator is Avice, who grew up in Embassytown, left for awhile to travel the immer (to immerse, as it were), and returned. She is in a perfect position to explain to we clueless readers everything there is to know about the Hosts, because she is a simile in the Ariekei language. Huh? you ask. In a nutshell, because each word of their language is one with the thing it represents, not referential but literal, the Hosts can only speak of what is or has been. They cannot lie. Their similes are not theories but actual events; they can say "this is like the rock that was broken and mended" only because they broke a rock on purpose and then glued it back together. It happened, so they can refer to the happening. But this language, while fascinating, is painfully inhibited. What of the richness of metaphor? How can a species imagine when they have no words to put to their imaginings? And what happens when some of the Hosts start to ask these questions themselves? The answer is simple: revolution.

What began as one rogue Host who tried to teach itself to lie becomes the saving grace of a species. A new Ambassador arrives in Embassytown, not bred on Arieka but sent from offworld, not a pair of twins but two entirely unrelated men-- men who hate each other, and whose twisted bond turns their speech into a dangerously addictive drug to any Host that hears it. The Hosts become mindless, demanding only more of the corrupted speech, until a few desperate Hosts fight back by deafening themselves, rendering them unable to communicate with each other in any way, but also immune to the tainted Ambassador's speech. From there, battle becomes inevitable, between the Hosts who are slaves to the Ambassador and the self-mutilated army who want to destroy Embassytown and all who live inside it. Flying under the radar here is Avice, who latches onto the group of Hosts who had once tried to learn to lie. She manages to use the simile that is herself to make the Hosts understand metaphor, a leap of understanding that, both figuratively and literally, rearranges their minds.

This was really the heart of the book for me: the painful, bloody rebirth of a species through language. I'm a linguist at heart; half of what sets my hair on fire about Miéville's writing is the sheer audacity of his language and the way he throws words around, like they're flaming chainsaws and he's a suicidally ambitious juggler. In his hands, words are weapons, and he doesn't hesitate to use them to rearrange our brains as Avice does the Hosts'. Here, he seems to say, this is the power of language and words, it can bring you to your knees, it can save your life, it can shape the way you see the world and the way you treat other people, and if you underestimate it it can devastate you.

How many of us have ever considered the vital difference between simile and metaphor? I hadn't. But it's pretty powerful when I think about it. Similes are fun. They let you do things like drop references to insane YouTube videos of guys juggling flaming chainsaws. But metaphor is entirely the province of imagination, and more, of feeling. Metaphor is what we use when our feelings overwhelm our everyday words and their everyday uses. A language without metaphor, without the ability to describe anything except exactly as it is, isn't really a language at all. It's an orated dictionary; it's sound and fury, signifying nothing. In the aftermath of a brutal and bloody civil war, grief is borne better together than alone, processed by finding ways to talk about what happened. "The city’s a heart, [Avice says] and in that a heart and a city were sutured into a third thing, a heartish city, and cities are heart-stained, and hearts are city-stained too." For the Ariekei, nothing less poignant or heartfelt would do.

This was a really interesting book. Not my favorite of Miéville's-- it didn't blow up my brain like Kraken or hollow me out like The Scar-- but it was extremely well written and aside from the commentary on communication and language, the bits on how humans relate to aliens was very appreciated. I am admittedly a little obsessed with the aspect of Star Trek that deals with the ethics of stepping in to alter the progress of another species in the name of their best interests, and the lines that shouldn't be crossed, and I thought the spin Miéville put on that topic in Embassytown was very thought provoking. Star Trek, and the best sci-fi, teach us to think about how we relate to each other by telling stories about relating to aliens. Part of the lesson of Embassytown, if there is one, is that sometimes relating and understanding is impossible; acceptance is the only option.

I loved Avice as a narrator, too. In her review, LeGuin notes there's nothing about Avice that's overly feminine nor overly unfeminine, suggesting a society that's almost post-gender in its constructs. I actually find that to be true of a lot of Miéville's female characters-- Bellis Coldwine of The Scar had the same ring to her, a strong woman who wasn't brash or masculine. Yet I find the almost total lack of focus on sexuality throughout Miéville's books the most refreshing. There's romance, sex, and tension both romantic and sexual in all of his books that I've read, yet the shipping is never the focus. Avice talks about her ex-husbands and her ex-wife quite casually, and there's been sexual and romantic tension between characters of all genders and species throughout his books. Miéville gives me hope that someday we might see more popular genre fiction with queer protagonists, or different models of female protagonist, or simply female protagonists for whom romance is simply not part of the story, as it seems it often must be. Though I would admittedly love to see Miéville turn his hand to an epic tragic love story (imagine how twisted and amazing it would be... 'Out of Africa' or 'Atonement' done by China Miéville... shivers!) his driving focus is always and forever the development of his characters, which in this case serves us well in delivering one as complex and vivid as Avice.

Ironically, I think it's this devotion to characterization that made parts of Embassytown drag. The Latterday/Formerly sections were so intimately connected to Avice's experiences, so detailed and so important to her. These were moments, days, weeks that changed her, and we really feel them as she does. The decline of Embassytown felt almost distant by comparison, I think because not much changed for Avice internally during it. She narrated over things, not through them. We were told that things happened, we didn't experience them through her eyes. But that's a small criticism for a book so vast in scope. This is a wonderful work of art, rich and satisfying, which left me wondering only what Miéville could possibly be planning next, and how long I'll have to wait until I can lay hands on it.

Addicted, you say? Nah...

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