Wednesday, August 10, 2011

REVIEW: Embassytown, by China Miéville

Embassytown, by China Miéville. Published 2011 by Random House. Science fiction.

"I can make things bad for you," Ez kept shouting. "There are things I could say."

Embassytown, the latest novel from acclaimed British writer China Miéville, takes as its theme language and the power it can have over us all. Like many of Miéville's books, this one starts with a city, the city of the title. Embassytown exists in the far future, on a distant planet humans have settled. It's kind of a border town between human civilization and that of the Ariekei, an enigmatic race to whom the planet belongs. The Ariekei, or the Hosts,  speak a language so difficult that only specially-trained Ambassadors can communicate with them, so the Ariekei remain an enigma to all but this very select group of people. Avice Benner Cho, the protagonist and narrator, is not one of these people, but she's something even more important. Avice is a simile.

When Avice was a child, she was recruited to perform a task for the extremely literal-minded Ariekei so that they could enrich their language (so iconic it's simply referred to as Language) with figurative speech. Since then, she's traveled through the immer, or deep space, had a career, been married, and generally had a life. There are others like her as well, other similes, and the first breakdown of Language has a profound effect on them. Other key players include an ex-Ambassador named Bren, Avice's husband Scile, and a new Ambassador who is unlike the others, and whose use of Language wrecks a havoc that changes Ariekei society forever.

Embassytown is the kind of book that unrolls slowly, and you'll want Miéville's own extremely skillful use of language to wash over you. Unlike The City and The City, a tight, plot-centric blend of genres, Embassytown is more straight-up science fiction and less about plot and more about the language itself. In other words, it's not a fast read, or a particularly gripping page-turner. I found it to be long and dense, but I kept going because Miéville sets up such a remarkably complex and detailed world and made me care about the Ariekei and their extremely unusual problem. The novel is as rich with ideas as it is neologisms, and even when I couldn't tackle more than a few pages at a time, I never seriously considered putting Embassytown down for good. Miéville is a major talent whom literary readers would do well to get to know. As Miéville wrote in my copy of the book, "Hope you enjoy this linguistic apocalypse!"

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.