By now I suspect everyone is familiar with the years-old rumor that China Miéville had been working on a space opera of some sort, but then came The City & The City, which clearly wasn’t it, and then Kraken, which was even less it. Embassytown is it, but – as is increasingly characteristic of Miéville’s recent work – it’s probably not quite what people were expecting. In the first place, it’s a ‘‘space opera’’ in about the same sense as Le Guin’s The Dispossessed or Delany’s Babel-17 (it shares elements with both, more about which in a moment); in the second, those who had expected a colorful intergalactic stage for the profoundly inventive grotesqueries of the Bas Lag novels or Un Lun Dun might be surprised by the novel’s imagistic restraint and careful pacing. It’s set on a remote planet on the edge of civilized space, and features a mix of aliens or ‘‘exots,’’ and there’s even a brief barroom scene which doesn’t at all recall Star Wars, but Miéville is far less interested in the exoticism of his setting and characters, or in their science fictional ingenuity, than in their capacity to express some rather complex themes, among which are issues of colonialism, betrayal, and perhaps most of all language and reality. His subspace ‘‘immer’’ with its specially trained ‘‘immersers’’ has less to do with space opera’s familiar ‘‘hyperspace’’ than with the more poetic and metaphorical pinlighters and ‘‘up-and-out’’ of Cordwainer Smith (immersers even speak of tides and shallows and going ‘‘into the out,’’ and there’s a brief bit about barely perceived immer predators called hai, which sound like nothing so much as the subspace predators of Smith’s ‘‘The Game of Rat and Dragon’’.)But perhaps the most revealing aspect of the immer, in terms of the novel’s developing theme, comes when the narrator Avice describes it as underlying all the universes – there have been three – and as like ‘‘langue of which our actuality is a parole’’ – the universe as a kind of deep-structured grammar, and a kind of foreshadowing of the novel’s central themes. This is where the relationship to Le Guin and Delany comes into play, as well as to the long tradition of SF novels about language, from Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao to Ian Watson’s considerably more sophisticated The Embedding. Many if not most of these trade in the obsolete Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that tweaking language can alter perceptions of reality (one of the best examples of the little-acknowledged SF principle that even if a theory doesn’t work, it can be a good story-generator), but Miéville is a little too smart for something that simple. Avice Benner Cho grew up in Embassytown, a kind of diplomatic outpost on the planet Arieka, whose native population – the Areikei, commonly called Hosts – speak in an odd duophonic language that can’t be mechanically replicated by humans – even their own words spoken back to them are meaningless without a perception of a mind behind them – and that can only address real-world referents. For example, their language can employ similes only after someone has literally acted out the simile, and Avice, as a young girl, is invited to effectively become part of the Hosts’ language by participating in ‘‘the least comprehensible event that had or has ever happened to me’’: she simply eats something given her by the Hosts, thus becoming ‘‘the girl who ate what was given her,’’ and enabling the Hosts to incorporate the figure of speech into their language. (For a moment, this bizarrely reminded me of Ricky Gervais’s movie The Invention of Lying, when the Hosts become so enamored of the idea of untruth that they begin to stage a Festival of Lies).
Years later, after returning from her service as an immerser, Avice begins to learn the extent to which human communication with the Hosts has advanced – and to some extent the degree to which this has begun to corrupt the Hosts’ own uses of language. Specially trained clone-twins – given sometimes too-clever twin names like CalVin, EdGar, or EzRa – have learned to speak understandably to the Hosts, but soon the Hosts mysteriously stop communicating at all. Eventually it becomes apparent that the speech of one clone-pair, EzRa, even when expressing the most mundane phrases, has become almost fatally addictive to the Hosts. The notion of language as addiction, or as Avice speculates at one point ‘‘a drug addicted to itself,’’ is easily the most provocative and resonant idea in the book (and one that can’t be avoided in describing it, lest I get ticketed for spoilers – but be assured the best is yet to come). This development, combined with an unexpected murder, leads to a series of social crises and political complications that threaten the survival not only of the Hosts, but of the entire human colony of Embassytown as well. (If I wanted a spoiler, I’d put one in here.)
Readers enamored of the kinetic pace of Kraken, or even the police-procedural narrative hook of The City & The City, may find the opening chapters of Embassytown comparatively static, as Miéville lays out both the colonial/native tensions on Arieka and the backstory involving Avice’s service as an immerser; and Avice herself, despite her early promise as a chosen child and her various romantic entanglements, including a marriage to an exolinguist and involvement with a clone-pair, as an oddly passive narrator for much of the novel, which in the opening chapters shifts between ‘‘Formerly’’ and ‘‘Latterday’’ in a sometimes disorienting manner. Once the central crisis unfolds, however, the plot noticeably accelerates, and we learn that Avice is not only a more complex character than we’d suspected, but that some of the secondary characters – especially the enigmatic Bren, who acts as a kind of mediator between the Hosts and the colonists, or the Host nicknamed Spanish Dancer – take on a compelling life as well. And as the narrative begins to deepen into a kind of tragic power, Miéville’s style gains momentum as well, in some of the most nuanced and evocative prose I’ve seen from him. When the Host’s city (how can it be a Miéville novel without a city that acts almost like a character?) begins to disintegrate under the epidemic of language-addiction, Avice describes it as ‘‘a slaughterhouse of architecture’’ and comments that ‘‘a few Areikei tried to be the things they remembered’’; I’ve rarely seen the haunting tragedy of addiction captured in so few words. Embassytown may not be the colorful space opera that many were anticipating – it’s a novel that demands and earns reflection – but it might well be one that offers, in Conrad’s terms, ‘‘that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’’