Book #26: Embassytown (2011)

1003348-coverby: China Miéville
language: English and snippets of an invented language
length: 405 pages
finished reading on: 5 February

I basically devoured this book after finishing the last one, in only about a week and a half. Compared with Perdido Street Station, it was much shorter and for me, much more interesting, because it deals directly with linguistics. It can basically be summed up as a thought experiment about what would happen if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was true. Sort of.

It’s a sci-fi novel set in the far future, and humans discover a very strange species of alien whose language baffles everyone. It throws together a bunch of what ifs, because the language is implied to be fundamentally different from human language – the aliens have two mouths, for instance, so their language (referred to as “Language” by the characters) has two concurrent streams of sound. They can’t tell lies, and for them this Language is not a symbol, like it is for humans, and thus their language and their thought are completely intertwined. Perhaps the weirdest bit of all, though, is that through some unspoken mechanism, they only understand and respond to real speech, never to synthesized speech. And furthermore, the intent behind the speech has to be the same, as if they can detect brainwaves or something. So to communicate with them, humans have to make these kind of identical twins or clones who are implied to be effectively the same person, who synthesize their brains regularly and can speak in unison with the aliens. They’re called ambassadors in the story, and are frequently referred to first as singular, then as plural, which was confusing at first. Their names are written in Camelcaps, like CalVin or MagDa – each half of the full name is the name of one half of the ambassador, and in the Language they’d be spoken together. Excerpts of the Language are shown like fractions, one half over the other. The author then plays around with these constraints.

The humans all live in an enclosed city called Embassytown, in the middle of the alien city on their home planet. The main character is from the city but leaves during early adulthood to explore the rest of the universe and become a space captain. It’s mentioned early on that over time she marries and divorces three men and one woman, which made me happy because it’s very rare that LGBT issues are even mentioned in sci fi novels at all. Later she mentions that homosexuality is frowned upon in her small town, which I also found realistic. Anyway she comes back with her last husband, a linguist obsessed by the alien Language, to reconnect with her hometown and let him study the language. He quickly becomes even more obsessed and starts a cult, perhaps a natural extension of someone discovering a language that appears to hold truth and not be symbolic.

The main story unfolds when the colonial power in charge of the embassy sends out a “new ambassador”, who turn out two be two unrelated men using some kind of implant to communicate. But their connection is not perfect, and the imperfection is like a drug for the aliens, and this causes a lot of trouble in the city. I don’t really want to give too much away, that’s already a spoiler in itself really.

The backstory is just as interesting, and something that I wish Miéville had expanded on more. Space in this universe turns out to be traversible by hyperspace, which is called immersion. Hyperspace turns out to be just like sailing an ocean, with currents, obstacles, monsters and seasickness, which is so strong that the only people that can traverse it consciously are the immersers, essentially space captains like the main character. I liked the German words that Miéville threw in at this point, as immersion is also a pun on the German word immer (always), and this word is used for the hyperspace world, while the normal world is called manchmal (sometimes), and the monsters are called hai (sharks). The colonial power is implied to be German, as the main planet is called Bremen, although the lingua franca of the universe is called Anglo-Ubiq, which I assume is derived from English (but Ubiq did throw me off, as if Ubykh was involved somehow). Time in his world becomes important, as the main character uses her planet’s years to describe herself, but ends up saying she got married when she was seven years old. Then she corrects herself to using something more universal, which turns out to be kilohours, because people come from a variety of different planets and saying “years” will always be ambiguous. At this point I had to get a calculator out – apparently 10 kilohours is in the same ballpark as 1 year, so saying you’re 300 kilohours means you’re about thirty.

I really liked the way, and incidentally, this applies to Perdido Street Station as well, that Miéville just plunges straight into descriptions of all this stuff without really explaining it, letting us work it out for ourselves. This does have a downside, because I still don’t have a clear idea in my head of exactly what the aliens are supposed to look like (I think insectile, and that’s really it). Their anatomy is described a few times, but hazily. I think this is great, because too much sci fi relies on the “info dump”, and this story manages to keep a faster pace by not using it.

The structure of the book was one of its weaker points, I thought. It took me actually quite a long time to figure out that some chapters were taking place in a different period to others (I think they were labelled something like “before” and “after”, but not so directly; the language was more cryptic than that…). I actually only realised this when the main character declared (as the story is written in first person) that she’d finished telling the backstory and that she’d now continue with purely the later story of the ambassadors. This should perhaps have been more obvious, because events in one story didn’t correlate with events in the other, but I think it should have been even more clearly signposted than it was. Actually, I can’t really fault Miéville on this stylistic choice, to be honest, because it allows dramatic tension to build up in both stories simultaneously and provides short cliffhangers between chapters, and has the climaxes of both stories occuring close together near the end, rather than having one climax followed by the start of a new story with its own build-up and climax. It was just a bit annoying for me. My go-to example for why the opposite doesn’t work is The Lord of the Rings – in the books, the Aragorn and Frodo sections are separate halves of the book, and the Frodo sections are more boring, so the second half of The Two Towers was a real drag. In the films, the sections are interwoven like they are in this book.

I really liked the book overall. Stylistic choices aside, it was gripping from the start, and very strongly appeals to my interests. As I say, it would even work well if it was an essay on what would happen if the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was right. I only wish it had been fleshed out even more than it already was. China Miéville really knows how to tell a story! Onto the next one!


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