Kicking off the year with an intense sci fi exploration of language and Language!
Embassytown is a human colony/outpost on a distant planet Arieka—accessible only by a dangerous trip through some timey-wimey wishy-washy-space-travel stuff called the immer. The Ariekei live on Arieka and they communicate with Language: They can only speak literally, with a dual mouth that speaks in unison, and their intent must be known and match the words, or it has no meaning. They cannot lie; they cannot understand human language.
So to speak with any creativity, they sometime enlist human volunteers to literally do something. Our heroine, Avice Benner Cho, is one such volunteer, “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate sshat was given to her.” She is, literally, a simile. She is also one of the few elite who has traveled through the immer.
Embassytown is, obviously, an embassy, and the ambassadors are clones, specially designed to speak with the Ariekei with two mouths and one intent.
So. Avice moves back to Embassytown with her linguist husband. A new Ambassador pair arrives. They, shockingly, aren’t clones. Their arrival and speech throws Embassytown into chaos…and I won’t tell you any more, because I don’t want to ruin the plot.
I liked this book. It asks a lot of you as a reader and, as a book about language, it’s a book written for readers with a capital R. It’s smart and it’s got heft. The musings and commentary on what makes language Language, and what makes a lie, are truly interesting. The analysis – and it does kind of feel like analysis – of social breakdown, of addiction and upheaval and stratification is also very good. The aliens are well-drawn and Language, although there are some sort of obvious-if-you-think-about-it holes in how it works, is compelling as a device that causes the crisis and social upheaval.
But I did not love this book, and it took me a while to figure out exactly why. Avice is a good protagonist. She has a good point of view to narrate, as an insider who grew up in Embassytown and an outsider who left.
But, and I hate to say this: she’s kind of boring. For most of the book, it feels as though she’s just not doing much…she happens to be in the right place, at the right time, and she happens to know the right people to get information, but all that is a little deus ex machina/author stand in (of course she has the information we need; she’s the narrator!) Avice is not great at making it exciting for the reader. It was never clear to me what she had to gain or lose by immersing herself in the political intrigue, or what her objectives were, besides the obvious adrenaline rush of watching a society collapse. In short, Avice feels like a means to an end–the end being a novel-length musing on Language–rather than an actual character.
This is too bad. For a plot that involves dopples, lovers, dopple lovers, organic technology, insectoid aliens, diplomatic intrigue, clones, colonization, addiction, and faster-than-light space travel, it was surprisingly, frustratingly emotionless.
SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH!
It also felt a little…big. Like he was tackling too much with too straightforward a plot. For instance, he’s obviously interested in the question of colonialism – Embassytown is on a colony planet, and this is a very important plot point. But this is not explored nearly as comprehensively as the other concepts, and the conclusion, in which Avice (whose initials are literally A.B..C, I mean, COME ON) literally teaches the “natives” how to speak and write just comes across as facile after such a deep dive into very particular linguistic and social questions. Not groundbreaking enough to make you go “whoa…” and not weird enough to get away with it.
Ok, end spoilers.
Major points for originality, ambition, and world-building, but 3 stars because it shouldn’t have been that hard to make myself finish this book, because there were too many loose ends and/or Big Concepts left unexplored(what on earth happened with her religious-linguist husband, anyway?) and because my expectations were high after reading some of Mielville’s other work.