06 May 2011

Embassytown (China Miéville)

May 17!! I dithered a bit about blogging about it before the on-sale date, since it's not strictly kosher, but c'mon, the New York Times Book Review does it, and they've got waaaay more cred/clout than I do. Not that they'll review Embassytown, cause, you know, aliens. Their freakin' loss. [UPDATE 6/9: Okay, so they did review it, and this post is now only the third hit for "embassytown nyt." Please note, though, that this is their "Summer Reading" issue, so thankfully it's in a nice ghetto away from the Serious Books. Also note that fully half the review is about his other books, and that the review's author feels compelled to note that there are neologisms. In a sci-fi book? GET OUT]

Still, I'm not sure I can really call this little write-up a review, since those usually roll out rather more plot summary than I find appropriate for a novel as charily plotted and prone to epiphany as Miéville's are. Me, I find 90% of the joy and awe of reading a work of speculative fiction lies in finding things out at the moment the author deems appropriate, and I loathe reviews (or cover flaps, even) that give away much beyond, say, the first 50 pages, so I'll arbitrarily stick to that.

Suffice it to say: yup, aliens! Embassytown is more "obviously" sci-fi than his previous works (accepting the sci-fi=robots'n'aliens fantasy=dragons'n'magic dichotomy, which is reductive but useful), taking place in a distant future of the post-Earth human diaspora. The eponymous colonial outpost occupies an atmosphere-controlled niche on a planet whose double-mouthed natives speak a language unique in the universe: it is non-symbolic, i.e. the words are not different from the thoughts that produce them, and as such, these aliens (respectfully called "the Hosts" by Embassytown's residents) are incapable of lying. In her youth, the human narrator, Avice Benner Cho, went through a strange and uncomfortable experience to help the Host bring into reality a simile they wanted to use--which they could not without the events actually occurring--making her a living part of their Language (later Hosts will twitter to her "I use you all the time!") Hosts also can't understand speech removed from mind, hearing even the proper tones as nothing more than noise unless produced by a single consciousness; this has necessitated the creation of identical-twin Ambassadors, whose two human voices are urged together  by technology and empathy into the closest approximation of one Host voice. The novel's events ravel out from the arrival from off-world (the "out") of an impossible Ambassador, made up of two entirely unrelated men.

While the book clearly touches on issues of colonialism, Miéville avoids the easy route of interplanetary noble-savagery--despite unintended consequences, his humans really do their best to integrate with indigenous culture. Instead, he's interested in what should be a paramount concern for any writer: what is language? What can it accomplish, and what limits it in doing so? The exploration of the Hosts' asemiotic speech directly addresses the sometimes maladroit intersections between words and truth. And there is so much cool shit along the way.

I am deeply indebted to Robin Lenz, managing editor of bookseller-required-reading e-letter Shelf Awareness, for passing along her ARC to me!! I'm also SO GORRAM EXCITED that WORD is hosting the NYC event of this book tour!!!!!!!<==this is an inadequate number of exclamation points. (Hopefully they'll need volunteer help, cause $25's more than I have to my name right now. So sad, so true.)

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