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NOT a definition of peril: Embassytown, some thoughts

July 29, 2012

So, I put this here because I have the space! You will find out how the Fabian Society is perilous tomorrow (But… socialists working within the law for more equal distribution of property and the transmogrification of capitalism to more humane system sounds so benign and sensible!(‘But they were so plausible! Arrggg!’)). Also, I talk about books like a literature student and writer, not a fan. I assume that you have read the book before commenting and so there are no spoiler warnings. This is not a review, it is an examination.

I finished Embassytown by China Mieville last night. Firstly let me get this out of the way. OMG IT WAS AMAZING! There, squee over.

Confession of not complete objectivity: China is a sort of floaking professor (see wut I did thur) at my MA course, and was both nice and helpful about my baby novel, so I will probably cut him slack where I wouldn’t authors I didn’t know.

All that said, let me talk about Embassytown. So many things I cannot wait to talk about to other people. I love books where this occurs. These are some of my thoughts.

  • One of my main criticisms of China’s work is that sometimes the characters don’t always feel fully rounded. There tends to be a lack of emotion about them that just stops them from being quite people to me. My favourite book characters are those that I feel are still live before the book starts and after the book ends (Lizzie Bennet, I am looking at you.). China’s often seem like anti-Labyrinth goblins – they dance for you while you watch, and then collapse when you stop looking at them. (Inspector Tyador Borlú from the City and the City felt like this to me). Avice lived both as a viewpoint character and as a woman (again, something that I grumble about in China’s books – Lin from Perdido Street Station was just so nearly fabulous, and yet didn’t feel quite real, even if she is mainly seen through the eyes of Isaac who may be objectifying her a bit as she’s not human and a woman he sleeps with). This novel, I think, needed that humanity to ground it in order for the philosophising to work for me as fiction. As a consequence it felt like one of his warmer novels.
  • A criticism I have read before of this novel is that the world it creates is unlikely, that evolution does not work in the way the Ariekei do. This is so missing the point that my head spins. I think because there is space travel, and it is less fantastical than other of his novels, it could be easy to read this as straight science fiction – a supposedly realist portrayal of a future time. This novel is more like 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale – the world and plot is in service to exploring an idea. Whether we could get from now to there is beside the point. Whether you could actually have an advanced society created by beings that have no ways of talking about abstract ideas does not matter. You could certainly not easily explore what language is to consciousness or mind or thinking without such an elegant what if.
  • One of the things that I love to do with literature is find parallels that are less obvious. It makes me feel clever and special. (OK, this is not that un-obvious. But compared to Phillip Pullman it is subtle as hell. Let me bask in my brief feeling of superiority.) So when I woke up this morning to ‘The Ariekei are angels! They even have wings!’ and ‘It’s the Fall and Avice is the devil!’ I was happy. I now know what China thinks of the idea of biblical innocence (not impressed) and about the importance of knowledge and self awareness. I think that if I was writing this novel (hahaha) I would be thinking about it as a Fall story. What does it mean to have knowledge? What is knowledge? Is it language? One answer is this: to have knowledge is to have the possibility of political freedom. Until the Ariekei become changed they can be manipulated, only after they have lost their innocence can they assert their political agency. To stretch this further – is there a parallel to education and democracy? Without the ability to read and write, and to handle complex ideas how can you not be oppressed by those that can? Which is a necessary condition to political agency, not a sufficient one, obviously.
  • My friends that read this novel warned me it takes a while to get into. The density of the new language, the necessity of setting up the before to the meat of the story put me off from starting it. Like many of China’s books, it is this density of new ideas, new language (both made up, and just obscure), new political and social mores that I loved best about the book. I enjoyed the start, actually, as I enjoy the process of struggling with these new things and assimilating them. You have to really read this book, it rewards effort. I found the effort pleasurable, but I understand those that did not.
  • My final point before I go rescue my poor neglected pony (10.30am on a Sunday and I am not riding!) is about the language of the book itself. Frankly, I felt almost like the Oratees in the novel, drunk on the language. Not merely the made up language (floaking is a word that I never knew how much I needed) but the sentences and use of our language. I used the dictionary on my kindle in earnest for the first time, and again, was rewarded for doing the work.
  • Finally finally is the Language. I feel like I should put it out there, as really this book is about language, what it is and the deadly, crucial difference between a simile and a metaphor. However, I don’t have anything to say about it just at the moment. Maybe you do?

I am trying to think of things I didn’t think worked, or that I didn’t like. I cannot at the moment. I am so happy that this is a book that I can go back to again and again to find things to think about. I just wrote 1060 odd words straight off, and I know there are oceans I haven’t touched one. Woot!

Thoughts? You has them?


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  1. Amaryllis, visiting from Slacktiverse permalink

    Thanks for this review. I’ll admit that Mieville is an author I’ve had a hard time warming up to, but you make me want to go out and read this book and be patient with it until it clicks. Becuase “drunk on language” is something I understand.

    It may have reminded you of Pullman with more subtlety, but my first thought when I read the Amazon summary was, “Since I loved Left Hand of Darkness, I might like this too.” So I was pleased to read further down the page and find a glowing blurb from LeGuin herself.

    This novel is more like 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale – the world and plot is in service to exploring an idea. Whether we could get from now to there is beside the point.
    Do you think this is as much an issue in SF circles as it was when Atwood first published Handmaid’s Tale? At least,dystopic fantasy that doesn’t really seem to concern itself with How We Got Here seems to be pretty popular sub-genre lately.

    • I think that he is hard to warm to because of his characterisation. He is so good at worlds / plot / big ideas, that I feel I need to have a human way in so that I can care about them.

      I am now worried you will read it and still hate it and then blame me! Anyway, his way with words I find deeply fulfilling, however, it doesn’t have the lyricism of some of the best stylists. For me it fits together like a really clever puzzle, each word in its place and could be in no other place.

      I still that that realism is an issue in SF. See the huge kerfuffle over worldbuilding started by this excellent essay by M john harrison :

      I don;t follow that much distopian stuff, because, honestly, after the Road what more is there to say? Also, I think there is something about us not being able to conceptualise what is coming next without smashing everything. Capitalism as is seems to be in its death throws, but there is no obvious alternative from here. There is an essay by some guy talking about this that I cannot remember who it is!

  2. Caravelle permalink

    Hah ! I read Embassytown a few months ago, and when I read your description of China Mieville as a floaking professor I was “floaking, floaking… I know that word but from where ? The Hitchhiker’s Guide ? It’s a book I read very recently and remember having ambiguous feelings about, but what ?”
    Then I got to your last paragraphs and I was *headdesk* :p
    It’s a very good sign really that the word entered my passive vocabulary so seamlessly that I remembered what it meant but couldn’t for the life of me remember where it came from.

    On the book, most of my ambiguous feelings come from the suspension of disbelief thing I’m afraid. I understand it’s not supposed to matter to the allegory, and I like the allegory A LOT, but somethings are just stumbling blocks for me I can’t help. I just don’t think Language can work on any level, evolution being the least of it. Unless there are Essences. And if it can work, that they’d be able to switch over to language so easily. It’s like earthworms learning to fly. Basically that Language superficially resembled language supposes a link between language and Essential Reality that… I’m confusing myself. It’s a bit like what bothered me with the Invention of Lying : all those people acted as if it was impossible for a human to say something untrue, ignoring the fact that people can *make mistakes*. You don’t need humans to be able to lie to be able to understand not everything a human says is true. Mieville did much better here because he actually *addressed* the point that the Arieki have a direct link to reality that we don’t, but he doesn’t do much with that concept beyond just bring it up. And… that’s not a trivial concept ! So that was a bit disappointing but I understand actually grappling with that would have been a different book, and possibly an impossible one. Maybe it’s because there was this huge elephant in the room that the reveal that intelligence and lying/metaphor and language are all inextricably linked didn’t impress me as much as the setup had led me to expect.
    But other than all that, and those are all things I can move past overall, I really enjoyed the concept and what Mieville did and told us with it.

    I also loved, loved, loved all the space stuff. See, while “intelligence and the ability to lie are the same” didn’t blow my mind to my satisfaction, “those beacons are actually lighthouses” DID. How, how I loved that passage. And all the flippant statements about past universes and… really, everything to do with that.
    Basically if Mieville ever wants to revisit that universe I’ll be there.

    • I can understand not being able to get past the Language not being plausible thing. For me, as stated, I just accepted it (as I accepted Immer being the stuff behind the universe), as the rewards of doing so were worth it for me.

      I missed the bit about the aliens having a link to reality. I need to reread the thing as I know I missed lots! I can see what you mean, as are they never mistaken? Are there no colour blind Ariekei that cannot say whether something is green or red?

      I did not see the link between lying and intelligence, but rather the understanding that in order to start thinking about greater, more subtle truths you cannot approach them straight with words. For example, the sun is birth, is death, is exploding gas, all at once and you still cannot capture the complexity of what the sun is. We lie to tell the truth. Until they Ariekei can lie they cannot understand the truth of the world. They are Innocent, but blind. I think that it is the link to the political that really made it work for me. God I am such a geek.

      The space stuff was great, (Monsters! in the Immer!) but for me it was missing the depth of the other bit. (But there are monsters! in the immer! that is so cool!!!!)

  3. I want to cry, i just typed a few hundred words reply to you guys and I lost it!
    Anyway, I am so pleased I have such lovely comments. Let me try to recreate what I wrote…

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Embassytown (Português) | Guia Sci-Fi
  2. Embassytown (English) | Guia Sci-Fi
  3. Embassytown (Español) | Guia Sci-Fi

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