Saturday, January 10, 2015


China Mieville
Del Rey 2011

Reviewed by carol

4/5 stars

In ninth grade, Mrs. Muench–who had an uncanny resemblance to Miss Marple‘s friend Dolly Bantry–endeavored to teach us the difference between similes and metaphors.
Similes use “like” and “as” to compare two unlike things.

Metaphors state two unlike things are the same.

But dear, enthusiastic Mrs. Muench could not have anticipated China’s sophistry: metaphors are lies.

Embassytown is a deep-thinking book, not one to pick up if you are in a the mood for a fast action read. China’s use of a futuristic language, coupled with representation of an alien speaking that tongue (in a form that looks disturbingly like a fraction equation), requires attention to detail, an ability to read for an hour or two at a time. Along with altered language, he throws in the isolation of a human city in the middle of an alien world on the edge of known space; altered biology, in an alien race that somehow biologically fuses/grows their mechanical needs out of organics, including their homes; and an alien race that not only speaks with two mouths simultaneously, but cannot lie. Further complications come from his solution to deep space travel, by way of the immer. The challenge for both races is in communication. In order to communicate with the alien Ariekei, two people have to speak simultaneously, mimicking the double Ariekei mouth. But since the Ariekei also sense the thought/mind behind the word, two different people speaking the same thing makes no sense to the Ariekei, so the solution was to raise human clones to function as Ambassadors to the aliens.

Forget Being John Malkovich. I’d like an hour in China’s mind.

Overall, I found it a fascinating, immersive read, reminding me strongly of The Dispossessed–and that is highest praise–although he doesn’t always have LeGuin’s kindness in contextualizing most oddities. Still, it’s well done, and balances the personal and the political well. He taps some eternal truths in the midst of alien outlandishness: “As I’ve grown older I’ve become conscious of how unsurprising I am.” There’s a sly sense of humor occasionally tempering the seriousness: “I knew something would (happen) as certainly as if this were a last chapter.” It shows again in the initials of the lead character’s name: “A.B.C.,” fitting in a book about language.

There is tenderness and compassion, however alien, when one of the self-aware bio-machines downloads herself into a new body, just so she can give Avice a hug.

The crux of the novel lies in the Arikei limitation to speak literally. Avice becomes part of their language when she takes part in an event, thus allowing the Arikei to use her as a simile. It is a fascinating and fun idea (ever wonder about the first cat out of the bag?) that allows China to play with the definitions of truth, lies, language and meaning. However, language evolves, and interaction with the humans is starting to push the Arikei language to it’s limits. Avice ends up pushing them even further. “I don’t want to be a simile anymore,” I said. “I want to be a metaphor.” He unfolds the examination of language within both Avice’s own life when she brings her linguist husband home to her world, and the politics of her province-city. China’s genius shows when he throws in issues of addiction and identity into the mix.

Why not five stars? It is not a comfortable book. It could have been tightened up a little bit; as I work my way through the review, I marvel at all the things China tried to accomplish, and wonder if he should have limited a variable or two in favor of greater coherence. Was the immer necessary, for instance? There’s interesting hints at Avice’s friendship with an autom/biological robot as the biological systems break down, but I’m not sure what role it really played, and if it just confused the story further. Still, an impressive work, and likely to be a classic.

Interesting quote:
“Beside him, Ez was like a ventriloquist’s doll, existing only when he spoke, or was spoken through.”
The army of hopeless and enraged had been driven to murder by their memories of addiction, and the sight of their compatriots made craven to the words of an interloper species. That degradation was the horizon of their despair.”

cross posted at my blog at