Embassytown, by China Mieville

So I’m tinkering about with wordpress at the moment, because I love its layouts & it’s what I always recommend to people, but I’ve never actually tried it out. This is me, summoned to the dark side, giving wordpress a try. Like all my blogging experiments, no clue how long it will last.

I’m trying right now to finish more books than I have been lately – where by “lately” I mean the past four years or so that I’ve been in grad school. I just went through my little list of books read by month since 2005, and added things up, and the number of books took a massive swandive every time I was in school – which is a little bit counter-productive, one should think. There are too many good books out there, I feel, to let academia get in the way of education. My aim right now is fairly modest – at least a book a week for the next few months; hopefully more (my to-be-read and to-find piles are about as long as I am tall, at this point, and I’d like to chip into them a bit before I turn forty). So my thought right now is that as I read books, I’ll write up little reviews / blurbs and stick them here. I don’t know if this will be of interest to anyone in the world but me – the hope, I suppose, is that it will be. But it may be nice to have a place to point people to when I’m raving about whatever I read last.

Embassytown, by China Mieville

I finished this a few days ago, and have been stewing over it ever since. I’ve liked nearly all of China Mieville’s more recent stuff – his prose, his plotting, his characters have all been getting better over the years at a fairly rapid pace. Un Lun Dun was sweet, I thought, and fun – I liked the way that it subverted the traditional quest-narrative, I loved the introspection about the underside of cities. I am pretty much a sucker for any well-written book (fiction or not) that tries to write the magic that cities already contain, rather than taking a city and tacking magic on (as so much urban fantasy tends to do). So minus the profusion of insect-characters, I guess I’m pretty much bound to like China Mieville whatever he does (the profusion of insect characters was why I bounced off of Perdido Street Station, the few times I tried to read it.  King Rat never quite stuck, either.).  I thought Kraken was fun – I could see he’d matured as a writer since Un Lun Dun; I loved the premise of squid-based millenial cults, and the random insertion of a labour-union organising gholem. (although one did have to wonder why the gholem would be more concerned about strike-breakers than the imminent apocalypse.)

Then I read The City & The City and had my mind blown.

China Mieville is obsessed with cities, obsessed with all the things that make urban spaces bizarre and beautiful; the organic side to them that seems capable of spinning beyond the imaginations of their human builders.  I’ve read reviews that claimed  Mieville has spent his career writing Neverwhererip-offs; I don’t think that’s true. Neil Gaiman and China Mieville both write the magic of landscapes, rather than tacking magic onto a landscape that had none to begin with, and there simply aren’t many others who do that well. (Rana Dasgupta is another, although he’s managed to side-step the sci-fi/fantasy label.)  There is little overlap between them, however, beyond that – no one but China Mieville could have written The City & The City, which I suppose is one sign of a writer coming into his own.

The City & The City is, nominally, the story of a murder mystery that spans the border of a divided city, and a police officer who begins to wonder if the key to the mystery is a rumoured third city that dwells in the liminal space between.  It’s also about violently divided cities such as Belfast and Berlin, in all the obvious ways.  It’s also about borders, and the way that a mental landscape can change once a person begins to question them.  It’s also about the ways in which cities are divided even without a visible wall:  stratified along class-lines, caste-lines, lines of ethnicity and economic status.  Impervious layers intersect with each other on a daily basis, but by mutual consent remain invisible to one another.  What happens when layers collide, and imaginary dividing lines collapse?  The book begins with the result: the murder of a woman who seems never to have existed.

I loved this book. It wormed its way into my head last year, in all the right ways. Here is a writer using speculative fiction the way that it ought to be used: as a way to tell the truth slantwise. China Mieville has learnt a magic trick since he wrote King Rat – he’s figured out how to weave word and plot and character into a web of lies that explores the many contradictory faces of truth, as only fiction can.  He’s become brilliant at it, and I suspect he’s only going to get better.

Which brings me to Embassytown, which I still lack the words to talk about properly. But I did start out by saying that I would review it, so let me see if I can get some words out.

Every once in a very long while I come across a book or a story or an article that shows me something entirely new that can be done with writing as an art-form.  Ursula K. Le Guin did that for me, with her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”  David Foster Wallace, with his article “Consider the Lobster.”  I am poking, prying at this book.  I’m not sure yet, but I think it might turn out to be the same.

On one level, Embassytown is a very common sort of story – a woman from a small town leaves to see the universe, at a young age.  Avice is able to immerse – she has the skills required to be a crew member on ships that make voyages through space.  She travels far, jumping from ship to ship, planet to planet.  Returns home after many years with her husband, a linguist, who wants to study the language of the native alien race on Avice’s planet.  Communication across species lines was difficult, initially, for multiple reasons: the Hosts (as they are politely called) have a double-toned language, speaking through two orifices at once – but more than that, they can only speak in terms of things have already happened.  They can only speak in simile – not in metaphor.  And thus they can only speak the truth – but with the coming of humans, they become fascinated by lies.  They turn humans (including Avice) into new similes, and thus new ways of imagining the world.  They become fascinated by human interpreters, and the addictively impossible flaws within human speech and thought.

There are many levels to the book.  It has a somewhat odd take on old stories of cargo-cults, and gullible natives who worshipped colonisers as Gods.  (Mieville has a little too much fun exploring and subverting that story.  Just a little.)  In a deeper way, though, the book is a pure love affair with language.  To what extent does language shape culture, and thought?  How far can we stretch our own thoughts by stretching the language that we speak?  Can we change the world just by changing words?

Here is yet another magic trick, and I don’t know how China Mieville pulled it off.  He wandered into a decades-old, jargon-filled, emotionally wrought debate in cognitive linguistics, and added his two cents via a science fiction novel.  And what’s more, he made an argument that was far more effective as a piece of fiction than it ever would have been as an academic work.

I’m not sure how to talk about that, because I’ve never seen another book that worked like this.  At the moment, I’m just in gleeful awe. The closest I can think of is Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines – another book which I absolutely love, and which could have been written as a piece of academic scholarship but works far better as fiction.  That’s not quite the same, though – it’s easy enough to imagine a piece of fiction that effectively explores the oddness of nation states, and the violence caused by the imaginary boundaries we place around states and peoples.  Cognitive linguistics?  That’s rather different.  I don’t know how that worked so well – I don’t know how a novel that hinges upon the difference between a simile and a metaphor could have been so hard to put down for the last 200 pages.  It was beautifully done.

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