Thursday, June 9, 2011

China Mieville's 'Embassytown' chronicles war of the words

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2011 at 2:38 PM

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We've all heard of figures of speech like "as rich as Croesus," "robbing Peter to pay Paul" or "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Imagine if you could meet the actual Croesus, Peter or Jack, and that conveys the minor celebrity held by Avice Benner Cho, the human narrator of China Mieville's brilliant science fiction novel Embassytown.

A deep space navigator, Avice grew up in Embassytown, a human colony on the alien world of the Ariekei. With two sets of mouths, the decidedly inhuman Ariekei communicate with a verbal Language that can only conceive of things that are literally true. At one point, Mieville describes the Ariekei "Festival of Lies," where humans lie for the aliens' astonished entertainment and brave Ariekei dare the extreme sport of trying to put untruths into words. The aliens hold Avice in high esteem because, in her girlhood, she became a simile in Language. Occasionally an Ariekei will meet Avice and exclaim, "I've spoken you!" The human Ambassadors have embraced an unnerving means to speak the Ariekei Language, and the latest Ambassador sets off a crisis that threatens the survival of both the human outpost and the aliens themselves.

Mieville, a native Londoner, writes fascinating, head-spinning, genre-busting novels, and Embassytown equals his best work, particularly the inventive Young Adult novel Un Lun Dun and the sprawling urban horror epic Perdido Street Station. Embassytown is technically his first science fiction novel, but he avoids high tech for lyrical surrealism. The Ariekei don't build anything, but organically grow what they need, so everything from tools to vehicles to buildings are literally alive, so the descriptive prose, full of breathing walls and ambulatory, pet-like batteries, gives Embassytown a Dali-esque experience, particularly when the various cities undergo turbulent forms of unrest.

It's not easy to get your head around the first chapters, in which Avice describes her girlhood and experiences in a kind of sub-space means of transportation called the immer. Once Mieville begins teasing out the human-Ariekei conflicts, however, Embassytown becomes both a gripping, otherworldly political thriller and an ingenious study in semantics, exploring a seemingly limitless array of ideas of how language defines communication and even one's perception of reality.

Most science fiction that involves human colonization of alien worlds (or vice versa) harks back to the European conquest of the Americas and presents a didactic view of native victims and callous invaders. Mieville takes a more nuanced, optimistic approach with Embassytown, in which two strikingly different species can reach deeper levels of wisdom if they can make a communications break though. All it takes is a common tongue.

Embassytown. China Mieville, Del Rey/Ballantine Books. $26. 345 pp.

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