Embassytown

by Henry on June 13, 2011

I liked “Embassytown”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345524497/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217153&creative=399349&creativeASIN=0345524497 a lot (which will come as no surprise to long time CT readers). It wasn’t perfect. There is a longish section (between the two-thirds and four-fifths mark) which dragged – it had neither the intellectual pyrotechnics nor the pacing of the rest of the book. But where it is good, it soars, and better reconciles literary ambition and sense-of-wonder headkicks than anything else he’s written. It’s hard to compare with any other book – perhaps the closest is Delany’s _Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand_ in its mixture of space opera and linguistic speculation – but the comparison isn’t very close. The writing is more tamped down and Delany’s perverse romanticism is nearly entirely absent. Perhaps the best way to think of the book is as a kind of hard science-fiction, where the ‘hard’ theory that is being played with is linguistic theory rather than speculative physics (now that I think of it, Mieville’s suggestion that his imagined universe is a ‘parole,’ of the ‘langue’ that is the under-lying meta-universe is an obvious hint in this direction). Mieville is not trying himself to contribute to literary theory – but then, when Alastair Reynolds uses weird bits of information theory to come up with a justification for a cloaking device, he is presumably not doing this for the purposes of peer reviewed science. He’s having fun – and so too is Mieville. Some of the concepts – people literally being incorporated into Language as similes by aliens who _need_ concrete referents to think and to speak – are quite wonderful.

I’m not going to write a review of the book (I don’t think it would be possible to top Sam Thompson’s “excellent piece”:http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n12/sam-thompson/monsters-you-pay-to-see for the LRB) – but I do want to point to one interesting resonance between the book and _Iron Council_ (which of course we did a “seminar on”:https://crookedtimber.org/category/mieville-seminar/ a few years back. Since there are spoilers, the rest is below the fold.

“Miriam Burstein”:http://littleprofessor.typepad.com/the_little_professor/2011/05/embassytown.html points to the similarities between Scile ( a rather pathetic villain) and Judah Low in _Iron Council._ Both are guilty of choice-theft – they themselves choose in ways that deny the autonomy of others. As Miriam puts it:

bq. Much like Mieville’s Iron Council, which reworks and ultimately subverts the meaning of the Passion, Embassytown revisits the fall from Paradise. It does so, however, by questioning the fantasy of cultural purity. Avice reflects to herself that the majority of Ariekai similes “were Terre men and women: there was something in us that facilitated” (106). The process of producing similes, that is, literally brings humanity into Language, transforms it into what postcolonial theorists would call a hybrid. The Hosts speak with humans, literally. And, as Scile admits, their encounter with humans has spurred them to make more similes (56). Cultural contact spurs unpredictable and uncontrollable change. Scile, however, is rapt by the perfection of Language, in which “‘[w]ords don’t signify; they are their referents'” (80). This is God-talk, a language of absolute truth, in which interpretation itself evanesces before the absolute nature of reference. This is a language that admits of no fiction. For Scile and his followers, Language turns out to be Eden–not in a space, but in enunciation itself. When’ Scile realizes that one Ariekai is seeking to speak in metaphor instead of simile, he links him to Satan: “The world becomes a lie. That’s what Surl Tesh-echer wants. To bring in a lie […] It wants to usher in evil'” (141). To speak in metaphor is to become the Prince of Lies, to eject the Hosts from their self-enclosed Paradise. And yet, Language has already been “infected,” as it were, by the human similes and other tropes. Scile chooses to ally himself with those who seek to preserve the purity of Language, even though Language has already become impure (if it was pure in the first place); more to the point, in so doing he denies the agency of those Ariekai who choose metaphor. He wishes to preserve their innocence in the face of human contact, even if it means engineering the deaths of Ariekei “liars.” Scile yearns, in effect, to keep the Ariekei outside of history, even though they are already in it.

This is true – yet it is also true that the role of Judah Low in _Iron Council_ has been bifurcated. Scile, like Judah, serves as a betrayer, yet Judah’s intervention _works_ – it creates the tension that may one day lead to a revolution. Scile is specifically seeking to turn a revolution back before it becomes established. The actual revolutionaries are the Arieki Surl Tesh-Echer and Spanish Dancer, whose motivations remain nearly entirely opaque – but who somehow discern the potential for a different order, even if they cannot know what that order would be. For Surl Tesh-Echer, a world outside the prisonhouse of Language is literally unthinkable – yet such a world is what it struggles towards without knowing what it might be. The analogy with “Mieville’s ideas about revolution”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/01/11/an-argument-in-time/ is emphatic.

bq. if we take seriously the scale of social and psychic upheaval represented by a revolution, a post-revolutionary society is unthinkable: for someone not born in a post-revolutionary situation, it takes the process of going through a revolution to fully imagine it. To depict it is to diminish it.

The revolution that the Arieki bring through starts, quite literally, with a lie – Sul Tesh-Echer’s lie that “before the humans came we didn’t speak.” But this lie then flowers into metaphor, and then into a truth that Surl Tesh-Echer could not have understood when it said it. It is correct to say that the Arieki didn’t speak before the humans came – but it didn’t know, and couldn’t have known that this was true when it said it. As Spanish Dancer says to the Arieki at the end of the book.

bq. Before the humans came we didn’t speak so much of certain things. We were grown into Language. After history we made city and machine and gave them names. We didn’t speak so much of certain things. Language spoke us.

This is a solution to Mieville’s dilemma of how to depict a revolution while doing it justice. The revolution that the Arieki undergo is a revolution from a state of being without the possibilities of language. What remains obscure to the human observers, and even to the Arieki themselves after their transformation, is what it had once been like to have been spoken by Language rather than speaking it. And by depicting this revolution, the fruits of which we can understand, Mieville provides a metaphor for the kind of revolution that we can’t understand, but that he would like to see. _Embassytown_ is, as much as it is about anything (and it is a book about _many_ things) about the ways in which the promise of fundamental transformation is inevitably a lie, right up to the moment when the transformation occurs, because the person making the promise cannot possibly understand that which is being promised. This isn’t a claim that I subscribe to in the sense that I imagine Mieville does (I’m a meliorist social democrat rather than a revolutionary socialist), but it is a large part of what makes the book effective, moving, and powerful.

It’s a serious book. The Thompson review that I link to above is, among many other things, a deliberate rebuttal to a “piss-poor”:http://ambientehotel.wordpress.com/2011/02/26/john-mullan-clapham-the-no-fuck-vampire-novel/ “essay”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/25/literary-fiction-twelve-best-new-novelists written by a Booker prize judge arguing that the difference between smelly genre fiction (which the Booker people don’t consider, naturally) and ‘literary fiction’ is that the latter is self-aware about form and “ask us to attend to the manner of their telling.” As Thompson points out, Mieville’s book is _all about_ attending to the manner of its telling (if I see another book this year which is as self-aware about language and representation, I’ll be astonished), but also takes its monsters _extremely seriously._ In an ideal world, it would be in serious contention for both the Booker and the Hugo (whether we live in anything approximating that world remains, of course, to be seen).

{ 17 comments }

1

geo 06.13.11 at 5:49 pm

aliens who need concrete referents to think and to speak

This reminds me of that wonderful episode (http://memory-alpha.org/wiki/Darmok_(episode)) from Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Picard encounters a civilization that “speaks a metaphorical language incompatible with the universal translator.”

2

TheSophist 06.13.11 at 8:37 pm

First of all I’d like to thank CT, and Prof. Farrell in particular, for serving, several years ago, as my introduction to China Mieville.

Secondly, Embassytown is every bit as remarkable as this post suggests. The last novel I read that made me think this much was Infinite Jest. Like IJ, a measure of Embassytown’s profundity was my complete inability to answer coherently the question “What’s it about?”, which was, of course, my friends’ and colleagues’ immediate response when I would gush about the wonderful book I was reading.

And, thirdly, a question: I teach a sci-fi class to (American) High School seniors (divided about 2/3 “I get to read Dune for credit, darn life is good”, and 1/3 “This sounds less painful than the other English classes “, and I really want to add Embassytown to the reading list. Any thoughts on how it might be received by those with zero background on anything Saussurean or post-, for whom even signifier and signified are totally alien terms?

3

fuyura 06.13.11 at 9:19 pm

I just started Embassytown last night and got about 20 pages into it when I realized that I’m going to have to read it with more attention than I can give it right now. So it’s going back to the library and I’ll have to buy a copy to put on The Pile. Was that Miéville’s plan?

4

shah8 06.14.11 at 12:25 am

I enjoyed this book very much, even though much of it went over my head. Actually, I would kind of like to think of this novel in terms of trade languages and also how religions spread. Holy spirits and baptisms are pretty important here, after all. As well as the acceptance that they have a place in affairs that they are powerless to step out of, despite pain, unpleasantness, and coercion. New Bremen isn’t exactly the topic of these reviews, even though it’s God.

Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 is also an important antecedent in nearly the same way (I’d think more than Stars…).

5

Cool Bev 06.14.11 at 1:24 am

How does it compare to Anathem? The linguistic trickery makes it an obvious work to compare. It sounds a bit more flashy, where Anathem, though dense and sometimes obscure, was really pretty straight-ahead adventure.

I’m afraid I’ve never taken to Mieville – too much insect sex. Other than that…

6

Sean Matthews 06.14.11 at 10:52 am

Well, Thompson is barely out of the gate, or at least past the first paragraph, before he is carefully signaling the same distinctions between literary fiction and genre fiction that Mullan argues for in his article (compare and contrast remarks about Wolf Hall) , just in case anyone might accidently think he is reviewing a bog-standard genre novel.

7

KD 06.14.11 at 12:14 pm

Whilst a lovely conceit – although by no means particularly original, the afore-mentioned Delany being an obvious predecessor but also Blish’s A Case For Conscience and others I’m sure – I felt it was the least enjoyable Mieville book I’ve read since King Rat. As mentioned in the OP, it just dragged for too large a portion of the book. Normally Mieville is terrific at ensuring his ideas do not impede the narrative pace (Iron Council and The City and The City both leap out as, to me, hugely successful examples of how to do it), but I honestly got bored halfway through. The implications of Language were nicely played out, but in and of themselves were not enough to stretch to an extra couple of hundred pages without something else to drive the story, be it narrative drive or character development (which was, again, comparatively weak). I think if he’d tightened it to half as long it could have been great.

As context, I do think Mieville is one of the best writers writing today, when on form.

@ Cool Bev – Anathem is a lot more of a romp, as you guessed (and also – Neal Stephenson ends novel with actual climax shocker), and whilst it doesn’t make many demands beyond thinking about his nice wordplay and the pseudo-Socratic dialogues, I was more impressed with it.

8

Stella 06.14.11 at 3:15 pm

A serious book, yes, and I think it’s worth emphasizing the sheer beauty of the writing in a lot of places (as befits a book about language, and metaphor in particular). One of my favorite bits, that I had to write down as I read it, is quoted in the Thompson review: “The city’s a heart, I said, and in that a heart and a city were sutured into a third thing, a heartish city, and cities are heart-stained, and hearts are city-stained too.” An evocative summation of one of Mieville’s major themes of living cities and of how people and cities affect each other.

I didn’t find that the story dragged, but the question of character development is interesting. Avice is a somewhat distant narrator, not really interested in telling her personal story; clearly this is a deliberate choice, and her story isn’t really the point. (I think there was some deliberate distancing from the characters in Iron Council, too.) Mieville could probably gain some readers by focusing more on personal stories, but I don’t think it would necessarily make the books better or more interesting. For me, Avice’s tone of slight remove gives the story a sort of tragic grandeur that it wouldn’t have if told on a more personal scale.

9

Henry 06.14.11 at 3:21 pm

Sean – I was quite confused until I realized that you had read the crappy Mullan essay that Thompson is giving grief to, and mistaken it for the Thompson review itself (which is linked to earlier in the post, and an altogether different class of an essay).

10

Henry 06.14.11 at 3:22 pm

shah8 – I’m prepared to believe you, but since I’ve never (to my shame) read Babel-17, I went with the one that I knew.

11

David 06.15.11 at 1:59 am

No, no, no! I’m a huge Mieville fan and I enjoyed this book but you cannot term it in anyway as Space Opera. It is most definitely SF, unlike his previous work but it is not space opera. We are actually twenty-some years into the true golden age of this sub-genre and the definition has greatly expanded (see Hartwell and Cramer’s excellent anthology The Space Opera Renaissance for a good overview), but not enough to encompass this novel. I could make other quibbles but I’ll go back to the comment thread for the time being. I see someone already pointed out Delany’s Babel-17 as an antecedent. Much less tedious than Stars Like Grains… although I wish he would finish it. One might also mention Jack Vance and The Languages of Pao as another SF exploration of language.

12

David 06.15.11 at 2:02 am

Oh, and whilst I’m at it, Stephenson is the most overrated writer in SF, if not the English language.

13

Stella 06.15.11 at 8:44 pm

It also occurs to me that the otherwise excellent Thompson review completely misses the point about the grindylow in The Scar (spoiler warning). The whole point was that they aren’t actually “beings so bizarre that we can’t begin to grasp their motives;” rather than being idol-worshiping primitives, they are motivated by the same calculations of self-preservation and strategy as the other powers in the world. It’s a commentary on the tendency to cast one’s enemy as an unknowable Other, and one of the things I really liked about the book.

Not that Mieville doesn’t do unknowable Other, and do it well (scissor-collecting transdimensional spiders?), but the grindylow aren’t it.

14

Neel Krishnaswami 06.15.11 at 8:58 pm

Stelal@13: Total agreement. Overall, Mieville drew too much attention to the mechanics of authorship in The Scar for my taste, but it was necessary for the anti-Orientalist moment of truth when the grindylow showed their hand, and that was so perfect I’m willing to give the rest of it a pass.

15

Dmitri 06.15.11 at 10:15 pm

I liked the book pretty well, though agree about the pacing. One thing really bothered me though, which was that the aliens could understand tape recordings. That seemed like a transparent compromise to convenient plotting, but totally inconsistent with the logic of the world. If recordings worked then speech synthesis should too, since the latter can be made to approach the former arbitrarily closely. A weird irruption of mysticism, or something.

16

David 06.17.11 at 4:13 am

Another antecedent to be considered is the James Blish classic A Case of Conscience .

17

Henry 06.19.11 at 12:47 pm

Belated replies (I am travelling).

David – my take is that it _does so_ fit into space opera (I have read the Hartwell/Cramer anthology but it is not definitive of the field). While it is mostly set on one planet, the backdrop (commercial empires seeking to expand their territory) seems to me to be pure space opera, and also inseparable from the main story (as the end makes clear). An important intermediary text here is M. John Harrison’s revisionist space opera _Light_ – which has ontologically ambiguous universe in which every species has its own theory of physics, incompatible with the others, and _they all produce hyperdrives that work_ ). Sadly, none of them seems to have gotten the fabulous anti-syntax drive to work, but this surely foreshadows the swallowdrives, bansheetech etc of Mieville’s book.

And I think that the Safir/Whorf argument of _Languages of Pao_ is not particularly interesting. I am doing a series of posts on the sociology of Jack Vance on a kind of commonplace book-blog that I keep for my own amusement, and think that _LoP_ is more interesting for the way that it anticipates John Padgett on robust action.

Stella – it may well be that I’ll find the pace more congenial on a second reading; certainly I’ve had similar experiences in the past. On Avice’s slight remove – one thing that I would like to explore next time I read it is whether one can read certain non-Ambassador characters in the book as pairings of voices, partly reinforcing and partly undermining each other. I suspect one could come up with some interesting readings that way.

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