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Mieville, Crowley, and the Truth. - the period of cosmography
Mieville, Crowley, and the Truth.

What first caught my attention when I began to read China Miéville’s  new novel «Embassytown» were concepts that I’d found before in the work of John Crowley: “Vespcams” and a community of “truthful speakers”, beings unable to lie. Later on, the back of my mind nagged me into realising that the main character seemed so familiar because of her biography, that could have been designed by Crowley: special childhood, exile, social otherness. It’s nice to find ideas and forms one likes getting spread and expanded, and it would be fun to learn from Miéville whether Crowley is among the authors that have influenced him; whatever the truth is, if ever a history of these writings is written, the story is bound to be that he is. With that said I need to state very clearly: «Embassytown» is not a book by Crowley. It is not like a book by Crowley. In fact, I personally don’t believe that it makes any sense at all to compare both authors. (But I’m not going to start a sectarian dispute with Miéville fans, so I won’t go into the details of why)

Embassytown is a human outpost at the navigational rim of the universe, an enclave within a larger alien city inhabited by the Hosts, a wondrously alien race that is unable to speak untruths. The main driving force of the novel is Language, the language of the hosts. Language lacks mechanisms for signification, instead everything in it is reference, it is a map that is almost the territory because it’s not an abstraction but a subset. Maybe Language is what Adam and Prebabelian humans spoke, a tongue that reflects nature unmediated. You’ll have to read the novel if you want to know what consequences Miéville has spun out of Language’s characteristics, but I’ll give you an example: In order to accommodate the concepts needed to interact with humans, the Hosts need to use similes. Similes are persons who are asked to perform certain things or have things done to them, in order to provide real world referents so that the concepts can be incorporated into Language.  But similes are not abstractions, they are the real thing. In Language there is no such thing as a quisling – the word is actually used in the novel – instead there would be “the man who betrayed his people and served the foreign tyrant”. The actual persons – not just their actions – who have served as similes, become part of Language.

But «Embassytown» is not a book for students of Ricoeur and Kripke seeking entertainment; more than anything it is a full blown SciFi novel with all the trimmings: Alien beings, cool technology, travel, mystery, and conflict, all wildly imagined by Miéville at his best. His descriptions of bureaucracy, addiction, unfathomable cosmologies and alien culture are enticing and convincing, and again he displays, though much more subdued than in his last, the usual humour and pop cultural winks, even managing to pull off a joke involving George A. Romero movies.

The only problem I encountered with the book was that it hooked me up so strongly that I devoured it in just a few sittings. But this is a novel that needs you to pay attention in order to get everything out of it, and so I had to stop and go back and reread a couple of times. Well, that’s not really an issue.

4 comments or Leave a comment
juggzy From: juggzy Date: June 13th, 2011 01:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes - thanks. Ikm on my blackberry so can't make a lengthy response but 'I agree with this post'
anselmo_b From: anselmo_b Date: June 15th, 2011 09:15 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you. Still, I hope you will get around to writing a review or whatever of your own; four eyes read better than two.
joculum From: joculum Date: June 15th, 2011 03:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
My whole view of Dr. Mieville has changed since learning that his goal is to write a novel in every genre of genre fiction (I wonder how many genres he has to go?) and that his particular Marxist theory of international law has been published in a book based on his dissertation. It doesn't change his status as a novelist but as with David Eagleman and Sum, it suggests a small part of the invisible agenda behind the visible literary result.
anselmo_b From: anselmo_b Date: June 16th, 2011 12:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
I started reading Miéville with «The City & The City» after juggzy mentioned it. I was fascinated - not least by a certain similarity between the sociological and psychological mechanisms that work in his city and the way that Mexican social classes coexist as if superimposed in reality - and read the two books he wrote since with equal relish. I agree that he has a lot more to say than he explicitly lays down. And he is a good writer too. I'm somewhat shocked right now at experiencing, through the reading of Arthur C. Clarke's cumbersomely narrated «The City and the Stars», the fact that being a great SciFi writer is by long not the same thing as being a great writer. When I almost completely stopped reading SciFi over twenty years ago I wasn't really aware of this. Anyway I ordered Sum and the one about the brain, as I suppose this is the closest I'll see you get to explicitly recommending a book.
4 comments or Leave a comment