Embassytown

EMBASSYTOWN
By China Miéville

British author China Miéville is arguably the hottest property in science fiction today, having written a number of bestselling, critically acclaimed novels that have swept all of the major SF awards. Known as someone who likes to think outside the genre box, his new novel, Embassytown, announces one such new direction in its preliminary Acknowledgments. Here Miéville names three writers he feels “particularly grateful to.” These are not, however, stars of the SF pantheon, but rather the literary critic I. A. Richards and the theorists Paul Ricoeur and Tran Duc Thao, a pair of nearly incomprehensible philosophers of language who were briefly popular among French post-structuralist academics back in the days when such things were trendy.

This tip of the hat is our introduction to a science fiction fable about language. The place is Embassytown, a city on the planet Ariekei. Ariekei is home to a type of creature (the Ariekei, also known as “Hosts”) described by the human colonists as “insect-horse-coral-fan things . . . chimeras of our own baggage.” Breaking this down, they have hooves, fan-like wings, a carapace, and eyes that float about on what look like stalks of coral. In addition to their striking appearance, the Ariekei make use of a grotesque “biorigged” technology to build their cities. Construction sites are likened to “combined slaughterhouses, puppy farms and quarries.” No doubt it’s organic, even if it seems a bit like living in a genetically modified compost heap.

But the truly odd thing about the Ariekei, in fact what makes them unique in the known universe, is their language. The Hosts don’t have a language that operates by reference to anything outside itself. The word is the meaning, not a sign that represents something else. They even choose people to act as living figures of speech, with the hero of the novel, Avice Benner Cho, becoming a simile.

Such hyper-literalness makes it impossible for the Hosts to tell a lie. Like Gulliver’s Houyhnhms they cannot comprehend the thing-that-is-not. This innocence leaves them especially vulnerable to human ambassadors who have been cloned so as to be able to imitate the Hosts’ dual-track language. These deep-future descendants of Machiavelli and Talleyrand fry the brains of the Hosts with their own version of a forked tongue. The Ariekei immediately fall into language in a way that puts the entire planet into crisis mode, and it is up to Avice to find a way to teach the Ariekei how to speak the truth with lies, and evolve from simile to metaphor.

This radical transformation, when it happens, is apocalyptic:

The said was now not-as-it-is. What they spoke now weren’t things or moments anymore but the thoughts of them, pointings-at; meaning no longer a flat facet of essence; signs ripped from what they signed. It took the lie to do that. With that spiral of assertion-abnegation came quiddities, and the Ariekei became themselves. They were worldsick, as meanings yawed. Anything was anything, now. Their minds were sudden merchants: metaphor, like money, equalised the incommensurable.

This is the sort of climax that only a grad student could love, and it takes Miéville a long time to get there. As space opera Embassytown has some clever, freshly imagined material, like Avice’s account of traveling through “immerspace,” but Miéville’s heart clearly isn’t in it. Instead he seems to only be interested in dramatizing ideas which, by the time you sort them out, really aren’t saying very much.

All genre fiction is made stronger through a process of cross-breeding with other, non-traditional elements. That said, introducing literary theory to science fiction on this scale has to be seen as a counterproductive strategy. SF, and Miéville, are a lot smarter and more interesting without it.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 12, 2011.