Ambassadors. Similes. Lying. Language. Doppels. Change. Addiction. Thatness. War. Metaphors. Revelation.
“Fresh” is the best way I can describe China Mieville’s recently released novel, Embassytown. This is a science fiction novel that explores language, thinking, and sociology. The opening—about the main character as a little girl—drew me in. Unlike Perdido Street Station, which felt dark and heavy to me, this novel feels more open with a light breeze coming through it. The plot dominates the novel, keeping it moving forward; there isn’t a lot of intricate character development and backstory like Perdido. Be aware that the book does have some chapters out of chronological order in the beginning.
Briefly—more or less—Avice grew up in Embassytown, a Bremen colony that is environmentally sustained by the indigenous people, who are referred to as Hosts. (Think party, not parasites.) The Hosts have a unique language. Part of the uniqueness is that speech contains two simultaneous sounds; the Hosts have two mouths for speaking. Only a few humans, Ambassadors, can speak the language. This requires that the Ambassadors be created as doppels, identical people, who speak at the same time. Another unique quality to the language is that the Hosts need to physically create a simile before they can begin to adopt it into their language. As a child Avice is asked by the Hosts to create the simile of the girl who in pain ate. (See above.) Unlike many of her peers, Avice leaves Embassytown and becomes an immerser, a type of space traveler.
Avice marries a man who is studying linguistics and wants to see Avice’s home. To please him, she agrees to return. Becomes she was responsible for a major simile, she has some celebrity status with the Hosts—while she can understand some of their speech, she can’t actually talk directly with them. Another idiosyncrasy of the Hosts is that they can’t really lie. Periodically a Festival of Lies is held where the Hosts try to lie. One that can actually succeed is a fan of Avice’s. After Avice’s return to Embassytown, Bremen sends an ambassador, EzRa, who is not a doppel but rather two, non-identical people. When he (they) speaks at a party, the Hosts react strangely. We learn that they have become addicted to the sound of EzRa’s voice. Initially, this creates a crisis because the addicted Hosts are no longer able to adequately perform the functions that help sustain the Embassytown environment. Later, this creates a bigger crisis when a large faction of Hosts mutilate themselves, so they can no longer hear and thus be susceptible to the addiction, and then go to war against the humans of Embassytown.
I am beginning to feel more like a learner than a reader when I read a China Mieville novel. I want to absorb everything I can. I know that for the next few days I will be thinking about language and revelation.