Tuesday, September 13, 2011

China Miéville - Embassytown

Embassytown (2011) is a novel about language and Language. In the midst of an alien city, surrounded by alien air, the citizens of Embassytown must communicate with the bizarre Areikei. The surface and biological strangeness of the Areikei, however, is nothing compared to their strangeness of thought. The Areikei, see, do not have symbolic language. To them, what they say is, and what is not cannot be said. In order to even gain such rhetorical tools as similes, the comparisons must be acted out so that they might be used. This is how our narrator, Avice, is introduced to them: she is quite literally made into a simile, transformed into a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time. (p. 26) Into this purity of language and Language and thought comes humanity, and we bring with us the concept of lying – and, with it, the collapse of the Areikei world.

The core of Embassytown's success is that the Language of the Areikei is not a glittering substitute for morality or some other more familiar concept. Language here defines thought and is not only the foundational difference that lends the Areikei their tremendous otherness but also the core of every aspect of Miéville's world building. Furthermore, such themes appears again and again in the novel, reinforced through different moments of epiphany, where consciousness is shifted not through gradual learning but through changes in thought and societal norms. Such layers even enter into the reality and construction of the overall universe. Here, the "real" is a manifestation of the immer, which spaceships slip into in order to travel across vast distances. The way the two relate is, of course, in the manner of thought and speech: "The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on." (p. 31)

In addition to language, the novel focuses on manners of ruling and, especially, on colonialism. The change in Areikei thought, after all, was brought on from afar. The people of Embassytown, too, are ruled from outside, a situation that could perhaps be compared to American colonists wreaking havoc among the native populations while also squabbling with their far off backers. Much of the novel's politics play through off stage, as befits a book with an outsider main character, but the intrigue manages nonetheless to be believable and interesting once revealed. Through all this, Miéville marks the colony's change with deft shifts in language. At first, Embassytown is an aristocracy, but later it evolves into a nercocracy of language (p. 247) and, later still, even an explorocracy (p. 345). Those in power are, of course, revealed to be far less benevolent than they appear, and the cracks hinted at in the narrator's childhood are thrown wide before the story's close. After one such blackening of the colony's leadership, Avice is forced to reevaluate all those she's known for her whole life: I stared at MagDa. I liked them, I admired them. They'd known about this. (p. 216)

Miéville's approach to responsibility is not as black and white as that quote may imply, however. As lying destroys the Areikei civilization, and the very minds of its inhabitants, a group dedicates themselves to the preservation of the next generation by keeping them safe from ever hearing such a pervasive thing. Their means, of course, are the death of all the humans on the planet. Though it's hard to sully their aims or dedication, the people of Embassytown cannot accept the Areikei coming to kill us for sins we'd committed, if at all, without intent. (p. 278) The final part of that is the most important one. In the final portion of the novel, the end often does come to justify the means, at least when the problem presented is one so colossal. Many of the actions of Avice and her companions could be seen as questionable, including their willingness to let earlier injustices continue while they focus on larger and more immediate problems. When it comes to the ultimate issues of responsibility and to where the blame for the catastrophe's of the tale fall, Miéville's content to let the reader draw their own conclusions. The central questions of the novel – the morality of language, lies, and authority – are presented from different sides (language is the continuation of coercion by other means squaring off against [language is] cooperation), and the only hint Miéville gives about the validity of either side is that they weren't as contradictory as they sounded. (p. 316)

Embassytown is often a punishingly hard read, especially in its opening. The scenes and information shown there are all vital later, but their order often feels almost intentionally difficult to parse. As Avice says of her memory, she recalls episodes very well, but episodes, not a timeline. The most relevant times, the definitional ones. The rest of it's disorganized in my head, and mostly I don't mind. (p. 23) As such, the novel is, until catastrophe lends it order, a menagerie of events arrayed by impact and the vaguest of chronologies. True to its first person narration, Avice rarely explains that which a resident of the town would not need to know. Concepts are taken for granted and definitions often given in initially meaningless in world jargon. This method, though confusing at first, leads to massive payoffs before long. Complex concepts like Ambassadors are not revealed through lifeless exposition but rather through actions and the reader's increasing immersion into Embassytown's society. When the rules we've observed are later violated, our immediate reaction is not to spot an inconsistency in parameters we've been handed but rather the kind of shock that comes from having trusted rules that feel lived through break down. Though challenging, the novel's packed with revelations and rich with implications.

After the work-heavy beginning sections, Miéville refrains from introducing many more elements but rather concentrates on those already established. As such, though the novel's pace is always slow, the second and third acts are far easier reads. There's never a surfeit of external action, but Miéville's ideas are fascinating enough to draw the reader in. Like the author's previous works, Embassytown is loaded with so many good throw away ideas that its leftovers could populate another dozen inventive Science Fiction extravaganzas. Nothing about the world depicted here is static. The most innocuous of details are given consequences and imaginative, dizzyingly strange results, such as the fact that the human city exists in the planet's only area of (manufactured) believable air: Outside, gulls sounded. They veered, headed constantly for the sea they glimpsed kilometers away, were turned back constantly by sculpted winds and aeoli breath. It was very rare that any broke out into the proper local air, and died. (pp. 119-20)

Strangely enough for a novel told entirely in the first person, and one with such a distinctive and admirable voice, our narrator, Avice, is one of the least interesting and important aspects of the book. In fact, characters as a whole takes a back seat here. This is very much a book of ideas, and the people in it are well defined but always peripheral. At no time does our interest come out of a love of anyone presented, and many of Embassytown's officials and the novel's side characters are defined far more by their roles than their personalities. All that being said, Miéville's characterizations are powerful, if often quiet in their construction. Our cast is made up of those who are sympathetic but not without their flaws and petty arrogances, people able to at once devote their lives to their ideals and also change themselves not out of grand declarations and missions but simply because they're "bored." (p. 38)

That surplus of fallible reality defines the romances of the novel as well. Seemingly star crossed lovers soon discover they've little physical chemistry and fairly quickly gave up on sex. (p. 38) Other relationships get even less of a yearning description. Potential attraction between Avice and another character are merely implied by a never unsubstantiated reference of "some prurience." (p. 204) Despite all of that, however, there is a faint romanticism to Avice's narration – perhaps even to Miéville himself, back on the other side of the page – as is always evident in her later dealings with CalVin and her ruminations about a fraternity of those who once loved [her], or still did? (p. 242) Such a thing is like as not more a product of Avice's occasionally quite arrogant mind than of the other characters', but the existence of such ruminations in and of itself is significant.

Miéville's prose is, as expected, filled with the immense vocabulary that it's somewhat infamous for, but his reputation as a stylist does not rest solely on his obscure diction. The writing here differs sharply from that in Perdido Street Station (2000) or The Scar (2002), glimpses supplied for atmosphere as opposed to a baroque concentration of detail, but is no less effective and often stunning in its flow and power: I could say it was depressing, that party, like a walk through purgatory, we at the end of the world rutting into oblivion and drugging ourselves idiot to autogenerated rhythms and a hammer of lights through smoke. Perhaps to those participating it was joyful. (p. 189) Outside of such fantastic paragraphs, the novel is littered with clever combinations and concepts, such as the aforementioned narcocracy (p. 247) and the description, as Embassytown falls apart, of the ruling class as suicide pioneers (p. 218).

Such flourishes never, it must be noted, reach the point of arrogance, and Miéville's able to write hiddledy-piggledy (p. 255) and have it fit the tone as much as he's able to do the same by titling the first section a Proem. Such mixes of erudition and knowing, genre-savvy winks are common here. Examples include references to vampires (p. 320) in the midst of one of the novel's most important chapters and comparisons to zombie movies (Protagonists were in an edifice full of products, and sicker enemies than before relentlessly came for them. (p. 220)). As the conclusion begins, Miéville combines revolutionary fervor and his jokester tendencies, coming up with what's perhaps the most amusing line in the whole affair: "I don't want to be a simile anymore," our narrator says. "I want to be a metaphor." (p. 296)

China Miéville's early work won its fame in part because of its combination of gripping, pulp fun and highly literate intelligence. That grouping seemed abandoned with the man's last two novels, The City and the City (which felt like all the latter) and Kraken (seemingly all the former). Embassytown does not return to that earlier blend. Though certainly strange and often mind bending, this is a book far removed from the monsters and chases that characterized much of, say, Perdido Street Station. But, though it's in a different style, Miéville here shows a level of mastery equal to or, perhaps even greater than, those seminal, movement-defining novels. This is a novel about language and Language, written with a love of language (and Language?) that is the perfect example of Science Fiction as the genre of ideas, a novel powerful enough that, for the time the reader's turning the pages and beyond, the world looks like a genuinely different place. Highly recommended.

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