Thursday, 26 May 2011

'Embassytown' - China Mieville

Embassytown was another no-brainer to pick up as China Mieville is one of those author that I read everything from. I am certain I would have bought the Embassytown anyway as it does have a intriguing blurb that hints of yet another unique creation from China. Unlike his last book this one takes place in a distant future where humanity has spread among the stars and a woman returns home to find herself in the middle of a conflict between aliens and settlers.

 Embassytown, a city located on a planet on the edge of the furthest reaches of known space. It's populated by the Ariekene, a remarkable species with a unmatched skill for bio-engineering. In spite of their advanced technology they lack space travel, but does not really seem interested in leaving their planet. What puzzled the first settlers was that their computers could translate the language of the Ariekene, but could not be used to talk to the Ariekene. The aliens did not even react to the machines when they produced speech. It's like they only heard noise and simply ignored it. The Ariekene have two mouths and requires each mouth to speak one part simultaneous to the other mouth speaking another part, but still the computers could not make the Ariekene understand their synthesized speech. It turns out that unless spoken by something with real intelligence the Ariekene can not understand it and regards it as just noise. Even though there is now a way of communication with the Ariekene they are not easy to understand as they think so difficult, they also don't have the concept of lying. Even for aliens they are very alien to us.

To communicate with the Ariekene the embassytowners had to resort to cloning people to produce two identical copies of a person. These are then carefully groomed through trainin, medication and empathic implants to come as close as humanly possible to having one shared mind. Every day they go through a process that eliminates or replicates any differences between the two. If they pass the necessary Language tests they are dubbed Ambassadors and are allowed to communicate with the Ariekene.

Avice was born and raised in Embassytown and she was considered a fairly normal child by her shiftparents, maybe a bit braver than most girls, until she showed talent for immersing. Human space travel is done in the immer and only immerser have the skill to navigate the immer. Avice is one of few who ever leaves Embassytown, only her skill as an immerser lets her do this. She travels around the stars and finally meets a man, Scile, that she takes as her forth husband. Scile is a language researcher and is fascinated by the Language spoken by the Ariekene so Avice relents and takes Scile back with her to Embassytown. There is a big event taking place, for the first time ever an outsider has been made an Ambassador.

EzRa is the new Ambassador and they are not cloned, but two normal people who through chance are similar enough to come close to sharing a mind and being able to speak Language. A large group of the Ariekene have come to meet the new Ambassador and hear his welcome speech. As EzRa starts speaking something strange happens, the Ariekene all appear to be in shock and they are practically reeling from shock.
The consequences from EzRa's speech proofs to be very dire for everyone. People and aliens as well are forced to take sides in the coming conflict and Avice is not sure where here allegiance really lies.

I really enjoyed Embassytown, it's a very good book with some brilliant world building. As we follow Avice throughout her life we get a very good picture of life in Embassytown and how the humans and other aliens live alongside, but not together with the Ariekene. China has again done something that is outside of the box, this is not just a Sci-Fi novel, it's almost a study of alien psychology and linguistics, but also a Avice's biography. All the bioengineering gives the world he has created that surreal feel which I have come to associate with China's work. Almost everything is alive, components and machinery are actually farmed by the Ariekene. It's really cute how they are followed by their living batteries and I do hope we will have some fan art picturing all these things.
However, large parts of the book are about the technicalities of Language and sometimes it feels a bit like you are being lectured. I felt that at times the book is lacking in pace, there is a lot of dialog between characters, but not much is actually happening. Never did I really felt that I connected with Avice in anyway, in spite of knowing quite a lot about her I did not find her very interesting. In China's previous books I have always been a lot more interested in the characters, but Avice just does not work. I am not happy with how she turns into the spider in the web for some reason, she just does not bring much to the table. Maybe I have read too many books featuring a 'Chosen One'. The story is told from her point of view and maybe that's probably her biggest contribution for most of the story. OK, rant over. I still liked the book and it is interesting and well written, but it does not live up to China's earlier books.

Embassytown weighs in at 368 pages and is published by Del Ray Books.

Verdict: read

1 comment:

  1. I just finished this on audio. The Ariekene twin voice speech was easily done by doubling the narrating actress's voice, I just wondered how this worked in the paper version.

    It's the first Miéville book I've read and I have to say even being read to I found it hard-going at times - it's a slow burn to start off with where we have all the pieces set in place. Other times it does feel like the narrative is put on pause whilst we explore some socio-linguistic avenue. I'm sure if I was reading a text version I would have given up after the first couple of chapters.

    I agree with a lot of what you say here Erik: fantastic worldbuilding and creatures - the idea of all the Ariekene technology being 'alive' is fascinating. As is the aliens' concept of language, that they need to have living similes. I have to say that did telegraph the plot development to me somewhat. But as you say at times it does feel like a study in linguistics, sociology and politics given a SF respray. Apart from her role towards the end of the book, Avice does not seem to contribute much to the storyline, other than narrate it to us. As a consequence we do wonder why we ought to care what happens to her.

    I won't let this deter me from reading more of China's books. He seems a deeply intelligent, versatile and restless writer and I'm keen to see what else he has to offer.