China Miéville’s newest, Embassytown is a science fiction novel about communication and alien languages. The first-person protagonist, Eva Brenner Cho, is an immerser, a sort of sub-space freight pilot, who was born in Embassytown, a human city built on the alien planet of Arieka. The planet’s residents, the Ariekei, speak a thought-speech language (called, appropriately, Language) that singular human beings are capable of understanding but not speaking. Human ambassadors in Embassytown consist of two identical people, one a clone of the other, who are linked neurologically and each of whom speak one half of the Ariekei’s double-mouthed language. If this all sounds weird, it is. The novel’s central conflict arises out of the idiosyncrasies of this strange language, and there is much more to the set-up, but, as with many of Miéville’s novels, part of the experience is parsing out the strange world for yourself.
The story begins when a new ambassador, named EzRa, comes to Embassytown. Unlike the other ambassadors, EzRa is not made up of a human and a clone (or doppel). Instead, EzRa is two distinct humans, linked mentally by a new process. The Language this ambassador speaks sets off a firestorm across Embassytown, one that threatens to upend the delicate political equilibrium that has existed for years. It’s a big, grandiose science fiction story that, mostly, is awesome.
However, I have one major caveat. My biggest complaint about the novel is the lack emotional investment I felt for the characters. Eva is an interesting protagonist, but I felt like there were many facets to her personality that could have served as plot tensions that just didn’t. For much of the book, she is stranded in Embassytown until the next immerser ship arrives. Immersers are respected and revered by the human citizens of Embassytown, but that doesn’t mean Eva has much to do except react to things going on around her, participate in some light political machinations, and watch her marriage fall apart. The story around her is interesting, but Eva herself, sadly, often is not. Toward the end, her actions do have a direct impact on the novel’s resolution, but by the time I got there I had become disinterested in Eva as a protag. The choice of putting her in first-person, I think, only serves to muddy the waters. Eva could have been a super cool space-trucker badass, but she’s mostly a vessel for exposition, which is a bummer.
I loved and was fascinated by the ideas floating around in this book. Miéville does a fantastic job of raising and then working through the problem of inter-species communication between two species who, fundamentally, communicate differently. Miéville’s deconstruction of the alien language and the logical consequences of that language are brilliant and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The conclusions he draws are unsettling but sharp and compelling. My interest in understanding more about this strange world is what kept me reading and, ultimately, what satisfied me most about this novel. But, again, I found myself not really caring about any of the novel’s characters. Eva becomes interesting late in the novel, but for much of it she’s an empty center when the story deserved an articulate, complex, and engaged protagonist.
I liked Embassytown more than the previous Miéville book I reviewed here, Perdido Street Station. For as crazy as much of the content here is, it feels like controlled chaos. Miéville in command of his prose and his ideas. Still, a few legacy problems persist. During my time with the book, my wife would ask me if I was enjoying it, and it was really hard to articulate the complex feelings of yes-and-no that I was experiencing. It’s undoubtedly an incredibly well imagined piece of science fiction. But, amazing premises and interesting ideas only get a writer so far. As a result, I found Embassytown to be intellectually super-heated, but emotionally cold.
I give it three pieces of lasagna out of five, but those three pieces are really, really tasty.