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.