Embassytown, by China Miéville, is that rare thing in literature: unique. I’m sure there must be other books, other stories that deal with similar ideas, but I have yet to come across anything that comes close to the beautiful strangeness of this one.
Avice Benner Cho, a native of Embassytown, returns to her home after years of deep-space adventure. The planet is home to the Ariekei who speak a unique language, one that few human ambassadors can speak. Avice is not one of these few, however, she is famous for being made a “simile”: speakers of the Language are incapable of lying, and so, to get around this, have people act out behaviour that represents a truthful comparison.
Then, when a new kind of artificially created ambassador is delivered to the Ariekei, the delicate balance between humans and aliens is threatened. The Ariekei become addicted to the speech of these machinations, and as their society starts to collapse, Embassytown is threatened to do the same. As she becomes part of the effort to save Embassytown, Avice is torn over where her loyalties lie. After all, she is as much human as she is an integral part of the Ariekei Language.
There are cons: Embassytown is far from perfect. Like all of Miéville’s work that I’ve read so far, it is hard work (especially at the start) but it does get easier as the story begins to grip you. This is not a comfortable, lazy read. Sometimes I found that the language was so alien – or conversely, so familiar – that I was jolted right out of this strange world and found myself contemplating the language choice rather than the story. This is not necessarily a negative; it could, in fact, be part of the author’s intended reaction. “Language” is such a deep and intrinsic part of the plot that there is no reason to discount the possibility that the very writing itself was used to make the reader think about our own human forms of language.
Be that as it may, it was distracting. Coupled with this was the tendency to write as though the reader was already knowledgeable of the world and universe in which Embassytown is set. A second re-reading of the book may be in order, because there is so much of the beginning that I didn’t comprehend, and I think that detracted from the latter parts of the story.
That said, I enjoyed the fundamental story so much that I would happily undertake a re-read. Why? Oh, the story! The ideas! A dissection, an exploration, a near poetic discovery of what constitutes language and sentient interaction – this is at the heart of Embassytown. There are many other threads woven throughout (addiction, politics, oppression, morality, the essence of humanity) but Language is at the core. I will never again be able to look at similes and metaphors in the same light. The ending hit me so hard it was almost physical. In fact, the ending – if I may go so far as to say – was perfect.
I will be very surprised if this never finds its way to motion picture – whether film or television (or even pure art) form. Like the world in which it is set, Embassytown is ruggedly, alienly beautiful; flawed and (mostly) imperfect; unique, and essential.