Friday, 3 June 2011

Book Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

Pros: truly alien aliens, unique alien language, full immersion in alien world with little to no explanation

Cons: because the books is told from the POV of an indifferent narrator you don't learn as much about the world/aliens as you'd like

Avice Benner Cho grew up in Embassytown, escaped to the out for several years and was drawn back by her current husband's interest in the language of the indiginous life forms of Embassytown's planet, the Hosts or Ariekei.  She doesn't realize how much her home town is about to change by the arrival of a new Ambassador from their governing world of Bremen.  Ambassadors are usually made in Embassytown, and are the only ones with the talent to be understood by the Hosts.  She's about to learn how little she truly understands about the Hosts, their world, and the politics of Embassytown.

The novel is told in two parts.  The first alternates between her present situation, waiting to see the new Ambassador at his welcome party, and her past (childhood in Embassytown and how she became a simile for the Hosts, and her time in the immer where she met and married Scile, the man who convinces her to return to Emabassytown).  The second part deals with the fallout of the new Ambassador's first speech.

This is the first of Mieville's novels I've read.  It won't be the last.  The writing is absolutely brilliant.  He dumps you in the middle of an alien world filled with alien concepts, takes you into space using undescribed technology and expects you to figure out what's going on.  A lesser author would have failed, leaving the reader fumbling to understand unexplained words and concepts.  Not Mieville.  There's no glossary and no translation except for the Host's speech, when required.  Yet there's also little confusion beyond the first few times a word/concept is mentioned.  Much of what he brings up is understood in context and it makes the world come to life in a way that feels real.

The Hosts and Ambassadors are fascinating and truly alien.  If you like languages, as I do, then you'll enjoy the intricacies of thought that are played out with the truth of Language and the Hosts' festival of lies.

My only complaint is that Avice doesn't really like her home world, and so doesn't always tell you things that as a reader you want to know more about.  And she ignores some of the more interesting intrigues the Embassy gets into.  I wanted to learn more about Scile's theories about the Host Language and about the various Host factions and how their interests intersect with the power struggles of the Embassy.

From what I could tell (I'm no physicist and my knowledge of space travel is quite limited) the science isn't accurate, so hard SF fans may be annoyed by that.  But the Host planet has an atmosphere unbreathable to humans, which is dealt with realistically

If you like intelligent SF this is a fantastic book to pick up.

1 comment:

redhead said...

great review!

I'm not sure that Avice is indifferent, it's just that to her, this is ho-hum, everyday. Like if someone from Mars asked you to describe ants or mosquitoes or something. to you, they wouldn't be anything special. so OK,you've definitely got a point that because it's all everyday to Avice, we don't learn as much as we could. . . but it keeps the mystery going, you know?

I'm a bit of a Mieville fangirl, so I'm gonna defend just about trick he tries to pull!