Aliens and Language in space: China Miéville's Embassytown

"It was a Host. It stepped to the center of the carpet. I stood immediately, out of the respect I’d been taught and my child’s fear. The Host came forward with its swaying grace, in complicated articulation. It looked at me, I think: I think the constellation of forking skin that was its lustreless eyes regarded me. It extended and reclenched a limb. I thought it was reaching for me. 
 The indigenes, in whose city we had been graciously allowed to build Embassytown, Hosts were cool, incomprehensible presences. Powers like subaltern gods, which sometimes watched us as if we were interesting, curious dust, which provided our biorigging, and to which the Ambassadors alone spoke."
- from Embassytown, China Miéville

If you have been checking this blog for a while, you probably know by now that I am a China Miéville convert. Embassytown is probably the second best next to The Scar. Ursula K. Le Guin herself gave a positive review of the book.

Before anything else, I would like to complain before I get to the shinier bits. I sigh at the title. It's so bad and doesn't reflect the story at all. Really? Embassytown? Two very boring words in the English language joined to make an even more dull word. Embassy implies some sort of bureaucracy, lining up to process your visa, overall waiting and hours of boredom. Town? There must be a better title, right?

Embassytown is a story of humans and aliens living in one world. The aliens have existed there before humans arrived. In order to coexist in harmony, they devised a way to communicate with each other. How about when the aliens have a completely different way of communication and language than the humans? I had the same realization when I read Michael Crichton's Sphere - we humans may try to create a message that we hope an alien will understand, but what if extra-terrestrial life is something so incomprehensible to our human senses? What if the aliens are as small and invisible as spores or so vast it is beyond our understanding? What if they communicate in an entirely different way than mouths, language, and the way we do?

Artist's version of the Hosts. By Liz Coshow
The story is told from the perspective of Avice Benner Cho, a human girl who grows up in Embassytown. She tells her story of growing up in Embassytown, her travels in outer space, and her eventual return to her hometown. As a narrator of the story, I didn't really warm up to her. She always seems to be at a party or event and she's always in some love affair with someone. In my head, I imagined her looking like Jyn Erso from Rogue One. The main story is about her going back to Embassytown with a new husband, Scile (who also has an agenda of his own about the Hosts, interested in their Language). I found her less interesting than the aliens. 

In the world of Embassytown, the local aliens are called the Hosts or the Ariekei. Their language is very different - to human ears, it sounds like two separate words being uttered at the same time. After a long time of experiments, they solved their communication problem with the genetically-engineered paired clones called the Ambassadors. Though they are two separate bodies, their minds are linked and when they are the only ones who can communicate to the Hosts. It's interesting since each pair of Ambassadors is seen as one person and named as such - CalVin, MagDa, JoaQuin, etc.

Another unique feature of the Hosts' language (which in the book is called Language) that makes them very different from human language is they cannot lie. Thought and speech are one and the same. Their language has no similes and metaphors. Avice will play a special role, and I will borrow words from Tor since I don't know where to start in explaining it: "But they are aware that they need to conceptualize abstract ideas and so employ humans to perform similes. As a child, Avice was plucked from school, taken to a closed restaurant, and asked to perform a simile. It’s a great honor, making her a respected component of Language thereafter. Avice is “the girl who ate what was given her.”"

Then a new Ambassador called EzRa appears whose words cause an unexpected reaction to the Hosts, and it begins a chain reaction that leads to chaos. In another strange turn, one Host has done the impossible - lie.

As for the book, it's not like Perdido Street Station where there's the shock factor of each new monster introduced. There are also interesting stuff  like robots, alien animals, and alien technology. It's not a narrator I prefer, but the ideas and concepts about language are what I like best. At first, I thought it was strange to read about science-fiction book on language, but it's a very thought-provoking take on it.

This is one of the books with the very best endings I read in a long while. I don't usually cry while reading books, but there were tears in my eyes not from a tragic turn in the story but how apt and beautiful the ending was. It made me realize the beauty of language and words again. There are some books that you also must put in your own effort to understand and in this one, the ending exceeded all expectations and the reward was worth it. There was a speech by a Host that is so simple, yet carry so much meaning after all the events in the story.

So after this book, I took a break from my Miéville obsession and read something less heavy and less taxing on the brain. I don't know if The Hunger Games can be classified as a light read but I just finished reading that (loved it) and of course, I will dump my thoughts in this blog.

Read my previous reviews on other Miéville books:
Perdido Street Station
The City and the City
Un Lun Dun
The Scar

Post a Comment