Embassytown by China Miéville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Now the Ariekei were learning to speak, and to think, and it hurt.”
I’m addicted to language; we all are.
While reading this book, I thought about language. I haven’t really thought about it from the standpoint of it not existing or that it is something to be discovered, like traces of gold in a California riverbed. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have language. The ability to express myself has served me well. Not that I haven’t said the wrong thing or said the right thing at the wrong time, but I usually have the ability to explain further and give what I say deeper meaning. I can change minds and can have my mind changed by exchanging words. Language is the foundation of who we are.
The Ariekei did not have language before the humans arrived. They were a hive of sorts, able to communicate without spoken language. The humans refer to them as The Hosts, which is exactly what they are. They allow the humans to build a city named Embassytown.
I can remember the first time I went overseas and spent nine days in Italy. I didn’t know the language but always managed to find Italian people who spoke enough English for us to communicate with each other. After having nine days of barely speaking any English, certainly a lot less than what I was used to, my arrival at San Francisco Airport was, for lack of a better term, a system overload. My mind was so starved for the English language that all the filters or barriers that I normally have for sorting language were gone. My brain was attempting to listen to and process every ongoing English conversation that was within my range of hearing.
My cat...the weather was...I bought these new shoes...Do you like this coat?...Will they serve us a meal…What did he mean by that?
I was catching just pieces, most of them jumbled together as my mind was trying to sort each conversation, but without success.
My cat was new shoes like this mean.
It was like touching the edges of insanity.
The Ambassadors who are sent to interact with The Hosts are paired. They have two minds that make one voice. They are identical and kept that way. When one gets a scar that can’t be healed, the other is given an identical scar. They are rarely apart, and when circumstances do part them, they are lost in much the same way I’d feel if my left arm and leg just detached from my body and walked into the next room. Very interesting, I would think to myself, and then I would try to finish typing this review with one hand.
Our heroine is Avice Benner Cho, who is an immerser who has just returned to Embassytown after years of deep space exploration. She cannot speak to the Ariekei, but she has become a part of their language. They call her…”There was a girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her.” As things become more unstable between The Host and the colonists, Avice wants to evolve in their language. ”’I don’t want to be a simile anymore,’ I said.’I want to be a metaphor.’”
The interesting thing about Avice is that she really isn’t a hero. She is more like a professional traveller who sits in the hip cafes, eats the unusual food, sees the sights, goes to parties, and occasionally has a brief sexual encounter with someone interesting. She has been married several times. Sometimes to women, sometimes to men. In Embassytown, she has sex with ambassadors which... since each one is actually plural... means she is a very busy girl during those encounters. Her experiences while travelling have evolved her thinking about what is strange. One of her best friends is a digital presence that can move from one droid to another. Like us all, she does struggle with seeing things that go beyond just exotic, those things that go beyond a frame of reference of what we know. For us to be comfortable, new things have to have something about them that allows us to have at least a handle of understanding.
”Once I heard a theory. It was an attempt to make sense of the fact that no matter how travelled people are, no matter how cosmopolitan, how biotically miscegenated their homes, they can’t be insouciant at the first sight of an exot (slang for exotic) race. The theory is that we’re hardwired with the Terre Biome, that every glimpse of anything not descended from that original backwater home, our bodies know we should not ever see.”
The world that China Mieville creates in this book is in some ways vague, certainly unsettling. The world building takes a backseat to exploring the concept of languages and their value. Though he does give us glimpses of what this world looks like. ”When they regrew the city the Ariekei changed it. In this rebooted version the houses segmented into smaller dwellings and were interspersed with pillars like sweating trees. Of course there were still towers, still factories and hangars for the nurturing of young and of biorigging…. But the housescape we overlooked took on a more higgledy-piggledy aspect. The streets seemed steeper than they had been, and more various: the chitin gables, the conquistador-helmet curves newly intricate.”
As the Ariekei learn language from the Ambassadors, things take a sinister turn as segments of The Host population begin to become junkies. ”Ambassadors are orators, and those to whom their oration happens are oratees. Oratees are addicts. Strung out on an Ambassador's Language.”
Where my addiction to language happened over a long arc of time, comparable to beginning with marijuana to evolving to cocaine to finally needing heroin, The Host’s addiction begins with heroin and wants the next better thing than heroin…NOW.
Things get scary
”We knew the Ariekei would breach our defences. They entered the houses that edged our zone, found their ways to rear and side doors, large windows, to holes. Some came out of the front doors into our streets and tore apart what they found. Those with remnants of memory tried to get to the Embassy. They came at night. They were like monsters in the dark, like figures from children’s books.”
A war over a need for language.
I don’t know how else to say this...the book is brilliant, simply brilliant. I’ve been a long time fan of China Mieville and will eventually read everything he has ever written. The concepts he explores in this book had me thinking about my own relationship with language, with learning, with my addiction to hearing and being heard, to writing my thoughts and to reading what others have written.
I once knew a woman in Phoenix whose grandfather walked out to get the morning paper, poured some coffee, and flipped the paper open, like he does every morning, to start reading.
He couldn’t read.
He’d had a small targeted stroke during the night that erased his ability to read. The thought still sends a shiver down my back to think that I could lose the ability to read or the ability to speak or the ability to hear.
I’m a junkie for language.
You will have to have patience with this book. Mieville circles the plane over Embassytown and just drops his readers into the city. Shortly after stowing your parachute, you are going to feel out of kelter, exposed, behind a step, and will begin to feel nervous that you won’t catch up. You will. With every chapter, you will begin to know more pieces of the puzzle until you are eventually able to assemble a shimmering vision of this city, these people, and the situation which has lit the fuse to a powderkeg.
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