Embassytown by China Miéville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a peculiar book, a science-fiction novel fascinated with the workings of language and metaphor. As such it may appeal to many people who wouldn't normally consider science-fiction, if they are prepared to brush up on their linguistics terminology. Embassytown is a human settlement on an alien planet where the native species can only speak the truth. This hardly sounds revolutionary but Miéville investigates how language relates to the real world and what words can do in ways that unsettle assumptions about speech. Certainly the problems of talking to aliens are all too often neatly avoided in science-fiction, but Miéville is hardly your average genre fiction writer.
The book starts out with a complex interweaving of the protagonist, Avice, dealing with disaster in the city of Embassytown and her past growing up there and briefly leaving. Then Miéville simplifies the plot out and continues with a rather uninspiring plucky team of adventurers on a mission to save the world narrative, which is a bit of a let down. The development of the world beyond Embassytown is fascinating, even if it doesn't get much elaboration in the book and is soon ignored. Miéville casually dreams up social norms and technology for future humankind that can seem incomprehensible. His aliens are even weirder. The aliens, at least, show development and depth throughout the novel; humans on the other hand are poorly characterised, particularly the protagonist. So much effort has been put into the ideas that the people have come out a little half finished.
Miéville's characteristic style of science-fiction ignores questions of whether the future technology is even vaguely within the realms of reality or borders on fantasy. While he doesn't make the reader worry about understanding the science, you must be prepared to use a dictionary occasionally to keep up with his expansive vocabulary. Compared to some of his other novels, though, he has turned the oddness of his writing down to a level that is enjoyable and informative, rather than infuriating.
But Embassytown was, in many ways, too far over the line of obscurity most of the time. Miéville sketches out all manner of alien things in just enough detail to really get your imagination working yet frequently there isn't enough detail and you are left confused. Miéville throws new terms, species, and ideas at his audience without much, if any, attempt at explanation which is both frustrating and exciting. Halfway through the novel the ideas seem to fizzle out and you lose that sense of wonder at exploring a new world. Those new elements that are added towards the end are painstakingly explained in long passages of expositionary dialogue – and this is unsurprisingly a pain to read.
Ultimately, it is an occasionally underwhelming book filled with startlingly inventive ideas that has something genuinely new to offer to the science-fiction genre. It is a shame that, having presented so many interesting concepts, Miéville ignores them in favour of overworking the issue of language because Embassytown really inspires your imagination.
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