|Embassytown - China Miéville|
|Narrative for leaving a dying planet|
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.