Three time Arthur C Clarke award winner China Miéville returns with a new novel of a new frontier, challenging both readers and himself as he pushes the boundaries of science fiction and literature as the human inhabitants of a distant outpost come up against the unknowable intentions of their alien hosts in Embassytown.
Arieka lies at the farthest reaches of explored space, on the cusp of the vast unknown. Born there was Avice Benner Cho, who became an immernaut, one of the few able to remain conscious and functioning while guiding ships through the turbulent unseen dimension underpinning the universe as we perceive it, where distance and dimension are skewed. Avice got out, but circumstance and her new husband’s fascination with the indigenous species of her birth planet have brought her back to the last outpost of Homo diaspora where she grew up. Every port town has an associated slum, and without resources or meaningful trade, Embassytown is fighting a losing battle to retain autonomy and preserve itself from that fate.
A recurring theme in the work of China Miéville is borders, from the carefully mapped neighbourhoods of New Crobuzon to the perceptual boundaries of Beszel and Ul Qoma, but in his most recently published novel the barrier which isolates and divides is one of language, for though the Terre of Embassytown have created ambassadors who can emulate the Language of the Ariekei, twinned clones linked by implants to synchronise the dual parts of Language, cut and turn, the Ariekei cannot speak Anglo-Ubiq, the primary language of Terre, nor even perceive an unpaired human as a living entity.
But something new is coming to Embassytown, the ambassador EzRa, who are not clones, and whose skewed speaking of Language will change Embassytown and Arieka profoundly and permanently.
So far so science fiction, but while China reinvents himself with every work, from the epic urban fantasy, high seas piracy or western tinged train heists of his Bas Lag trilogy to existential detective work in Clarke award winning The City & The City, for all the high tech and space travel that preface this story they are ultimately irrelevant. Yes, there are bioengineered factories that walk the plains and artificial intelligences amongst the dramatis personae, but similarly New Crobuzon had the Remade and the construct council, and Avice could have as easily sailed the Swollen Ocean of Bas Lag as the immer before returning to Embassytown.
Unlike The City… or Kraken, which were both novels of different genres that had the China stamp upon them, this is a full on Miéville novel, returning to his haunt of metropolitan clutter and decay in much the same way as Avice. That there is no more than a vein of science fiction running through these derelict streets of the disenfranchised is a disappointment, but what is here is more than consolation as he most explicitly confirms his undying connection with the urban. When he writes “Their hearts were city stained, their city was heart stained,” it is hard not to believe it is himself he speaks of.
This is not a dramatic novel. Almost two hundred pages of background and exposition precede the first key event, shocking and brutal for its sudden intrusion into this world of shady politics and the inevitable double dealing these entail, but this is necessary to fully understand not only the complexity of the alien cultures and the hierarchy that exists within Embassytown, but most importantly the concept of Language.
A deep analysis of how words frame thought and how thought cannot exist without language to support it is not going to appeal to all. This is not a commercial novel, willfully dense and inaccessible, mirroring the civilisation it portrays, and like the obstacles Avice must overcome it is an intellectual challenge. But this is China, who always moves forward with new observations and twists, never lacks for a word to say to keep the moment alive, and everything is alive: the Ariekei and their pets who provide the alien atmosphere they breathe, the bioengineered fliers and factories, the altcreatures that walk the streets. There is never any doubt that there is not only a whole world beyond our sight past the horizon, but a whole universe just beyond our reach of which China knows every corner.
Avice is for much of the novel a passive observer of events, fully aware of her role as narrator, even telling the reader that she will return to certain plot points later, because she wants to retain the drama. Her preferred pastime is floaking, doing the minimum she has to in order to get by, avoiding attention and responsibility. Her only determination was to get away from this planet, and now returned to it, she has no purpose or role, and she has found herself once again seen only as her childhood identity, a participant in an Ariekene simile meant to aid comprehension of Language, the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her.
Even as society unravels in what she describes as a slow catastrophe, and watches her husband drift further into an extremism that will unexpectedly precipitate the coming violence, her pain never becomes real, not even when she accidentally betrays herself to the wrong partner of her lover, the ambassador CalVin. Curiously, the most emotional moment of the novel comes in the newly installed arms of Ehrsul, an automa whose advanced Turingware has allowed it to become Avice’s only loyal friend in the changing city.
It is inevitable to draw comparisons with other works in the field, and the structure is reminiscent of Banks, but if you must steal, steal from the best, and it would be unkind to grudge this. There are also echoes of Lovecraft, in the shapeless, nameless horror that manifests as an immer soaked miab is hauled into dock, a possible sly nod to The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (speaking of primitive technology, “No offence but… you’d have more luck banging rocks together”) and a very specific reference to George Romero’s classic Night and Dawn of the Dead. The struggle to fully understand the mindset of a mind totally alien is a common one in science fiction, so much so that it was even given a name in the early sixties – to grok. The Ariekei themselves are never wholly described, but possibly in my prejudice, my mind pictured them as civilised counterparts to the bugs of Starship Troopers, not realising how as their civilisation falters, they could become as deadly as the swarms of Klendathu.
While this is daring and unique work, and I cannot malign it for its failure to meet my expectation of an epic deep space adventure flowing from the mind and pen of the most adventurous and daring of our writers, it is only in the final pages that it becomes what I hoped for, as we leave behind Embassytown in a stolen ship with a renegade pilot and an Ariekene crew, heading into the unknown beyond the Pharotekton. Now that is the book I want China to write.
Embassytown is published by Macmillan, and China Miéville is currently touring Britain in support of it, with appearances scheduled at the British Library and the Edinburgh Book Festival.