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Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown by China Miéville
Book Name: Embassytown
Author: China Miéville
Publisher(s): Del Rey / Macmillan
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Science Fiction / Fantasy
Release Date: May 17, 2011

My goodness gracious me is there a lot to get through your poor little brain in this book. From the great literary mind of China Miéville, comes this romp through ‘true’ science fiction, set apart from his ‘Weird Fiction’ of the Bas-Lag series and his three other books set, recognisably, on – or near – Earth. Embassytown, on the other hand, has loads of science fiction tropes: Living with aliens, faster than light travel, colonizing planets, future-tech, Earth-as-a-humble-beginning. But that’s where the similarities with ‘normal’ science fiction stop. Instead, we meet a romp where the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis meets alien drugs and true-to-life bitter and twisted humans. Sound complicated? Well it gets more so.

The ‘basic’ (it’s not…) premise is thus: Avice Benner Cho (ABC, haha!) is born in the city of Embassytown, a human colonization plonked in the middle of The City, a Host, or Ariekei (the aliens) city. It is on the edge of the known Immer, the FTL under-dimension of space, used to move around galactic distances. The first 100 or so pages are exposition. Avice becomes an Immerser, travelling in the Immer, which is specialist…we don’t know why. She is a floater, someone who does just enough of everything to get by. She returns to the town, linguist-husband in tow, a minor-celebrity. Oh and she’s a simile, created when she is young.

Why does all this matter? Well the Hosts speak Language, an odd thing spoken with two mouths at once. What’s more, they can only understand it if there is meaning behind it – thus machines can replicate it to human ears, but not to Host hearing. Ambassadors are made, people cloned and conditioned to be as alike as possible, so that they can speak two voices with one meaning, and thus communicate. Furthermore, as Language is thought, Hosts cannot lie. Thus, they create similies, which need to have happened. Avice is ‘the girl who was taken to the place which used to be used for eating and no longer is, and was hurt and forced to eat what was given to her.’ Complicated, yes.

The characterization is Miévillian – that is to say, bloody brilliant. You know Avice (the book is written in the first person from her perspective) excellently, her thoughts and her feelings. You know others through her, not as well, but in an entirely human and believable way. What complicates things is the jumping around of scenes, something I didn’t especially enjoy as I read, but which was key to understanding by the end. I have to say that so much exposition dragged – I think the place, the Hosts and the people are so radically different that it is necessary, but I think it could have been done in a very bildungsroman style, a la Rothfuss, of having it all happen as and when it did, instead of being retrospective.

Nevertheless, the plot, equally as complicated as the setting up, is excellently executed. From the arrival of ambassador EzRa from the colonies owner country, Bremen, twists and turns ensnare the book. He is a radical new form, an Ambassador who does not look the same. CalVin comprises of Cal and Vin, who look similar in every respect. Ez and Ra are totally different, and they have an unprecedented effect.

The pacing is very well done for the latter half of the book, though the slow start and complex ideas may, and probably will, put people off. You have to think to enjoy this book, and think a lot. I’ll probably have to reread a few times to truly ‘get’ it, but it has every indication of being another Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula and BSFA scalp to add to Miéville’s ever expanding collection of awards. If you read one literary genre book this year, let this be it. You’ll reel, you’ll squeal, but ultimately, you’ll kneel to the King of 21st Century Genre writing.



  1. Avatar redhead says:

    “bloody brilliant”, that’s really all you need to say to sum up the book. I’ve read a lot of Mieville over the years, and Embassytown may be his best work yet.

    great review!

  2. Awesome review. I’m really excited about this one.

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