Date started: January 19th
Date finished: January 26th
A quick disclaimer before I begin. China Mieville is my favourite author, and I’ve been in love with sci-fi since I saw Star Wars back in 1997. I’m not saying I’m biased, but I think it’s safe to say I was predisposed to loving this book.
Embassytown is about a city on the edge of space, where humans co-exist with the native Ariekei. The Ariekei speak Language, which is a language where there is no difference between the signifier and the signified. That is to say, they are incapable of lying because in order for the Ariekei to understand the concept of something, it must have actually happened. Our lead character and narrator is Avice Benner Cho, and she is a Simile and an Immerser. As a Simile, she had to act out something for a group of Ariekei so they could refer to her as a concept, and as an Immerser, she is someone who can travel in Immer, a kind of subspace that exists below normal space and allows fast travel to other planets.
I imagine at this point, if you’re a sci-fi fan, you’re already salivating and on your way out through the door to buy a copy, and if you’re not, you’re scratching your head wondering what the hell all this is about. Mieville’s genius is that he manages to take all these high concepts and wrap them in a story that is fairly simple, understandable, and exciting.
The first half of the story consists of chapters that alternate between periods known as Formerly and Latterday. The Formerly story is about Avice meeting her husband Scile (a linguist who she marries on a short term, non-sexual contract) and a group of the Ariekei teaching themselves to lie. The Latterday story is about the arrival of a new Ambassador. Ambassadors are cloned human twins, with the ability to speak Language, since it requires two mouths.
Honestly, these two plotlines seemed very disparate, and the first part of the book was hard going at times. I think this is a book best read in two or three long sittings, because I had a tendency to forget what had happened in the previous Formerly chapter after having put the book down for a few hours.
It is to Mieville’s credit that when the story shifts to all Latterday for the big action packed second half, all the plot threads from the first half found their place and made sense. Even more to his credit is that I was never in doubt they would. I’ve read all but one of his books, and when I read so much by a single author, a trust is formed. I don’t want to say an author becomes predictable, but I do get used to their styles and methods of pacing, and when I hand my money over, I trust that I will be entertained. And I was. As well as being a high concept story, it was also well paced and action packed.
There are admittedly some flaws. Avice’s robot friend, Ersuhl, disappears for a good chunk of the story, leading me to wonder what the point of her inclusion was. And it seems strange to me that for someone who deals in stories, Mieville almost entirely skipped the idea that the Ariekei would have no concept of fiction at all. Given how much our culture is based on stories being passed down through generations, it seems like an egregious thing to miss. But, luckily, none of these managed to overshadow the many strong points on show in Embassytown. Within a few years, I can see it being listed alongside works by people like Clarke, Dick, Asimov, and Gibson as one of the genre’s great stories.
Thank you for reading, and I will be back very shortly with something a little bit different from book five.