China Miéville
Embassytown Cover



Arieke is a backwater planet on the edge of the known universe. Terran residents live in Embassytown, precariously secure under a bubble of breathable atmosphere provided by their Ariekei Hosts. Most reviewers of Embassytown have mentioned that with the Ariekei Mieville has created about the most alien aliens you are likely to encounter. They are taller than humans, walk on hoofs, and have multilple eyes of long, slender stalks. Their iridescent skins have unique markings that distinguish individuals, and each has a variety of wings that serve different purposes, and shudder and change color to express moods The Ariekei are flightless, and so these wings seem more like fins. By using their two mouths, they speak a language that humans can learn to comprehend but find impossible to duplicate until they arrive at the solution of specially bred pairs of clones. By speaking together these clones can learn Language (always capitalized), and therefore act as true ambassadors to the Ariekei.

Avice Bonner Cho is a child of Embassytown, raised in a nursery where shift parents watch over multiple wards. These kids have the run of Embassytown, but a bright child like Avice chafes at the provinciality of her hometown where there is little to do but wait for the next supply ship to bring necessities and goodies. She wants to be an immerser, a space traveller trained to go into the out and endure the dislocations of FTL travel and the emotional challenges it brings. Her travels make her financially comfortable and she returns to Embassytown as a young women with nothing to do but floak around. (Mieville is as inventive with neologisms as he is with aliens.) She brings with her a linguist husband eager to study Language, and she finds her role in the politics, partying, and casual sexuality of Embassytown.

She also has special standing among the Hosts, because as child she was chosen to become a simile. Embassytown is a novel about language, Language, inter-species encounters, and how language shapes and makes reality. Avice's role as a simile introduces the reader to how complex things will become. She is out narrator, and she does not want to go into what must have been the unpleasant details of her afternoon with the hosts. She says only that it was not the most painful experience of her life, and that afterwards she was the simile, the girl who ate was was given her. Language is so specific that the Ariekei must witness certain acts so they can then use them as similes to expand the range of their discussions. After doing whatever they do to Avice, they are able to say, in situations that remain opaque to humans, that a certain situation, person, or thing is like the girl who ate what was given her. Other humans have been chosen to perform other acts that create other similes. The similes like to hang out together, and Hosts treat them with combined respect and fascination.

Attempting to lie has become a titillating pastime among factions of the hosts, and they hold parties where one after the other makes the attempt. But lying is impossible in Language, although some Hosts are learning by working through similes come closer and closer to false statements. Although they do not have the words for it, what the Hosts desire is to move from similes to metaphors. They want to think.

All hell breaks loose and the tenuously maintained relationship between humans and Ariekei begins to break down upon the arrival of the new ambassador EzRa. Any new arrival calls for a party, a very grand party. EzRa makes their grand interest, but a hush falls over the crowd. ExRa prove to be not a pair of identical clones but rather two very different young men capable of moving about individually among the guests. When they speak Language, the Ariekei gathered for the celebration go a little berserk, although the humans hear nothing out of the ordinary. Ariekei will become addicted to the sound of EzRa speaking.

All I can really say at this point is that the rest of the novel veers wildly from arcane discussions on the nature of Language to visceral descriptions of the breakdown of the society and the war it spawns. I suppose I should read the book, or at least the last half of the book, again, but I have a love/hate relationship with Mievelle's novel. I was at various times engrossed, lost, and irritated. Avice, floaker extraodinaire, grows into the role of a true hero, but I feel there could have been more human, or even human/alien interaction, to anchor the story along with all the verbal fireworks and endlessly inventive evocation of an alien world.