Review: “Embassytown” by China Mieville

Thumbs up for Embassytown by China Miéville. Science fiction.

This is one of the few science fiction novels I could find that focuses heavily on linguistics as the science to go with the fiction. It was my first China Miéville novel. Now, if I knew two things about Miéville going into this book, it was that A. He is a genius and B. His books are horribly flawed because [insert complaint here]. Both A and B are true. My God, this book is a work of genius! It is beautifully written, the plot is unique and engrossing, and there is enough exquisite strangeness and creativity here for four or five lesser books. I loved it; I didn’t want to put it down. However—yes, it has its difficulties as well. First, the basic linguistic premise makes no sense if considered for a couple of seconds. To my own surprise, I was enjoying the book so much I was willing to let Miéville pull the wool over my eyes by fancy logicking. Second, the protagonist/narrator was undefined, so drastically so that I feel it must be deliberate. I can’t picture her, nor predict what she would do or say or feel in any situation. She is a zero, serving only to tell the story. Thirdly, while the world and the alien Ariekei people are described with great specificity and detail, I still can’t visualize them. How can you be both specific and abstract at the same time? I don’t know. But Miéville is such a genius that even his flaws are impressive works of art. At a certain point, I have to call the weirdnesses of an author’s style features rather than bugs, and either accept them or move on. I loved this book; it is possible that you will love it too, or hate it, or hate and love different bits. If you are interested in science fiction about languages, or very alien aliens, or just wild creativity, try it out and decide for yourself. You might just find it’s worth it.

“Oh, bullshit,” Wyatt said. I blinked. “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 the 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. Behind every Ku and Lono story, there’s…pilfering and cannon-fire. Believe me,” he added wryly. “It’s my job.” He made thieving-fingers motions. It was because he would say things like that that I liked him.

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