I am woefully under-read in China Mieville. According to somewhere, he has eight novels in print, of which I have only read this and Perdido Street Station. Mieville is a major voice in current SFF though, and one of a few that the broader world deigns to notice, so I’d better get on the wagon. At the same time, I’ve made a sudden and belated run through 2011’s highest profile SF lately, in part because Embassytown and The Quantum Thief were right next to each other on the Monthly Recommends shelf at the library. Yes please, I’ll take one of each. (I read a couple others as well, but they weren’t sitting there on a platter for me.) Since various unpleasant realities mean I’m not totally up on the newest books, I read a wee bit about Embassytown in preparation for this post. It was most discouraging; everyone was talking about semiotics, literary theory, trope usage and subversion, and all sorts of educated topics that I find rather intimidating. My pride won’t let me send people off to read The New York Times or London Book Review or whatever without sliding my own two cents in though, so off we go.
“Best” is a loaded and ambiguous word, so I am not going to call Embassytown the best book of 2011. I will say that it is the most challenging and engaging book of 2011 that I have read so far. Certainly is goes on the list of the multiple best books of the year; even though I have many left to read, I don’t imagine that anything will unseat Embassytown. It seems to have tossed a little gasoline on the dead horse that is the genre fiction vs. literary fiction debate as well, which is probably a good thing. I’ve spent enough time in academia to not really care what academia thinks, but some people are deeply concerned about this sort of thing. I suspect that Mieville’s book is a boon to them, as it balances an exegesis of language with a full speed ahead science fiction ethos. One does not always find the diagramming of sentences in the same chapter as faster than light space travel, but who is China Mieville to follow convention? Even more surprising perhaps is the critical reaction: people are talking about Embassytown throughout both the SF community and more buttoned-up literary circles, with a reaction that is almost universally positive.
All of this coverage has a small downside, as many of the critics toss around spoilers with what I consider to be reckless abandon. Part of the fun of the book is watching Mieville slowly illuminate each successive mystery, but several of the reviews freely give away surprises that come in more than halfway through the book. Fortunately, I hadn’t read any of them. The plot is much more entertaining if the reader doesn’t know why EzRa is so crucial, or what they (he?) really mean.
The story itself moves along two seemingly parallel tracks that eventually converge late in the book. The first follows the above mentioned EzRa, the second chronicles the Ariekei attempts at lying. The vagaries of Ariekei language render lying an impossibility for them, so festivals where they get together and try to say something untrue are like popular sporting events. Since any sort of untruth is impossible, they speak mostly in similes, but only similes that actually exist. There is a rock on the edge of Embassytown that was broken, then put back together, for the sole purpose of allowing the Ariekei to say, “this is like the rock that was broken, then put back together.” The language itself is an amazing creation – the Ariekei speak simultaneously through two mouths, and can only speak exactly what is on their minds. Communication with humans requires two humans, generally identical twins, speaking carefully prepared sentences in unison, with exactly matched intention and emotion. Needless to say, this is difficult. The Ambassadors try, however, and there is some semblance of interspecies cooperation.
Because this language and the effect it has on the Ariekei comprise the heart of the novel, we end up with that strangest of science fiction that cares deeply about both grammar and FTL methods. Good times. Embassytown is, at its basest level, a thought experiment built around a language almost impossible for us to imagine. If this were all it is, nobody would complain too much, as a lot of science fiction never rises above the level of experiment, just usually with physics or astronomy at the core. Mieville’s genius though, lies in his ability to elevate the story far above cookie cutter Hard SF and into the realm of pure literature. I’m not going to beat the drum in genre fiction’s grand crusade for legitimacy, but I will suggest that this is a book that serious lit types would appreciate. It has a great deal to say about the human condition and other such things that lit people love passionately, just not in some bland suburb in the recent past. Will John Q. Lit-Professor give it a shot? I have no idea, nor do I much care. It would be a shame if Embassytown is only appreciated by us crazy SF types, but it’s certainly not our loss. (It’s Mieville’s, yes, but he knew the rules when he joined the club.)
Rating: I have no idea how to relate this to football. Regardless, read Embassytown. Your life will be better for it.