China Miéville
Embassytown Cover



What a way to rope in 2013. I started Embassytown on the tail end of 2012, hoping to finish it before the end of the year and mark it as the 51st book of 2012. Instead, it became the first book of 2013, and I hope this is an indication of the level of quality that I'll come to see this year.

At its core, Embassytown is a book about aliens and just how, well, for lack of a better word, alien they are. In creating the Ariekei, Mieville manages to really push the envelope on what other alien races might truly be like, as opposed to simply creating green lizard humanoids, a bane of sci-fi as far as I'm concerned. The Ariekei are not alien in appearance only, they're alien to the core, including in the way they communicate through something called Language (always capitalised). In order for the humans to speak it, they use Ambassadors, who mimic the Cut/Turn of the Ariekei Language. Until one day, a new Ambassador comes to Embassytown, and everything changes.

I have to hand it to Mieville. Not only does he construct an engaging world and universe (tackling things like how humans live on planets without oxygen, how faster-than-light travel occurs -- through something called the immer, a concept related to subspace --, first contact and its consequences), he also manages to make the reader work for the content. We see everything unfold through the eyes of Avice Benner Cho, an immerser, or traveller on the immer, and Embassytown native who returns to the city with her husband, Scile, a language scholar. The first person narrative might be off-putting to some, especially as Mieville fills his book with neologisms and concepts that are very hard to keep track of -- initially, anyway. He is slow to feed information, and indeed in many cases it becomes important to deduce things from context, a feat I admire in an author, but especially in sci-fi, where the prevalence of "Look at my cool concept!" can get in the way of storytelling through massive infodumps.

Everything about Embassytown is richly detailed and alive. The biorigging, the turingware, the immer, Language and language. His characters, great and small, all have a purpose and he manages to make them all come alive. Although we see it all through Avice's eyes, characters such as CalVin, Scile, Ehrsul, Bren and the Ariekei all seem vivid, real and most of all incredibly well defined. The reasoning behind their actions becomes clear in the end, and one is left with a sense of wonder and hope.

The novel is also a great treatise on Language and language, on its uses, its playful nature and the boundaries to which it can be pushed. To me, Language is almost as much of a character in the novel as Avice and the Ariekei themselves, and it's so wonderful to see Mieville tackle concepts like imagination, truth and lies, in an engaging and thoughtful manner. He is clearly a master of his craft, and his skills are all on display here. Having read two of his other novels, Un Lun Dun and Kraken, I can firmly give this book five stars. I am excited to see where his other works (particularly the Bas Lag trilogy and The City & the City) will take me, but I am also hopeful that he will revisit Embassytown in future, and perhaps more novels will be set in the immerspace.