Friday, February 3, 2012

Embassytown by China Mieville

I've seen Mieville's works on the shelves at the library quite frequently, and finally decided to give him a try. If Embassytown is representative of the quality of his writings, I may have to read some more. Embassytown reminds me of some of the older science fiction authors. Suzette Haden Elgin leaps immediately to mind, as well as LeGuin, the first because this novel deals primarily with xenolinguistics, and the second for the odd human and alien cultures she described in her novels.

Avice grew up in Embassytown, an enclave on an alien world occupied by the Hosts, or Arekei. The Arekei have two mouths that they use for speaking, and are only able to understand humans speaking their language when it is spoken by a pair of humans, The Ambassadors, who have been specially cloned, raised and trained to think the same thoughts as they speak. The other odd thing about the language of the Hosts is that it is impossible for the Hosts to lie while speaking. They are only able to say things that are true, by some strange quirk of their neural programming and biology. Ordinary humans are able to understand, to some extent, the Hosts' language, but when they try to use it, the Arekei hear only meaningless noise.

When Avice was young, she became a simile for the Hosts. As the hosts are capable of only literally speaking what exists, in order for them to speak figuratively of something, they use the humans to perform strange actions and become similes or metaphors to which they can refer. Wild stuff, I know, but this is the sort of creative thing that Mieville uses that I found so intriguing. Avice became "The Girl who Ate what Was Given Her", and when she returns to Embassytown after a career working on space vessels traveling the "immer", she is still recognized and even acquires a coterie of Host groupies.

Another little creative bit that I found amusing was when the "automa" (mobile self-aware artificial intelligences) in Embassytown are infected with a virus that turns them into preachers of a new religion, and "...their catechisms changing as the 'ware degraded and threw up protestant, variant sects."

When a unique form of political sabotage sends a new Ambassador, EzRa, to Embassytown whose voice acts as an immediately addictive drug on the Arekei, all hell breaks loose. The addiction is contagious, nor merely limited to those who hear EzRa, but also by biological contamination between the infected Hosts and other Hosts, as well as many of their biological creations - they're supergeniuses when it comes to genetic engineering, and use biological constructs for all of their industrial applications.

Very serious, world-threatening problems develop, and the solution is totally amazing. I highly recommend this novel, and I'll let you know as I try some more Mieville.


Unknown said...

I've been curious about this one, but reluctant to take it one simply because I've read so much about China's work being too dense or too complex to be easily accessible. I think everything you've highlighted about it, though, speaks to me. This definitely stays in the TBR pile.

Jon said...

I'd have to consider the source of who is saying that Mieville's work is dense. Complex, yes, but as I've been reading SF for over 35 years, I didn't find it difficult to comprehend. Mieville does a good job of giving out just enough information at the proper time to make me pause every so often and think, "How cool!"

Nibbles said...

Excellent! I'll have to try him too, he's on my never-ending 'list'!

redhead said...

You read Embassytown as your first Mieville?? brave! in my opinion it's definitely his strangest and hardest to read book to date.

I'm happy you enjoyed it, Embassytown was one of my top reads for 2011.

Jon said...

Well, if that's his strangest, the rest should be a piece o' cake.