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Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Embassytown" by China Mieville (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: When I hear the name China Mieville, I always think of the genius author that took fantasy by storm with two masterpieces that reshaped the more outlandish parts of it and by their extraordinary success gave commercial viability to a new sub-genre that came to be known as New Weird.

The books in questions are Perdido Street Station and The Scar, and they are among my top all time standalone fantasy novels. I reread them quite a few times and I see myself rereading them for a long time to come. The unbridled imagination exhibited in both is just breathtaking.

The third New Crobuzon novel, Iron Council, was a book that I almost hated, though in time I came to view it as a perfect example of the "well written but empty" novel; many people from the sff scene whose opinion I deeply respect told me that "Iron Council" is a masterpiece of novel composition, and while it may be so technically, for me it still remains a soulless book that throws away the rich milieu of New Crobuzon by repetitiveness. I'd rather have a flawed book, warts and all, that I care about than a perfect novel that leaves me cold and wondering why I bothered...

After a YA novel Un Lun Dun, Mr. Mieville returned to the genre with "The City and the City", a police procedural with a twist and a book I would have appreciated more were I new to the mystery genre; sadly this genre is limited and across time I read too many books from it so the genre essentially is finished for me and consequently the second part of "The City and the City" where the speculative elements from the first part fade away was a huge letdown.

Next came Kraken from another subgenre I dislike, namely Urban Fantasy and while I read some 200 pages from it, I lost suspension of disbelief, got bored and stopped and I am not sure when I will finish it. But now we finally have a China Mieville novel of the kind I love and Embassytown has been one of my top five expected books from 2011.

"Embassytown: a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerser, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts - who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes"

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: In a strange universe, there are even stranger things than "subspace" travel, multiple human habitats and the vast unknown and its rumors. At one end of the subspace "corridors", isolated from the rest of the universe by the "Wreck", there is Arieka, a planet of sentient beings for which Language is organic and essential to their sentience as well as literal in their understanding of the world - so for example they cannot lie, they cannot understand machine talk however perfect in reproducing their sounds and they cannot understand humans unless the humans mimic the aliens physicality of speech in the person(s) of the Ambassadors.

So despite their bio sophistication, the Hosts - as the aliens are called by the inhabitants of Embassytown the human city/outpost on their planet - are less sophisticated than the experienced human operators both native and "colonial" since they cannot literally conceive of various things; add to this politics, intrigue and simple unintended consequences of inter-human power plays and we get this superb novel that partly explores the same narrative space as The City and the City but in a far more imaginative and interesting way.

The novel is narrated by Avice, an Embassytown native who as a child attracts the attention of the Hosts and is offered the role of a human simile in the aliens' strange culture. Despite the pain and discomfort involved, Avice accepts and she becomes forever part of the Hosts "language" as "a girl ate what was given to her".
In return, the colony powers - the weird humans known as Ambassadors and their staff - approve her "immerser" application and she becomes a qualified starship crew and leaves Embassytown for the larger universe. In a fast whirlwind tour we get a glimpse of the intricate creation by the author, until for various reasons Avice somewhat unexpectedly returns home and soon becomes involved in the events that will shake the world to its core.

The structure of the novel is nonlinear for the first half so we move between the present of the crisis and the past as narrated by Avice, but once things get going in earnest, Embassytown becomes in large part a typical example of sf about aliens with a strange biology that makes their interaction with humans tricky and to be managed carefully, the humans' misstep - by chance, mistake, malice - the consequent imbalance and tottering on disaster and the solution if any - and there is indeed such sf where there is no solution and the planet in cause goes boom at the end.

Very familiar stuff from tons of sf novels, executed perfectly by the author, but quite predictable in many ways as the big picture goes; from a pure sfnal point of view the least sf you've read the more you will appreciate the novel and it will keep you in suspense. On the other hand as a literary achievement, Embassytown is superb and for me that was enough to greatly enjoy the novel despite reading its sfnal content of the second half for the nth time.

I really loved the glimpses of the larger universe of the novel and I wish that the author will expand them in a series of novels set there - the ending of Embassytown offers a great hook for that, but there could be something completely unrelated - while the main action of the book is handled masterfully, however the main strengths of the book are in language and characters.

The book just flows perfectly and you cannot stop turning its pages, while the cast is just superb. Outside Avice, the main characters are the Ambassadors CalVin and EzRa, her husband Scile - a semi-professional non-native linguist whose fascination with Avice's home-world partly led to their return - various other human similes as well as several Hosts that slowly start taking center stage as the novel progresses.

Avice's journey from a young naive child, to a jaded former spacewoman at the margins of the power centers of Embassytown and then to her becoming central in the action when the crisis comes and both Ambassadors and colonial representatives are passed by the events spinning fast out of control, forms the narrative axis around which the novel revolves and I think this choice paid off big time since it kept the book unitary.

Above I mentioned three major aspects of the novel - the outside universe, the aliens culture and its biological underpinnings, the humans' interaction with them - and there are several more which are somewhat peripheral though they have their roles in what happens - most notably the power play between the humans of Embassytown and their leaders, the Ambassadors, versus the colonial masters in the far away Bremen - and Avice is the main glue that keeps them in a whole.

Overall, Embassytown (A++) is a superb literary achievement of the author set in an imaginative universe with fascinating aliens, though the sfnal content is relatively predictable in the second part of the novel when the action starts centering on the human-Hosts interaction, rather than the aliens themselves or the humans by themselves for that matter.


Unknown said...

I'd been putting it off for weeks to get a few quick books under my belt before, ahem, immersing myself in Embassytown - the better to properly appreciate it, you understand - and just last night I cracked this beauty open. Shortly thereafter 4AM happened. So good! :)

redhead said...

Liviu, we share a love for The Scar, although I'm in the "Iron Council was brilliant!" camp.

I'd gotten so spoiled on Mieville doing weird, that The City and The City didn't do much for me, and Kraken still has me nervous. I'm thrilled to see that Embassytown has all those wonderful flavors of weird that I've come to expect from Mieville. I can't wait to read it!

Liviu said...

Kraken is weird enough if you are in the mood for it; Embassytown though is special and if the author would write more about the milieu he created here, it would be awesome - this universe of CM here has the potential to be even more awesome than IMB's Culture

As for Iron Council, it was a matter of expectations in large part; i wanted a sequel to The Scar and more about the many weird things from there rather than what I saw as a retread to the same

Ron Buckmire said...

I also love The Scar and Perdido Street Station but found Iron Council almost unreadable.

I was able to complete Kraken but was not impressed.

I am definitely looking forwar to reading Embassytown, hopefully for my birthday this weekend!!


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