There are very few authors who consistently write enthralling books month after month or year after year. China Mieville happens to be one of them. His books are of the “New Weird” genre and I am not kidding about that. I remember reading, “Perdido Street Station” a long time ago and completely taken in by his style and the magnificence of his writing. Since then I have read most of his books – from King Rat to The City and the City, Kraken and now “Embassytown”.
“Embassytown” for me was not an easy read. It doesn’t start off easy, being the hard-core sci-fi novel that it is. It took me quite a while to get into the book and enjoy it more so only after 100 pages or so. Let me now tell you something about the book.
The book takes place on a planet known as Ariekei. A colony of human beings has formed an improbable and unheard of alliance with an unusual species, the Ariekei, known by those who live on their planet as Hosts. What makes the Ariekei strange is the fact that they have a different language. Different in the sense that they utter each word in two distinct simultaneous voices, without any words, they cannot distinguish between the sounds they employ (I found this very fascinating), the meanings they intend therefore are not clear, and so they cannot lie or recognize meaningful speech (I found this quite futuristic and scary). The only pair of humans, who have been specifically modified for the purpose of coordinating their voices and their thoughts, can communicate with the Hosts. These paired humans are known as Ambassadors.
Avice, the narrator and protagonist of the story makes us see Ariekei right through her childhood and youth – portraying an urban existence so different from ours and yet deep-rooted in universal aspects of city life. In the first couple of chapters, Avice’s complicated history with different powers of Embassytown is detailed, leading to the one evening when everything changes. The overlapping sections are well-paced, revealing the narrative secrets one step at a time. Who is Avice? What happened to her? Why are she and her husband Scile back? What is the actual science fiction element of the novel? Mieville sure doesn’t serve anything to the reader on a platter. The mystery of Ariekei and Embassytown is revealed layer by layer for the reader. The suspense element is right high on the charts and makes you turn the page, wanting more.
Mieville weaves the story so well – taking something as common-place and often taken for granted, language and showing us its real nature – as a jumping-off point – the novel is not as much of ideas as it then becomes of images. The idea of a city in transit and the cultural clashes by synergizing humans and aliens is remarkable and scary at the same time. China Mieville makes the necessary paradigm shift required for the “science-fiction” novel, by bringing out the nuances and elements of the robust world-building and the distinct awe and terror required for such books.
“Before the humans came, we didn’t speak so much of many things. Before the humans came, we didn’t speak.” That is the crux of the book. Embassytown greatest strength lies in the fact that it speaks about the fragility and duplicity of language, about the meaning, its creation and how sometimes language just doesn’t remain a reference point. What I did not like about the book is that the brilliant secondary characters were not explored more. I would have loved to see them shape and have their own voices.
Embassytown is everything you wanted though in a sci-fi novel – weird, inventive and nail-biting intrigue. If you have the patience needed for such a book, then you will not be disappointed by it at all.