Embassytown by China Mieville — book review

Embassytown by China Mi’ville. Macmillan ‘17.99

Reviewed by Jim Steel

Mi’ville’s long-threatened space opera turns out to be one of the finest examples of the species but, disingenuously, nearly all of the events in the novel happen in the one place. The narrator, Avice, does leave at one stage, but she soon returns to where she grew up: a human enclave on Areika, a planet that features some of the most alien of aliens ever devised.

The Ariekei, looking like some sort of large, hoofed insects, can only communicate literally and Avice, when she was a child, was used as a simile. She is ‘the girl who ate what was given her’. The Ariekei desire to learn how to lie as an art form but it becomes apparent that there is something much deeper going on. Avice realises that she has the potential to become a metaphor.

The only humans who can communicate directly with the Ariekei are the Ambassadors: pairs of linked doppelgangers who speak simultaneously. At times it doesn’t appear to matter what they say as the effect seems analogous to music, but Language soon reveals its potential to be an addictive drug. The music/drug analogy continues to play as recordings of a dead Ambassador become the most valuable commodity on the planet.

William Burroughs claimed that language was a virus from outer space and this seems to apply to the Ariekei. Things fall apart in a spectacular, violent convulsion when human greed combines with human courage to turn Areika on its head. We also have to wonder how much of our own personality ‘ our very essence ‘ is merely a result of the language that we think with. This brilliant novel is going to win awards by the bucketful. This is why you read science fiction.

Embassytown by China Mieville. Macmillan ‘17.99

Reviewed by Jim Steel

Mieville’s long-threatened space opera turns out to be one of the finest examples of the species but, disingenuously, nearly all of the events in the novel happen in the one place. The narrator, Avice, does leave at one stage, but she soon returns to where she grew up: a human enclave on Areika, a planet that features some of the most alien of aliens ever devised.

The Ariekei, looking like some sort of large, hoofed insects, can only communicate literally and Avice, when she was a child, was used as a simile. She is ‘the girl who ate what was given her’. The Ariekei desire to learn how to lie as an art form but it becomes apparent that there is something much deeper going on. Avice realises that she has the potential to become a metaphor.

The only humans who can communicate directly with the Ariekei are the Ambassadors: pairs of linked doppelgangers who speak simultaneously. At times it doesn’t appear to matter what they say as the effect seems analogous to music, but Language soon reveals its potential to be an addictive drug. The music/drug analogy continues to play as recordings of a dead Ambassador become the most valuable commodity on the planet.

William Burroughs claimed that language was a virus from outer space and this seems to apply to the Ariekei. Things fall apart in a spectacular, violent convulsion when human greed combines with human courage to turn Areika on its head. We also have to wonder how much of our own personality ‘ our very essence ‘ is merely a result of the language that we think with. This brilliant novel is going to win awards by the bucketful. This is why you read science fiction.