Sunday, November 27, 2011

Embassytown by China Miéville

So China Miéville has written a science fiction novel, and it is... well, it is many things, but perhaps we'll start with "Old School."  Miéville is the author who took the top off fantasy ten years ago, and his next to last novel, The City & The City, was so sui generis that it won awards for both science fiction (the British Science Fiction Award, the Clarke) and fantasy (the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award for best fantasy novel), despite containing no non-realist elements whatsoever.  But Miéville's latest novel, Embassytown, though in many ways as dazzlingly original as anything he's written, is positively retro.  It's a planetary romance, a far future SF story about a time when humans have spread through the galaxy with the help of vaguely explained FTL technology, a story of contact with winged, eye-stalked aliens.  It is, in short, that increasingly rare, increasingly unfashionable artifact, a core SF story, and its tropes are pure Golden Age.  Perhaps the avant garde has simply come full circle.

The titular town is a human colony at the heart of an alien city on the planet Arieka, a trading post on a backwater notable for two things--lying at the very edge of known space, and the bizarre linguistics of its native inhabitants, colloquially known as Hosts.  The Ariekene language--called simply Language, its own thing unlike all others--is not simply a collection of phonemes assembled into shapes and given meaning by consensus.  To understand Language, Ariekei must hear it spoken by a sentient person who understands its meaning and imbues their speech with it--"Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen."  This has two implications.  One, the Ariekei can't conceive of any abstract concept unless there exists an embodiment of it somewhere on their world, and therefore they also cannot lie.  Two, because Ariekei speak simultaneously from two mouths, a single human can't communicate with them, nor can two people speaking in tandem, because the singular intent isn't there.

Embassytown has thus adapted to both serve the Ariekei and position its staff as their sole alien interlocutors.  For generations, it has been breeding Ambassadors--cloned pairs who are psychologically molded to think of themselves as a single person, and whose empathy is enhanced by technological means to enable them to speak to the Hosts.  And, as the Ariekei become exposed to new concepts through their interactions with offworlders, they require physical manifestations of those concepts in order to speak them.  This is one of the earliest experiences of our narrator, Avice Benner Cho, who as a girl is turned into a simile--the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her, an image of making do--by playing out that experience.  Later in her life, Avice leaves Arieka to become an "immerser," one of the few who can crew spaceships through the subspace that makes interstellar travel possible.  As Embassytown opens, however, she's been back for a while, at the behest of her offworlder, linguist husband Silce, from whom she is now estranged for reasons that Miéville spends much of the novel's first hundred pages explaining.

Embassytown is a smart, well-written novel that constructs its world, plot, and central concepts with impressive panache.  But of all the many things it does well, perhaps the best is its recreation of the company outpost in outer space.  The small town politics of such postings, the battles for supremacy between local authority and the government back home, the oligarchy of clerks and lifelong staffers who actually run the operation, the carefully stratified social structure--all are recreated on an alien planet.  Embassytown resonates with its canonical, 19th and early 20th century antecedents, complete with swanky staff parties where everyone is trying to search out a juicy bit of gossip or political leverage, and long-held, impossibly baroque feuds in whose wake the bitter losers bide their time until they can stick the knife in and maybe even regain the upper hand--but all with good manners, and with half an eye on the canapé tray.  (In addition to being quite funny, these references elicit the company outpost's associations of Empire, of corruption, and of course of exploitative colonialism, which the remainder of the novel both plays with and contravenes.)  But Embassytown also makes sense within the futuristic, far-flung setting that Miéville has created--for example, the ingrained taboos against referring to paired Ambassadors as individuals rather than a single person or trying to tell them apart (which extend to cutesy, portmanteau names like CalVin or MagDa), and the deference that ordinary Embassytowners (called "commoners") like Avice feel towards them.  Avice, who is both an insider and an outsider to this community, provides the perfect viewpoint on it.  She's seen enough of the outside world to know how small Embassytown is and how parochial its habits and conventions are (and is therefore often perversely driven to defy them), but she's also a native, capable of understanding those habits and conventions in a way that Silce, or the new government representative Wyatt, can't.

It's Wyatt who sets the novel's events in motion when, as a power play against the local embassy staff, who have been parlaying their control over the Ambassadors into a power base and a possible bid for independence, he brings in his own, non-native Ambassador to Arieka.  EzRa--a seemingly impossible pairing of two genetically different individuals rather than clones--defy Embassytown politesse by referring to themselves as distinct persons rather than a singular entity, but all seems to be going well until they speak to the Ariekei for the first time: "The Hosts were swaying as if they were at sea. One spasmed its giftwing and its fanwing, another kept them unnaturally still. One opened and closed its membranes several times in neurotic repetition."  EzRa's connection, it transpires, is close enough to singularity that the Ariekei can understand them, but far enough from it that their essential separateness registers.  The impossibility of this contradiction, that there-not-there unity, intoxicates the Hosts, and they transmit that addiction to others.  Before long, Embassytown is surrounded by addicts, craving a drug that will eventually kill them, and willing to kill for their next fix.  The colonists must trade poison for their survival, but when some Ariekei find way to escape their addiction and march on Embassytown intent on its destruction, the slaughter of all humans seems imminent.

For a novel that loads itself up with so much meaty material--the very concept of Language, the way that it shapes the Ariekei's habits of thought, the way that humans' thoughts are shaped by their own use of language, the thorny moral dilemma the Embassytowners find themselves in when the scope of the Ariekei's addiction becomes known, and, in flashback chapters that chart the reasons for Silce and Avice's breakup, the emergence of a fascination among Ariekei with lies, and of a group who try to train themselves to do so--Embassytown is a curiously weightless exercise.  Not bad, but nowhere near as dramatic and impactful as these plot summaries suggest.  Partly this is down to Avice, whose voice is too flat and too impersonal to give the novel emotional weight.  Over the course of Embassytown Avice loses her husband, her lover, and her best friend, witnesses the collapse of her community, the breakdown of Ariekene civilization, the exposure of the lies that have underpinned Embassytown's way of life for generations, and seemingly endless amounts of death and carnage, and spends long stretches utterly convinced of her impending death.  Some of this registers--in particular, the collapse of Ariekene society, right down to their infrastructure (the architecture and technology are all biological, and they become addicted along with the Ariekei), and the despair that sweeps through Embassytown and especially the Ambassadors when the full scope of the disaster becomes clear, are deeply horrifying--but not enough, and a lot of this emotional battery seems to bypass Avice, who keeps functioning for no apparent reason other than that Miéville needs her to.

Avice is a good viewpoint character--clever, observant, and as I've said, perfectly situated between thoughtless adherence to Embassytown customs and ignorance of them--but Miéville never really bothers to make a person out of her.  It's never clear, for example, just why she works so hard to insinuate herself into the upper echelons of Embassytown's staff when the novel's events kick into gear.  A self-described "floaker"--someone who does just enough to get by without becoming burdened with unwanted responsibility--Avice seems content, after returning to Embassytown, to live off her savings and accrued coolness points as a former immerser and someone who has been offworld.  And yet when the plot gets rolling, she's constantly at the center of it, or trying to get there.  Her efforts to find out the meaning of EzRa's effect on the Ariekei at the beginning of the novel, and to manage the situation when its full extent becomes clear, are only explainable if we think of her as Miéville's stand-in, someone who can witness or set in motions the events necessary to get the plot where it's going, but not a person in her own right.  (There are, however, instances in which Avice's emotional flatness feels gratifying.  Her marriage to Silce is matter-of-factly introduced to us as a sexless, but nevertheless affectionate, union; later in the novel she becomes sexually involved with another character, and though the relationship is obviously important to both of them, it is only mentioned as an aside.  It's nice, especially for a novel with a female lead, that Miéville has managed to write sex and romance in a way that recognizes their importance without making them the crux of the story.)

Another possible reason that the stakes in Embassytown never seem as high as they ought to be is that Language never feels as believable, or as thought out, as Miéville and his characters insist it is.  Miéville hangs a lantern on this early in the novel, when he has Silce exasperatedly exclaim
"Does it ever occur to you that this language is impossible, Avice?" he said. "Im, poss, ih, bul. It makes no sense. They don't have polysemy. Words don't signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language? How do their numbers work? It makes no sense. And Ambassadors are twins, not single people. There's not one mind behind Language when they speak it..."
But raising the question only serves to draw attention to the fact that Embassytown can't come up with a persuasive answer.  How can the Ariekei be sentient without symbolic language?  How can they have created a vastly advanced, technological society with complex social customs when they have to struggle towards even the simplest of abstract concepts?  It doesn't help that in constructing Language Miéville piles one implausibility on top of another with only the most tenuous connections between them: not only the double mouth, but the seemingly psychic ability to detect whether a speaker is sentient or not, whether they understand Language or are simply mimicking its sounds (Miéville compounds this by deciding, in order to make the plot work later in the book, that Ariekei can understand recorded speech, so long as it was originally spoken by a person who knows Language), and on top of all this, the inability to lie or express oneself symbolically, to see words as more than their referents.  I'm not sufficiently versed in the philosophy of language to say whether these attributes naturally flow from one another, or whether there's even a persuasive argument that they should, but building that argument feels like something the novel ought to have done.

In his review of Embassytown at the London Review of Books, Sam Thompson argues that this isn't the novel's concern: "like H.G. Wells in The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau, Miéville takes an impossible proposition and works through its implications with rigour."  But that isn't actually an accurate description of the novel.  Rather than working through Language's implications, Miéville's preoccupation is with the way that humans change it--the Ariekei's fascination with lies, which extends to festivals in which they compete to see who can come closest to uttering a non-truth (one Ambassador describes this to Avice as "an extreme sport"), and later on, the way that EzRa corrupts it.  Language itself, and its implications, are obscured by these effects, where a less event-laden novel might have developed them into a more believable--and thus more engaging--central concept.  (In contrast, the reason that The City & The City worked for me despite having an equally implausible premise is that that novel was dedicated to rigorously working through its premise.)

But the main reason, I think, for Embassytown's centerlessness is that, like the repeated scenes in which wannabe liar Ariekei struggle to stretch similes into something broader and less literal, reading the novel is an exercise in recognition and contrast--of the novels, the touchstones of SF, that Miéville is echoing and recalling, and of the ways in which he diverges from their tropes.  Embassytown is like Mary Gentle's duology Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light, another story of well-meaning human colonists who royally fuck things up, but its aliens are less differentiated, and their personalities less vivid.  It's like the work of Ursula K. Le Guin (whose The Left Hand of Darkness also feels like the inspiration for Golden Witchbreed) in that it looks at a supposedly soft science like linguistics through SFnal glasses, but unlike Darkness, human interference on Arieka disrupts its society rather than being subsumed into the planet's existing political matrix.  The novel's middle segments, in which social roles and conventions break down under the stress of the colony's peril, feel like a siege novel along the lines of J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (which is itself both a comment and a complication of siege novels published in the immediate wake of the Indian Rebellion in the mid-19th century), but here the besiegers are unambiguously the victims, and the besieged clearly complicit in their predicament and morally compromised by their attempts to survive it.  In the religious fervor that Silce develops towards the Ariekei, and his conviction that those among them who are learning to lie are agents of evil, Embassytown is like A Case of Conscience, but reversed--here the aliens are angels, not devils, and humans are the serpent offering forbidden knowledge.  At no point does Miéville resort to outright cribbing--recognition, here, is always mingled with contrast--but these moments are jarring nevertheless.  I found myself constantly thinking of what Embassytown was like, rather than what it was.

It's hard to know how much of this recognition is a product of deliberate references by Miéville (though the siege novel reference feels quite deliberate given how much Embassytown is made to resemble a colonial outpost), and how much the result of Embassytown's being, as I've said, a very Old School novel treading on familiar ground.  Nevertheless, the effect is that Embassytown often feels more like a virtuoso mimicry and recombination of familiar tropes than a thing in its own right.  Which may be intentional.  The process of storying, of altering and repurposing story, and of recognizing one story in another, is something that Embassytown is very concerned with.  It's what Avice is doing--what she admits to doing on more than one occasion--in her own narrative (when she explains her plan to save the day to another character but conceals it from us, she justifies doing so by saying that "Revelation was spoiled for him, but I can retain it here, for you").  It's what she resents another simile for when he tells the story of what he had to endure at the hands of the Ariekei--"I hated that when he took his own turn, described terrible things done to enLanguage him, Hasser, who had been opened and closed again, modulated his voice and timed his delivery and turned it, true as it was, into a story."  During the siege, the humans rifle through their cultural archives and find what is clearly recognizable, even through Avice's garbled description, as Dawn of the Dead, into which they pour their own meaning--"We read the story as ours, of course."  Turning uninflected truth into story, and one story into another, is an artifact of our ability to use symbolic language, metaphor, and imagery, of the "slippage between word and referent" that Language lacks.  At the end of the novel, when the Ariekei discover this space, one of them tells the others a story of how that change came about and what it means, and through that telling, makes the story--and the vision for the future couched in it--true.

But perhaps the most important comment on story, storying, and the way that they can affect and shape reality comes relatively early in the novel, when Avice visits Wyatt shortly after EzRa's first, disastrous meeting with the Ariekei, and wonders if the Embassy hasn't committed a disastrous faux pas.
"This isn’t one of those stories, Avice. One moment of cack-handedness, Captain Cook offends the bloody locals, one slip of the tongue or misuse of sacred cutlery, and bang, he's on the grill. Do you ever think how self-aggrandising that stuff is? Oh, all those stories pretend to be mea culpas about cultural insensitivity, oops we said the wrong thing, but they’re really all about how ridiculous natives overreact." He laughed and shook his head. "Avice, we must have made thousands of fuckups like that over the years. Think about it. Just like our visitors did when they first met our lot, on Terre. And for the most part we didn't lose our shit, did we? The Ariekei—and the Kedis, and Shur'asi, and Cymar and what-have-you, pretty much all the exots I've ever dealt with—are perfectly capable of understanding when an insult's intended, and when it's a misunderstanding."
What's interesting here isn't that Wyatt is right, which of course he is, but that even as he's making this thoroughly logical, persuasive argument, we know that he's wrong.  Not because of anything that's happened, or even because of Avice's dubiousness of his assurances, but because we know what kind of story we're reading.  The setup is too blatant, too calculated to recall Empire and its excesses.  The references to the Fall and the temptation of knowledge overlaid on this setup only cement our conviction that the humans are going to damage the Ariekei horribly.  That awareness, of the inevitability of a catastrophic fuckup, of some insurmountable cultural difference that is going to lead to disaster, permeates Embassytown.  It has the effect of leeching it of much of its tension (Avice, for example, takes nearly half the novel to figure out what EzRa's effect on the Ariekei is, but anyone who is a little genre aware will have figured it out after their first or second meeting).  But it also has the very strange effect of obscuring, or maybe dampening, the fact that this isn't what ends up happening at all.

Miéville is known for playing with genre expectations--the ending of Perdido Street Station famously relies on both the readers and the main character having imposed a fairy tale narrative on another character, only to discover a gruesome, un-fairy tale-ish truth--and in Embassytown he seems to be playing with the gruesome, tragic expectations of all the novels that this novel recalls.  Human presence on Arieka does have a disastrous effect on its inhabitants, cultural contamination does occur, a horrible misunderstanding does send humans and aliens to the very brink of annihilation, Adam and Eve do eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  But this disaster turns out to be survivable, maybe even, ultimately, a good thing.  Ariekene society is irretrievably altered, the Ariekei learn to speak lies and will never be the same, but this opens their minds to new possibilities, and lays those possibilities before humans as well.  The novel ends on a note not merely of hope, but of staunch belief in the bright future and humans and Ariekei are going to build together, now that they've left the Garden of Eden.

Along with the mindbending concept of Language, this hopeful confounding of our expectations is where Embassytown is most its own creation, rather than a repurposing of known tropes.  But like Language, it doesn't quite work.  Perhaps because Miéville has, somewhat manipulatively, constructed his premise so that the eradication of Language, of the Ariekei's unique cultural heritage, by alien interlopers is ultimately held up as a good thing.  Or because the means by which Language is done away with stretch that already implausible concept well past its breaking point, suggesting that an entire species can be taught to think symbolically in a matter of months.  Or simply because I'm a cynic, and more likely to accept corrupted fairy tales than averted tragedies.  Whatever the reason, the result is a novel that never quite manages to overcome its referents.  Embassytown is a smart, engaging novel and a fine read.  There's no part of it, aside perhaps from a slow beginning and a dull narrator, that even comes close to being badly done.  But when all's said and done, it feels like less than the sum of its parts.

For the last few days I've been engaged in a very frustrating conversation over at The Millions, where Kim Wright has followed up her article Why Are So Many Literary Writers Shifting Into Genre? with The Genre Games.  In both pieces, Wright tries to address her frustration at a publishing industry that seems to arbitrarily impose genre labels on books for pure marketing reasons--an understandable frustration, and something that authors might reasonably be concerned about--by arguing that genre doesn't actually exist.  I've tried, again and again, to protest that this is a dismissive approach that, in the name of so-called inclusiveness, effaces entire literary traditions, but so far I've met with little success.  Embassytown was the perfect accompaniment to this discussion.  On the one hand, it's a reminder, if one was needed, of the unique perspective that the science fiction genre offers authors and readers, and of the richness of the tradition that Wright dismisses, and that Miéville so joyfully revels is.  But on the other hand, it's a reminder of the danger of reveling in that tradition too much.  Embassytown is Golden Age, Old School SF.  It's Big Idea SF.  It's social SF.  It's a smart and thought-provoking novel, but it doesn't quite work.  There's too much mimicry here, too much recalling of earlier work, not enough emphasis on developing new ideas.  The avant garde, as it turns out, can't come full circle.  That doesn't mean that Embassytown isn't worth a read, but in a way, maybe I like it better for what it signifies than for what it is.

9 comments:

Chuk said...

I'm glad I read it, but I think you've put into words something I was feeling in the back of my mind: Embassytown is a curiously weightless exercise.
I enjoyed it and liked the ideas and the callback to a style of book that we don't see much anymore, but it felt like it could have done more. Like the novel was a really good try at something very ambitious that it didn't quite succeed at.

Julian Yap said...

While I hold Embassytown in higher regard than you do--it's probably my favorite Mieville novel since The Scar--this is probably one of the most virtuoso reviews I've ever read.

Benjamin said...

As someone who does know some philosophy of language (I am a philosophy graduate student), I share your frustration with trying to find a unifying thread in Language. There seem to be (at least) two entirely different ideas here; on the one hand, language as an expression of mental states (shown by the requirement that the speaker be a unitary mind), and on the other hand the idea of the words as identical to their referents (shown by the inability to lie). Not only do these two components not flow from one another, they seem downright inconsistent (after all, mental states are not the referents of our words, and the objects that are the referents of our words cannot be part of our minds). Maybe there is some connection I'm missing, but it would, as you say, be very nice to have seen it spelled out. I was very frustrated by this for a while, until I decided to stop worrying about the unifying feature of Language and treat it as a black-box plot element. This felt, to me anyway, like a missed opportunity.

Furthermore, the necessity of getting people to literally act out similes struck me as implausible and excessive. It implies that the Hosts are unable to speak about hypothetical situations (i.e. if there were a girl who ate what was given to her). If so, then how could they ever think about the future, or make plans for contingencies? Its a neat idea, but it doesn't make a lot of sense.

There is a lot to like in Embassytown, and your review does an excellent job of highlighting these pros, but I do wish that we had been given a bit more of a unified account of what it is that makes Language what it is.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Julian:

Thank you! I should say that I think Embassytown is Mieville's most coherent novel - that is, it's clearly of a piece, the plot isn't as baggy and meandering as those of the Bas Lag novels, there isn't a core failing like the mystery aspect of The City and City, and the only real technical flaw is the slow start.

Benjamin:

Good to know that my doubts about Language aren't unfounded. As I say in the review, I think this is something Mieville could have worked to address, and in fact does to a certain extent, but never as much as he should (for example, halfway into the book he suggests that Language once had an evolutionary advantage, and even contrasts it with the Ariekei's rejection of the evolved custom of eating their brain-dead elders, but the novel doesn't go anywhere with this). As you say, it makes no sense for Ariekei to be able to think about the future (or, as in the example I give from the book, to express abstract concepts like numbers - which Avice seems to confirm when she notices that they have no concept of thatness; Ariekei should never be able to say "three," but always "three [objects]"), and thus to create their complex culture.

rushthatspeaks said...

I tend to read the end of the book as everyone being hopeful just because otherwise it would be too depressing to think about; Avice has to believe that the disintegration of Language is the best outcome, or else she'd have too much guilt to carry (and also her ex-husband would have been right, which I don't think she could cope with either).

I also tend to read it as theological fantasy more than as SF, and I really admire the way in which the Ariekei are in the Garden of Eden story whereas the humans are in the Tower of Babel. My belief in it as at root a non-scientific worldbuilding schema comes mostly from the delightful way FTL tech works, where the fabric of the universe is literally different for different species, and no alien race is able to communicate adequately to another how they manage FTL, even though they can carry members of other species on their ships. That particular conceit indicates to me that the experience of different species in this universe is sufficiently non-communicable that the interface that humans have with the Ariekei's Language is a similar communications glitch, as incomprehensible as FTL. Of course its rules are arbitrary and mutually exclusive, as odd as Ariekei starflight would be if they had any-- and the breaking of Language is the species coming into a space where they can communicate with humans, but at the loss of whatever incomprehensible-to-humans things they might have been going to do. I don't think Language is meant to be a logically consistent extrapolation; I think it's meant to be baffling and slightly incorrect-seeming, which is thematically resonant.

Christopher DeFilippis said...

It's nice to know that I wasn't alone in finding Embassytown to ultimately be less than the sum of its parts. I think the mainstream praise heaped upon it is akin to the free pass given to the Battlestar reboot. It's OK, even hip, to like this because it's a serious seeming book that explores high concept subject matter. There be no Klingons here! This is Literature. Never mind that the story drags and the characters are ultimately unlikable. I wrote a fuller review on my site. I'd be curious to know what you think:
http://deflipside.com/?page_id=4137
Happy to have found your blog. It's nice to read the thoughts of an intelligent genre fan.

Anonymous said...

But can the Ariekei dream? This question has been bugging me for ages. I need to find a way to ask Mieville himself.

Katja Petrovic said...

Thank you so much for articulating something I've had in the back of my mind since I finished the book today but (like the Ariekei) haven't quite been able to voice.

I too would have preferred the novel to be a bit less "event-laden" because I think the ideas sadly get a bit confused. For example, the Absurd strategise without realising it; they can communicate, but somehow aren't aware of doing so. The novel posits that, essentially, they think that they are unable to think. I still can't figure out how one can think and not think at the same time, and I don't believe Mieville explained this well at all.

I also found the whole sub-plot with Scile to be a total let-down. *spoilers* I mean, at one point Avice receives a goodbye letter from Scile which, it is hinted, is terribly important. Naturally, I expected her to read it at the end and there be some meaningful explanation of his actions. Instead, the letter is never revisited and all we get is "Scile went into a religious haze for no apparent reason and pissed off (then came back to do something completely pointless)". I feel like if Mieville hadn't had so many ideas and subplots going on, he would have been better able to keep a leash on it all.

Like you, I want to compare Mieville's writing to that of Le Guin, the key difference being that Le Guin's concepts, although complex, are always crystal clear.

Lots and lots of praise for this wonderful review.

baeraad said...

I feel odd commenting just to agree, but then it occurs to me that I probably come off as very negative and annoying when I only ever comment to argue and disagree, so... yes. I agree completely.

The story is just flat. You keep getting bits and pieces of interesting stuff, whether worldbuilding or character, but it never becomes more than bits and pieces, and the story itself lacks all urgency. The tone seems to be fatalistic despair from start to finish, like it doesn't matter whether the heroine lives or dies because life is hopeless and has no meaning anyway. I mean, Mieville is not the cheeriest of writers on the best of days, but here it's like he can't even bring himself to care.

As for Language and the Hosts, like you say, it feels like a very interesting idea but it never quite seems to come together even in Mieville's own head - he has one of his characters point out that the whole thing makes no sense, and then he just goes on with it anyway and we're supposed to chalk it up to the universe being large and bizarre and beyond our feeble understanding. That sort of thing can work, but it doesn't here - not for me, at least.

And the Hosts themselves. Hoo boy. I actually feel for Mieville. He just tries sooooo hard to keep from portraying them as noble savages, but the thing is, this is a story about technologically superior humans almost cause the extinction of a less advanced race by talking to them. There's pretty much no way to salvage that premise.

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