Review of China Mieville’s Embassytown

EmbassytownEmbassytown by China Miéville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

China Mieville’s Embassytown is as much an exercise in semantics as it is a science fiction novel about an alien culture on the brink of apocalypse as it comes to clash with human colonists.

The alien culture—the Ariekei—has a language that would be a fundamentalist’s/literalist’s wet dream or worst nightmare; it has almost no figurative language, and what little figurative language it does have, in simile, is taken as literal truth.

Everything is true or passes as fact. They cannot make subtle distinctions and have no room for gray areas of ambiguity.

The language, known as Language to human colonists, is so obscure, only altered humans, known as Ambassadors can fully understand it. Which leads to intrigue and near apocalypse for both Ariekei and humans when an Ambassador introduces lies into Language.

The Ariekei become addicted to the lies and crisis erupts. In the middle of this crisis is Avice Benner Cho, who has just returned to her home planet after years in the immer, a sort liquidy wormhole that allows for interstellar travel (Mieville is ever inventive with language). Avice is an unwilling participant in the intrigue, partly because her husband Scile, a linguist, is a co-conspirator and partly because she is a simile in the Ariekei Language.

Though Embassytown is as imaginative and inventive as Mieville’s Hugo-winning The City & The City, I preferred The City & The City and its intriguing look at how we see and choose to “unsee” (another of Mieville’s coinages)others set against the backdrop of a noir murder mystery.

Embassytown is, however, an intriguing look at how language can be abused, especially when varying shades of meaning are stripped from it and only literalism survives.
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