Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: Embassytown

So, finished my first book of the year - China Mieville's Embassytown. I've not read a lot of SF in the last few years, despite my self-identification as an SF fan. A few books, yes, but with inroads to Fantasy and Horror, as well as the usual diet of history and science books, I've not really made the time to stay "in" the genre and I'm not really sure I've missed it. I do like Mieville though, I own several of his books and I've seen him on a couple of convention panels, where he comes across pretty much as you'd expect; a smart and erudite writer who is very aware of how smart and erudite he is, and so Embassytown would probably have been on my "to read" list for this year even if I didn't get bought it for christmas!

A quick synopsis. There is a planet where the local aliens (the Areikei) communicate with two mouths working in harmony, and can only understand begin spoken two in a similar manner. Machines cannot replicate it, so the humans based on this backwater have developed "Ambassadors", cloned twins that speak this two-part "Language" and can therefore be understood. Our narrator, Avice Benner Cho was born and raised in Embassytown and is a "Similie", something used be Areikei to aid communication, as Language doesn't allow for lies or abstract thought without real examples. Avice has also been to "the out", being a space-farer for part of her life before coming home, to find a crisis caused by the arrival of a new Ambassador, non-cloned, who has a terrible effect on the status quo.

Interestingly the blurb on the back of the book refers to a plot resolution that only happens in the last 50 pages of the book, so well done whoever wrote that.

Anyway, Embassytown is about a lot of things. Chiefly it's about language, about how language shapes our thoughts, and about how it can control us, and be used to control us, and how changing language can change us for good and ill. Its also about change, about finding yourself, as for much of the story Avice is an observer, rather than an agent, only stepping up in her own right towards the end of the novel. Its also about the individual and society, about the sense of individuality against conformity. Basically it's got a lot going on, and ultimately, it feels that its a little bit about how clever China Mieville is.

I must like Mieville because I own a lot of his books. But I always seem to finish them feeling slightly unsatisfied, or at least even so gently beaten around the head with someone elses intellectual baton. Like The City and the City, Embassytown has a central concept that is hard to rationalise, the sort of idea that works well on paper, and as a driver for the story its telling, but teeters on the edge of literary conceit throughout it's length. It nags at me that if you step outside of the story's structure, the whole idea falls apart even within it's own reality.

I suspect Mieville would say that that doesn't matter - I've certainly heard him make that argument in respect of world-building at a con-panel last year - and the idea of an SF novel as a metaphor is hardly a new one, and given the nature of the novel itself it's perfectly fitting. The story breathes on its own terms, its characters are interesting and sympathetic, it's stakes high, the points it's making are worthwhile points, well made. In the early going I struggled with the pacing as it throws neologism heavy world-building at you at the expense of anything actually happening, but a lot of the concepts - even the wider ones - come back to relevance by the end.

So in the end I did like Embassytown, although it's somewhat chewy nature in a virtue and a vice at different points. I've not mentioned (but I should) that the biotechnology of the Areikei is very cool indeed, and their very alien viewpoint and culture is well realised, and one of the more truely alien ones ones I've come across. Its a good, interesting book, and a fine start to the reading year.