Book Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

2 Jun

Embassytown is the most satisfying smart book I’ve read in quite some time,  maybe since I tackled Infinite Jest 10 years ago.    Personally, I’m pretty certain that this will go down as one of the best books of this decade.

That said, a lot of people won’t care for this book.  Embassytown is not about character development, and though it is certainly science fiction, it is hard science fiction, more interested in ideas (particularly about language) than the characters it presents.  If you’re looking for some space opera, go watch Doctor Who, if you’re interested in exploring what language means and how it functions for us, and how it creates consciousness, you’re in the right place.  Also, though there is quite a bit of plot–the plot is secondary to the explorations on the boundaries of language and how it affects us.

Onto the plot–we follow Avice Cho, a commoner from Embassytown, a far-flung outpost on an alien planet.  The town is very small, and literally is within a larger city of alien “hosts”  (they’re called Ariekne, but host is so much easier to say I’m just going to continue with that.)  For the first half of the book the hosts are truly alien due to their language which can only describe things literally.  The hosts have two mouths that speak at the same time, and they cannot even label anything as “speech” unless it’s spoken by a living being (no machines) with two mouths and one mind.  Also, for the hosts, talking echoes thought so there’s no concept of any abstractions, and because of that they are incredibly difficult to comprehend even when they are understood.

Embassytown breeds ambassadors–perfect twins conjoined by machines, trained to be extra empathetic, so they can speak with a reasonable facsimile of “one mind.”  They serve as the leaders of Embassytown and the main contacts with the hosts, who cannot even recognize individual humans as beings at all.

Avice returns to Embassytown on the eve of when a new Ambassador arrives, one that is not a twin trained from birth, but two entirely different people.  Because of the nature of their link, their voice becomes a very dangerous drug that causes the Hosts to have full on dependence.  From there society quickly begins to erode.   I don’t want to spoil any more of it, but suffice it to say that the last half of the book is mostly concerned about this erosion as things fall apart.

The first thing you’d notice is that because this book has its eyes focused solely on language there will be a lot of new words to get used to–some of which I don’t entirely know what they mean still, but that’s part of it–sort of like A Clockwork Orange and how it requires you to just jump into this alien land with its own words that gradually make sense in context.   There are books to give a few pages to know if you like it and there are books to ride with knowing that it will lead somewhere even though you may feel extremely lost along the way, this book is the latter–things come together, I promise you, and everything comes into focus.

From that point on, the ideas of language this book presents are fascinating.  I dislike some of the reviews that basically fob this book off as something that people who have a fascination with linguistics or something would interested in, like it was some sort of curio.  I disagree with this idea completely, work on this book, it will give you ideas, new ideas that you haven’t thought of before, and very important ones at that.

More than economics, which is concerned with the means through which we live, language is the most important thing to be conscious of in today’s society, for it determines the way which we speak and think.  Greater mastery over language gives power while inability to speak takes it way.   Also a lack of mastery over language means a lack of mastery over our own minds which influences everything in our life.  Embassytown not only focuses on this fact, but it also focuses on the manipulation of language, how language changes identity, how extraordinarily complex language is for us, and how truth and lies are both the common currency of how we function.

You will feel smarter after reading this book.  Read it.  Now.

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