Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

We're taking a break from your regularly scheduled YA blogging to offer you something a little different.

Okay... it's very different.

If you've been keeping an ear out in the reading blogosphere, you might have heard the name China Mieville. You know - he's the guy who owns all and none of the genres. The writer who is self-classified as one of "weird fiction" and who keeps churning out amazing, shocking, thought-provoking books. The one whose grocery lists are amazing and who kicks right-wing Britain's ass on a daily basis.

Alright, some of those things aren't totally true. But, let me tell you - if you want more "adult" fiction, China Mieville is the way to go.

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.
What's that?

That's the sound of my brain cells panting after being brought to the height of physical exhaustion.

Seriously, if long books like
The Count of Monte Cristo are like a good stretch and high-concept sci-fi like The Left Hand of Darkness is like a lovely exercise, reading Embassytown is a little like running a bloody triathlon. And for someone like me, who has had a very... unbalanced reading diet, the experience has been.... interesting.

First of all, I have to give props to whomever composed the summary, because it was not an easy job. Set in a world on the very edge of the explored immer (kind of like space, but a lot deadlier), Embassytown is a human outpost in a strange world. The alien Hosts, the Ariekei, are creatures with two mouths, whose Language is so complex that they cannot lie. Humans communicate with them through the Ambassadors - lab-grown twins taught to think alike so that they can speak the Language. But then one day a new Ambassador arrives from the outside, two people who are not only not doppels, but also have a strange effect on the Hosts, and effect which triggers "the end of the world".

Our heroine, Avice, has a special connection to the aliens because, when she was young, she was turned into a simile. Because, you see, the Hosts cannot say something which is not true, and for the more complex interactions with humans, they need something to compare it to, and in order to create a simile, one must first be acted out. Avice doesn't make much of it, and goes on to become an immerser (a kind of an astronaut, I think), which takes her away for a while. When she comes back to Arieka, she and her husband find themselves thrust into a complex power-play that honestly... kind of blows your mind.

The thing about Embassytown is that you don't get that "oomph" moment until about 100 pages in (200, if you're like me). I honestly didn't see where Mieville was going until the halfway point - he takes us through Avice's past, explains the finer points of Language, then alternates between the actual plot and giving us a full account of a minor incident which was the precurser to the big inciting one... and it is all absolutely necessary. It doesn't seem like that, but when you get to the end, you understand - there was just no way for the actual plot to function without that initial foundation. The world of Arieka is simply unlike any other I've read about.

Because you see, Hosts don't speak the Language - the Language speaks them. It is so complex it makes it literally impossible for them to have an independant thought, which is why the words of the new Ambassador literally give them a high. Very fast, stakes are raised sky-high and the life of the whole planet is put at stake, just because the new Ambassador (the two of them, actually) are unlike any other.

If that confuses you, rest assured, that's the point. Throughout the book, Mieville stresses on the fact that humans aren't the only intelligent species in the universe, so why should they be used as any standard. Early on, one of Avice's commanders chastises her for giving her age in years, which is perfectly reasonable - use kilohours instead. Avice herself mentions casually that she was married four times, once to a woman. Homosex (as she refers to it) is frowned upon in Embassytown, yet no-one bats an eye when both Ambassador doppels take a lover.

It's all so wonderfully, wonderfully different.

Now, if my summary above made any sense to you, you mught be saying: Hey now, isn't this just like Avatar? Humans coming to a new world and fucking it up? You would be right, to an extent. Unlike those narratives, however, Mieville doesn't sanctify the Ariekei - they're not portrayed as these pure, innocent creatures that were ruined by the evil humans. Nor are the aliens wild savages that need to be civilized at any cost. The revolution (and evolution) is not easy, and both sides are very reluctant to engage in it. The change is ugly and painful and Mieville doesn't shy from painting us a picture of blood and guts and dying worlds. It's horrible, and at the same time necessary.

The best thing about it, though, is that the characters are all great, and experience growth. Avice starts off as a "floaker" - someone who goes with the flow, who doesn't take initiative, and doesn't care for much. She doesn't show much affection for her shiftparents, doesn't mention any friends, and only mentions her previous spouses in order to say that marriage was not perhaps her skill.

In other words, she starts off as an embodiment of the cliche that a strong female character is, in fact, a woman that acts like a man.

But throughout the book, she starts to grow. She doesn't leave her birth place, even when it becomes clear that things are about to get very bad. She discovers she cares for her friends, Host, human, and even the automaton Ehrsul. She has a lot of feelings for her lovers, and she retains a great deal of affection for her husband Scile, even when their relationship sours beyond reconciliation.

And, best of all, she still stays a kick-ass character. She has swagger. She fights. She stands up for what she believes in. Her emotional vulnerability doesn't make her any less competent, and she admires the selfless actions of others, instead of dismissing them as foolish.

I initially thought about giving this four stars, for the slow start and a few minor hiccups along the way, but I really can't do that. Fantastic book, highly recommended.
Note: Summary and image courtesy of Goodreads.

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