Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review - Embassytown by China Mieville

China Mieville
Trade Paperback
(Advance Uncorrected Proof w/ generic cover)
Genre: Science Fiction
368 pages
Publisher: Del Rey
Scheduled Release: May 17, 2011
ISBN: 978-0345524492


I was beyond delighted to obtain an early copy of China Mieville’s new novel Embassytown. I can tell you with the utmost confidence that this book is an exceptional read in every respect. It is, in fact, China Mieville’s most important work to date. Not only should it be instantly promoted to Science Fiction classic status but it will forevermore be compared to the great works from the past. Embassytown is an extraordinary feat of fiction and a brilliant work of artistic expression. Its concepts evoke the SF New Wave period but with its own New Weird twist and a Hard Science Fiction edge. The aliens are truly outside of our understanding; their Language doubly so, making them so different from us as to be totally, absolutely unknowable. We may scratch the surface of the Ariekei, or the Hosts as they’re known in Embassytown, but they are so xeno-singular that we could never truly comprehend their race. Mieville’s in-story language is stunning, visual, and conceptual but more than that the entire storyline is language-centric. That it’s not our form of verbal communication and is almost impossible to understand (it’s spoken from two mouths simultaneously) only makes this narrative more intriguing.

The story takes place on the planet of Arieka, in the city of Embassytown. Avice Benner Cho, an Immerser (an extraordinary human able to endure the severe physical and mental effects of travelling through the sub-reality arcs of the universe), has returned home to Embassytown, a melting pot of Hosts, humans, and exotics that share the Ariekie’s home planet. Only genetically manipulated humans, known as Ambassadors, are able to understand and communicate with the Ariekie. But then a new, unexpected Ambassador arrives and the delicate cultural and diplomatic balance of the entire planet is tipped.

China Mieville’s world-building prose makes the reader work harder than most writers. I repeat, everything he writes challenges the reader. His choice of language requires you to think, to understand, to grasp, before proceeding. But the pay-off for your hard work as a reader is worth every minute spent in concentration. This story reminds me very much of other demanding works by past masters. It’s suggestive of Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai project, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Whipping Star, Mervin Peake’s Titus Groan, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren which in my estimation are also challenging but valuable reads. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling Embassytown difficult. It simply demands more of the reader’s attention than most Science Fiction. It may be hard at first to decipher some of the terminology but once you get the hang of it, it grows on you. Mieville’s Embassytown slang is inventive and some readers may feel disappointed that the novel did not come pre-packaged with “The Mieville Lexicon.”

Speaking of inventive, as in some of his earlier works Mieville creates a bizarre alternate-world full of machines, buildings, weapons, vehicles, furniture, ships, and robots. But those found in Embassytown differ from objects in his other works because unlike them we know exactly where these are made. They are grown by the Hosts using advance methods of bio-technology. There’s furniture with skeletons and internal organs and vehicles that breathe and contain body fluids. Houses made of skin with antibodies scurrying about the house on the prowl for intruders. Even the Hosts themselves are described as insect-like and equine, with sharp hooves and antler-like eyes. From those of us who’ve read China Mieville before we’ve come to expect these strange creatures/constructs at least once in each of his stories but Embassytown is full of them adding to the artistry of the world he has built.

While Embassytown is, on the surface, a Science Fiction novel with all the elements of the genre – sub-reality space flight, alien contact, terra-forming, bio-engineering, etc. it is mostly a work of language. Particularly that part of language that allows the lie, the fib, the… untruth. It appears that the Ariekie suffer from a racial oddity. They crave “that which is not” or what we call the lie. Who better to teach the Hosts the art of telling a lie than humans? But this misuse of their language is a drug to them. It is addictive and intoxicating and its dependency may ultimately destroy their entire culture.

I suggest you head out to your local book store this morning and purchase your copy of Embassytown. You’ll definitely want this one in your library and you certainly won’t be disappointed with your choice.

6 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:


Official Mieville Page

China Mieville Wiki Page

China Mieville Author Page Amazon.com

Unofficial Mieville Website


Embassytown Wiki Page

Embassytown Publisher Page

Embassytown Excerpt


redhead said...

I finished Embassytown the other day. It was incredible, I am still reeling from it. great review!

The Alternative One said...

Thanks! Did you read it because of my review? Or were you already reading it? Inquiring minds...