Embassytown - China Miéville I liked Embassytown. It falls somewhere between The City & The City and Kraken in terms of enjoyment. I thought Miéville was uncharacteristically restrained in the former but allowed his imagination and writing freer rein in the latter (to its detriment in the opinion of some, though not mine). In Embassytown, Miéville is exploring a number of themes, most particularly language & consciousness but also identity and religion, and with his usual verve.

Embassytown is the human colony on Arieka, home to a species in whose language (and there’s only one: Language) the word is the referent, as Avice Benner Cho, the novel’s narrator, explains:

“Their language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen.

“‘If I had a program ‘ware with an Anglo-Ubiq word and play it, you understand it,’ Scile said. ‘If I do the same with a word in Language, and play it to an Ariekes,
I understand it, but to them it means nothing, because it’s only sound, and that’s not where the meaning lives. It needs a mind behind it.’

“Hosts’ minds were inextricable from their doubled tongue. They couldn’t learn other languages, couldn’t conceive of their existence, or that the noises we made to each other were words at all. A Host could understand nothing not spoken in Language, by a speaker, with intent, with a mind behind the words. That was why those early ACL pioneers were confused. When their machines spoke, the Hosts heard only empty barks.”
(p. 55)

Language's nature makes it impossible for the Ariekei to lie and they rely on simile to skirt around “what-if” conditions. Contact with humans and other alien races (“exots” in the book’s parlance) has forced them to expand their repertory, and has resulted in the appearance of Festivals of Lies, where Ariekei compete to get as close to possible to telling an untruth as they can, and humans who become living similes in Language.*

Communication with the Ariekei was impossible until a fortuitous accident broke the impasse and provided the clue needed to open a dialog. The aliens articulate in two voices** (the Cut and Turn) and only a pair of humans whose minds are empathically linked can speak intelligently to them. The situation has produced the Ambassadors, clones who are as close to being one mind in two bodies as human technology can achieve.

It’s also produced a situation that’s intolerable to the colony’s mother nation – Bremen on Dagostin – which has finally succeeded in creating an Ambassador of its own (EzRa), who are not clones. Bremen’s motives in sending EzRa are entirely human-centered; it wants to reassert total control over the colonists and use Arieka as a jumping off point for further exploration. Unfortunately, EzRa’s voice turns out to be an addictive sound for the Ariekei. So addictive that it threatens to destroy their entire civilization and the colony.

I’m not going to detail how Avice resolves the situation except to say that it profoundly, fundamentally changes the Ariekei and leaves me profoundly, fundamentally troubled on a moral level.

But that’s the best thing about this novel and why it’s getting four stars. I’m not sure the price the Ariekei pay to survive is worth it, and the solution is forced upon them, not something they choose for themselves, but it makes you think and is a far more satisfying ending than found in many novels, SF and otherwise.

* This is Avice’s first distinction: As a child she was selected to become the simile There was a human girl who in pain ate what she was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time, subsequently shortened to the girl who ate what was given her. Her second distinction is that she is one of the few who can endure conscious immersion in the substratum of the universe through which FTL ships travel.

** Those who were 10 years old in the ‘70s may recall the two-mouthed singer from the original Battlestar Galactica; and Star Wars geeks will remember the Ithorian from the Cantina scene (in fact, Miéville pays homage to the latter by mentioning a race called Ithorians in the book).