I will admit I haven’t had much experience with science fiction in the literary sense. I’ve been an avid viewer of various Sci-Fi television series and films in the past (note to self: finish watching Battlestar Galactica before the semester starts back up), but my experiences in an honors college seminar based on science fiction and fantasy literature this spring gave me the drive to begin delving into this genre of fiction.
I was introduced to China Miéville and his work through this class, though we only read his short story “Details”, which I highly recommend reading if you’re into “weird” fiction. The PDF is available for free online with a simple Google search, but I digress. This is about my first experience with a full length novel of one of the proprietors of The New Weird. I’m glad to say that I will be going back for more , like a deprived addict.This is the science fiction novel linguistics lovers might be driven to ecstasy with. Though I’m no linguistics major, so I may need to do some empirical — and hopefully ethical — testing on some of my college friends.
Far off into the future, where mankind has had, in what the book terms their diaspora, there’s this small colony on the edge of known space known as Embassytown. The most interesting aspect of this colony are the host species, known as the Ariekei. Their manner of Language is entirely unique to the novel’s universe. They can only speak what is true, what exists or has existed, what has happened. Rather than their language symbolizing anything, their Language IS what they’re speaking. Lying, therefore, is an impossibility, unheard of until the arrival of humanity. Even further complicating the matter, they speak in two voices and while humans can learn to understand them, only those specially trained and altered can speak to the Ariekei themselves. The concept is a bit complicated for me to explain — there isn’t anything like it in our world.
To help advance their Language and be able to express certain concepts more properly, the Ariekei make an effort to create similes. And this is what our main character, Avice Benner Cho (ABCs, anyone?) is. A living simile. The girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. She is an immerser, has traveled into the “Out” and has returned with her new linguist husband, Scile. But as a new Ambassador arrives, a catastrophic event occurs that changes the dynamics between the Ariekei and the humans forever.
I think that about summarizes the main points of the plot without giving too much away. It’s a complex novel, with Language being a central point to everything. If you’re not familiar enough with the intricacies and jargon that comes with linguistics, you might have a bad time. Though the Kindle dictionary function helped with that immensely, my intellectual pride dropped a considerable amount from how many times I actually had to use it.
But Language is not the only theme. You get a bit of politics, war, interpersonal conflict… It’s certainly not a one dimensional book. And if you’re like me, it will take some time to digest. But I found that I learned a lot, especially about the nature of language, lies, and the psychology of people under crisis situations. And the world building involved with this novel is absolutely stunning. Learning about the concepts of the immer, which the best way I can describe it as is a sort of “ocean” in space, was probably my favorite part of this future world.
My utter enjoyment of all of these topics mentioned ended in me rating the book as five stars. However…. There were a couple of points that rather frustrated me.
I HATED Avice. Absolutely loathed her. She takes pride in “floaking”, which is described as “the life-technique of aggregated skill, luck, laziness and chutzpah”. She is, at least to me, arrogant and seems to take advantage of her novelty of actually leaving the planet itself and being an “immerser”. At one point in the novel, she seems to have a superiority complex regarding the other similes, not wanting to initially have any sort of contact with them. This sort of attitude continuously grated on my nerves like that one annoying rich kid who gets by doing as little as possible and still ends up immensely successful. Yet she still is intelligent enough to actually be of some use if she, you know, ACTUALLY APPLIES HERSELF. She still does rate lower on my list of “Most Hated Central Character” than Raskolnikov. Oh god, that man made it impossible for me to finish Crime and Punishment because how much I absolutely fucking hated him. Literary PTSD……
The other characters didn’t get as much fleshing out as I would have liked to see in them. In fact, one of the characters, her automaton friend than I can’t seem to recall the name of, was practically useless to the story line, other than showing the dynamics between human and machine. But then again, this tale is less about the characters and more about the overall world and language. Therefore, to me that is something I can overlook.
The last thing is, regardless of the descriptions Miéville gives on the host aliens, I had a really hard time visualizing them. Maybe it’s a deficiency in my imagination, I have no clue. They were utterly unlike any alien species I’ve ever encountered in television, movies, and the little bit of science fiction I have read. I even took it upon myself to look up artist renditions after I finished the novel. They’re absolutely fascinating creatures, I just wished I could have more fully recreated them in my mind at the time of reading. Here’s the recreation I found online, though I cannot find the actual source of the image, so I apologize.
Overall, I recommend this book if you’re looking into getting into a deep read with a complex, alien world and concepts that will take you quite a few pages to work out completely. It’s an arduous journey, but to me, it was worth it in the end. I am better for it. And I can assure you I’ll be reading more Miéville in the future. I have a physical copy of Perdido Street Station laying on my desk, actually… Tempting.
Note: It was also, interestingly enough, my first full read on my new Kindle, which I enjoyed more than I thought I ever would, coming from one of those physical book only mindsets. Though now I really want a physical copy for my bookshelf, but there’s that problem of “I’m a broke college student and need to buy textbooks and pay my apartment’s rent” issue. First world problems at their finest.