Miéville is not an easy author to read. His fantasy novels tend to be chock-full of really whacked-out worldbuilding, Lovecraftian monsters, and plots that don’t go the way they’re supposed to. (I’ve read several; my favourite of them is Perdido Street Station.) But with Embassytown he turns that sensibility to science fiction, and the result is something truly special.
(Note: No spoilers in the review, but there may be spoilers in comments.)
On an alien planet, humans live only in a small section of a city (called Embassytown). The aliens are truly alien — only a few humans, specially altered Ambassadors, can communicate with them. Our protagonist, Avice, is not one of these. But when a new Ambassador arrives and upends the social order in ways no-one could have predicted, Avice finds herself in the middle of the chaos, struggling to make sense of it all, to make herself heard among the aliens.
That’s the teaser summary…and yet it tells you almost nothing about the experience of reading the story.
Embassytown hits almost all my reader buttons. It’s smart and challenging. It’s hard science fiction with aliens, nothing unusual there — except the hard science is linguistics, and the plot points turn on language. Sign, signifier, etc. I can’t even tell you how much I love this. It’s like reading a novel that’s a poem and a lit-theory essay and an ode to Tolkien’s language-building abilities and a Le Guin-style social exploration all rolled into one.
At the same time, it’s a damn fine novel. There’s an emotional journey that’s intertwined with the science parts. And the scientific premise is explored thoroughly, through all its ramifications and well beyond what you might expect, and it delivers revelations and mind-bending concepts and sense of wonder just like any top science fiction.
Miéville does one thing here that I haven’t seen him do to the same extent in his fantasy, which makes me think he was born to write science fiction. Namely, he does the opposite of infodumping — a technique that author Jo Walton (yes, the author of Among Others) calls incluing. So essential bits of information are mentioned casually in the middle of a sentence, and you’re two sentences further on before you realize wait, that was important, and then your mind explodes as you realize what it meant. (Like I said, smart and challenging.) And then you might be pages further on and there’s another offhand mention and you realize more ramifications of the first one. That’s not easy to read, let alone to write, and I love it.
To be fair, Embassytown could be tighter, despite the incluing. The plot and structure are a bit loose — time periods are summed up and explained. And there’s a certain sense of distance from Avice’s narration, so we don’t get as much inside her head or her emotional state as I prefer. But his tendency to ramble while worldbuilding (most evident in The Scar, my least favourite of his novels that I’ve read) is reined in here, which keeps the story reasonably compact. It’s not a perfect book, but the things that it does well outweigh its weaknesses so far that they just don’t matter, at least for this reader.
It’s a hard book to explain. It’s kind of like trying to explain the emotional experience of reading a poem. At a certain point, all you can do is throw up your hands and say, “Just go read it!”
Have you read Embassytown? What did you think?
If you liked this post, you might enjoy Author Spotlight: China Miéville.