(Author’s Note: BEWARE: here there be spoilers!)
“We tell the truth best by becoming lies.” – Avice Benner Cho
To start this review, I need to make a brief confession: I have had Embassytown in my possession for a few months, and finished reading it weeks ago. But when I sat down to write my initial review, I was stumped about how to proceed. I was conflicted as well, torn between what is ingenious and weird about the book and what is rote and, at times, disappointing. In a sense, I had a difficulty that comes up often in the novel, one of language, of passing comprehension on to others with a mode of communication that constrains it as much as it expresses it. While quite accessible in its prose, the ideas that it expresses are recondite and fundamental, and stimulated a lot of thought during and after its reading. After two lengthy false starts, I now feel that I finally have something worthwhile to say about the book, but I must apologize to my hosts for the tardiness of this review.
China Miéville’s Embassytown is not an easy book to read, but you can come away from it feeling entertained and perhaps enlightened. It is well-written, full of fabulous details and visceral strangeness offset with conceptual complications. On the surface, it is the latest in a long, often grand series of science fiction experiments in conceptualizing aliens which Miéville works hard to make his own. It is on one level an adventure of interstellar colonization and extraterrestrial contact; on another, it is a commentary on culture and society and how we deal with Otherness. It is also, on yet another level, about nothing less than the nature of being human and trying to communicate that to ourselves and others, to strip away articulated truths to get to the understanding that lies underneath the encoding and reception of words. It has both original flourishes and traditional SFnal components, and is enlivened by Big Ideas and a powerful dose of the weirdness that Miéville conjures so well in his fiction. It is ambitious, flawed, engaging, and troubling all at the same time.
This ambivalent response comes first from the structure and basic genre coding in the novel. This is a future that, for all of its weird flanges, is pretty familiar to a reader of SF. Altered vocabulary, rote sexual freedom, humans produced for specific tasks due to new methods of making children and raising them, a disjointed parochialism in galactic politics, a magical anti-Newtonian form of space travel; the book starts with most of the basic components of space opera intact. The plot itself is also formulaic: on a faraway planet humans have established a small colony called Embassytown, in a hostile environment where they co-exist with the indigenous population, called by them the Ariekei. In order to communicate and trade with these beings, the humans have created Ambassadors, pairs of cybernetically-conjoined twins who can basically speak and understand the alien’s complexly-formatted yet epistemologically concrete language. The monstrous and difficult-to-describe aliens give the humans biotechnology, both to survive on the planet and as fodder for creating hybrid advancements in human technology. One of the things that the humans give in return is new linguistic apparatus, and it is an incident of this exchange that is the focus and engine of the story.
Avice Benner Cho is an Embassytowner of odd distinction: she is a floaker (someone without a specific job, who lives by luck and wits), an immerser (a space traveler), and most importantly, a living simile for the Ariekei’s language. The novel is her life story, a first-person account of living in Embassytown, living in the out, and living through a moment of profound transformation for the colony and its alien Hosts. That extended moment is a long journey of misunderstandings, ontological madness, and linguistic prestidigitation that culminates in a life-altering change for the Ariekei. The narrator’s perspective is a highly privileged one, without which this story would make little sense, and that necessity, and how it shapes the novel’s progress, is part of what makes the story both effective and unsatisfying.
That perspective’s limits are, I felt as I read, intentional on Miéville’s part. To tell this story from another angle would remove the closeness to the main conflict that is needed to keep the reader invested and to deliver the ideas that Miéville puts forth. They are the limits that suffuse his novel, of beings not understanding each other, of clashing opinions, of contested meanings, of the impenetrability of knowing others, of the problem of language’s influence on how we see the world. This is a story of how we create verities and confabulate actuality, contrasted with an alien way of communicating and knowing that more starkly demonstrates the limits of language. Cho’s often tentative, qualified voice and use of language is contrasted with the alien’s initially constrained language. The Ariekei cannot lie, to the point where their language only utilizes referents that are uncontested and unchanging (at least ideally). Combined with a difficult method of speaking that is bifurcated, they are a carefully constructed counter (not a mere opposite or mirror-image) to what makes humans human, from body form to technology to the nature of their expressions.
In some ways the Ariekei are the most distinctive aliens in SF literature that we’ve seen in a long time. They are different to the point where they cannot even be adequately described in human language. References are made to specific parts of their bodies and to movements and sounds but the narrator is unable to deliver a wholeness about them to the reader. They cannot be easily grasped bodily or intellectually. This was very effective in enhancing their difference from humans (and the other aliens that pop up on occasion, in the background), and I cannot think of a novel since Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest or C. J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun trilogy that communicates the otherness of “exoterres” so well. What is even more effective is how Miéville combines this in the narrative with the inability to understand other beings as well, including lovers, close friends, spouses, and AIs. Avice is a very carefully constructed narrator whose tale exemplifies the central paradox of being human: the inability to really understand what others think and want while functioning as part of a collective articulated through that paradox.
This may be why the book also contains some disappointments, as the narrative is unable to cut through that paradox. It is probably too much to expect it to do so, but there are many moments where it starts to, where it opens up the problem of understanding and plays with it. “We thought of Ariekei in terms of stuff from an antique world – we looked at our Hosts and saw insect-horse-coral-fan things. Those were chimera of our own baggage.” Lines such as these illuminate the core predicament of language: our inability to describe the unknown as it is. All descriptions and apprehensions are bound to the language we use, to that common vocabulary that we try so hard to make our own, to fill with what we see and feel and figure out, and that often fails us because of its publicness, its shared qualities that filter out what is so unique in our own minds. The constraints of language are difficult to escape, and that is part of the point of Embassytown. But the solution that Miéville proposes, while fascinating and profound in theory, falters in its execution. And yet, this also makes it valuable to ponder, to take apart and meditate upon; Mieville takes some risks that do not always achieve their goals, but do advance a conversation on the question of meaning.
The key insight that I took away from Embassytown is encapsulated in the title of this review: that once we exhaust the truth-claims of language, see it for the arbitrary system that it is, reveal the “tyrannical hold that linguistic form has upon our orientation in the world” (to quote Edward Sapir), we can begin to understand our reality better. In uncovering not just the particularities of perspective that a language creates, the expressions it shapes and constrains, but the very fact that language is a shared, accepted lie we tell each other in order to exchange knowledge, we take a step towards expanding our ability to understand that world around us. There is something exciting in figuring that out, while simultaneously realizing that what inhibits us in language can be altered, at least to an extent. That understanding is the beginning of better communication, of getting to something more truthful and efficacious. The struggle of the Ariekei to comprehend the hold their language has on them, to the point of conceptual addiction, self-mutilation, and civil war, powerfully illustrates the concern of being intellectually enslaved to the untruths of language, to what it can conceal in us and how we process what we sense through its lens.
What watered down the power of this insight was how it occurs towards the end of Embassytown. As in many other SF novels, the aliens cannot convert their experience into change without a human hectoring them. After a novel full of strangeness that touches the feeling of alienness, they are essentially made more like humans by the humans. After many chapters in which the aliens, while suffering a number of genre stereotypes of alienness, are distinctive agents trying out their own unfathomable solutions to a problem that is existentially buffeting them, a human has to lecture them into being less distinctive, making them easier to understand not through an act of empathy but through an act of making them more like us. The aliens only come to realize the falseness their language has instilled in them when a human points it out, and are profoundly changed by this, while the humans, oddly, are not.
I find it sad that the humans adapt, but don’t change. The humans spend the whole novel being human while the aliens go through the story being alien and then with a jolt become rather human. They maintain some distinctiveness, but their alienness is significantly altered, while the humans just do things a little differently. I wonder if this is part of Miéville’s deeper point, that we can see problems in others but not ourselves, but the implication is that human nature, human understanding of being human itself, is unalterable, which disheartens me a bit. It says that the abstruse challenges of exploring the universe will not touch us deeply enough to suffer the shift in essential understanding that we will be able to basically grant to others.
The humans of Embassytown are resilient in a way that forecloses true change; the aliens can be shocked into transformation, but the humans cannot be. Is Miéville saying that humans cannot escape language, that it is a Whorfian prison of worldview? This thoughts is intensified by the washed-out human culture that Miéville presents, made of odd words and a few religious invocations, broad practices and a saturated permissibility. In fact, while the aliens suffer from the traditional limits of being monocultural and monolinguistic, so do the humans presented, which seems to lock both into a deterministic mode. I wonder if there isn’t some intentionality to the fact that Avice and her fellow Embassytowners cannot shake up their own way of thinking in a deep sense, that while language is fungible, human nature is not? It implies a hardwiring in human nature that seems at odds with the deeper theme that suffuses Embassytown of the ability for truth’s shattering to produce a break that allows for genuinely new understanding and reflection. This point is ambivalent in its execution, but perhaps that is all that a novel in human language can express.
In the end the Embassytowners don’t just come to understand the aliens, but convert them, make them more like us as the condition for a costly liberation from a way of thinking that was a misrecognition of the terms of existence. True, liberation that honestly and powerfully transforms life is costly, but after going through the painful, lunatic changes that prepare them for this liberation, it all comes down to a plucky human pushing their buttons to make it work. There is an underlying theme of agency and revolution that, again, may be part of Miéville’s point, but that I found . . . not untenable, but unsatisfying. Not untrue necessarily, but after reading a story of aliens who felt alien, in their unknowability, in their lack of translatability, to have them reduced to para-humans undermined some of the power of the novel’s message.
This is an effect of the nature of “the alien” as a literary device. The only aliens we know are the ones we make up, for a host of purposes. The encounter at the heart of Embassytown is one that we can only conjecture, and that is a product of human language. We have yet to encounter the alien that will guide us into a revealing lying of our own. Lying in this novel is not just the telling of an untruth, it is the basic nature of communication. Every utterance, in some way, is a lie, and change comes when we embrace that insight and unmoor ourselves from the limitations it reflects.