Monday, December 26, 2011

"Embassytown" by China Mieville

One of the purposes of science-fiction is to take the reader into a new environment so that he or she can approach traditional ideas and concepts from a wholly different perspective. That's why world-building is so essential to the genre and why, when it's done right, sci-fi can be so thrilling. This is the case in Mieville's Embassytown, a novel which transplants the reader to a world of Terres (humans) and Ariekei in order to explore the nature and evolution of language.

Embassytown is not for the weak reader or someone wanting just fun escapist fiction. It takes some work, especially in the beginning, to understand the world that has been created, and throughout the book close attention is needed in order to understand the discourse on the nature of language. The book focuses on a peaceful settlement where humans live and work with the native Ariekei. The Ariekei speak in Language, which is formed by speaking separate words simultaneously from two different mouths; however, in order for true Language to happen, not only must the right words be spoken, but they must be said with the right intent, with a single purpose. For the Ariekei, Language is truth and can communicate only what is true; lies do not exist. The only way the humans have been able to communicate with the Ariekei is by creating Ambassadors, human clones trained from birth to speak the Ariekei words and communicate as a single organism.

The protagonist of Embassytown is Avice, a traveler who, as a child, was made a simile in the Ariekei Language. Though she doesn't speak Language herself, she becomes embroiled in the human/Ariekei relationship when the stability of Embassytown becomes threatened.

Mieville's exploration of the differences between human and Ariekei language and the evolution of both is fascinating, but way too difficult to try to describe here. I was also interested in the novel's approach to the nature of colonization. Embassytown, in the beginning, is far different from most human colonies in that the two species coexist peacefully and for mutual benefit. However, when a new Ambassador, EzRa, creates a dependence for their language among the Ariekei, that careful balance is tipped and near chaos and destruction occur.

Avice is a great protagonist, both a part of Embassytown and separate from it. She's able to float between worlds and has a more nuanced point of view than many others. Her relationship with her husband, Scile, was a little less clear, especially because he disappears fairly early in the book.

I'd highly recommend Embassytown to fans of classic high science-fiction, especially those looking for something totally new.

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