China Miéville: Embassytown

Even though it’s my favorite, I realize that Iron Council isn’t most folks’ favorite China Miéville book — that lots of folks kind of hate it. That’s cool. Mr. Miéville stuffs a lot into each of his books — as he understated to The Believer in 2005, “I’ll never be a minimalist.” There’s a lot to like: come for the monsters, stay for the Marxist socialism. Or, come for the world-building, stay for the in-jokes about science fiction fandom.

Or, in the case of his new novel, Embassytown, come for the reconceptualization of interdimensional space travel, stay for the semiotics.

Embassytown is one of Mr. Miéville’s most easily categorizable novels: The City & The City was a magical realist police procedural about international politics and the mythology of anthropology, the Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council) split the difference between classic fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk and political parable, and Embassytown is a book about humans establishing a colony on an alien world way out at the edge of the universe as we know it — Embassytown is unquestionably science fiction.

On one hand, it’s a novel about the insidious process of colonialism, ripe with vicious metaphor: the colonizers barely recognize the people they’re colonizing, the Ariekei, as sentient, despite the advanced (and let’s be real: totally effin sweet) biotechnology they’ve developed. The Ariekei speak a complicated, beautiful, unique, always capitalized Language, which is a source of fascination for linguists the universe over: it can’t lie. It’s spoken in two voices at once. And in order to utilize metaphor or simile, it requires for literal things to happen: early in her life, our narrator, Avice Benner Cho — a totally badass space-spiv — became a simile, The Girl Who Was Hurt In The Dark And Then Ate What Was Given To Her.

But on the other hand, while there is a revolution and everything falls apart and chaos ensues, and for a while Embassytown turns into a bit of a zombie novel, a lot of the novel is devoted to language, Language, and semiotic evolution. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to tell you that one of the major thrills of the novel is the way Miéville, and the Ariekei, and the Terres — the humans — make sense of the deep structure of the Ariekene Language. I mean, if your heart races when you think about the process of signification, this is your Miéville book.

All the world-building we expect from Miéville is here: there are Ariekei, New Ariekei, and the Absurd: there are humans in the titular colony city and there are two or three other races, whose names I don’t remember and can’t look up because I gave my copy to a friend as soon as I was done with it. There are doppelganger Ambassadors. There’s also a pretty rad conception of interstellar travel, where Immersers are folks who travel through the Immer, an under-reality that most folks have to go into suspended animation to get through. And the Ariekei are fascinating too: they have hooves, spidery legs, an alien life cycle that includes being shepherded around after their consciousnesses have died but before their bodies have, little symbiotic monster dog buddies who hang out with them and function as batteries, and lots of other cool, vivid and unlikely amazing biotechnology.

It’s deep enough that it feels like Miéville could do another trilogy in this setting, similar to his Bas-Lag books — a science fiction series that would undoubtedly end up fitting as uncomfortably in the science fiction box as his fantasy trilogy fits into the fantasy box. That’s a hallmark of his work, though: Miéville is always an exceptional world-builder.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that it’s not a flawless, perfect, uncomplicated book. I don’t think it’s giving much away to note that the ending is kind of morally ambivalent, which is to say that the colonized don’t rise up empowered, explode their shackles and give their colonizers the boot; per usual for Miéville, it’s more complicated than that. And there’s a weird incidence of the slur “shemale” at one point, which is particularly salient because later in the novel he uses the neologism “hermale,” which is way less loaded in the real, extratextual world. It’s to his credit though that a misstep like that is a rare outlier in terms of the social/anti-oppression/anti-ism/progressive consciousness of his work; for example, the use of the pronoun “they” in reference to the Ambassadors reads as maybe a tip of the nub to folks in queer communities who have been using it as a gender-neutral single-person pronoun for years. So Embassytown is not perfect but is what is: whatever. This is his semiotics book. Iron Council is his anti-oppression/oppressions-are-linked book.

The writing is closer to the terse knottiness of Iron Council than it is to the doofiness of his last book, Kraken. It’s a good thing though. Kraken was a fun romp through speculative fiction tropes; Embassytown feels like it’ll go down as one of his more important works. Plus, Iron Council was awesome. I don’t want to be ten years old or anything, but I think my impression of Embassytown is just below my impression of Iron Council. It’s my new second favorite! Probably because it’s not the unrelenting bummer that Iron Council was — but not everybody wants to read hundreds of pages of bummers the way that I do. Five signifiers on fire!

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