Review: China Miéville's Embassytown

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

 Title: Embassytown
Author: China Miéville
Genre: dystopian, science fiction, New Weird
Series: N/A
Published: May 2011
Pages: 352
Rating: 4/5

Right off the bat, let's get this out of the way: I won this on a giveaway. I am so glad I did, because otherwise it would have been aaaages until I managed to get around to this specific book in my tbr pile and I'd have no idea what I was missing. This is a dense, multi-layered book that is easily one of the best novels of the year. China Miéville has done an outstanding job with crafting Embassytown. This was my first Miéville and it was an amazing way to be introduced to his unique writing. 

The story is told with a distinct voice, that of Embassytown-born immerser Avice Benner Cho. She seems world-weary, almost distant in the beginning pages and chapters of retelling the extraordinary events of her life in Embassytown, on her home planet of Arieka. Cho is not exactly a likable woman; the events and culture from her life are utterly alien and she's completely blasé about everything, and this makes her hard to relate to. Though she travels to many places on far distant planets, Avice's story focuses around Embassytown and her life in it as a child and adult. As a young girl, Cho was made part of the Language of the Ariekei, an important event she doesn't understand yet but will impact her future the most.
Avice as a narrator grows and changes and becomes a much different woman from the almost beaten-down, inescapably weary woman in the opening of the book into someone completely different.
She emerges from the events in her tale as a determined, independent woman.

An Ariekei (singular form of the native sentient life found on Arieka) is a completely original, alien lifeform. China Miéville calls his writing "weird" science and it shows in the original, creative and crazy lifeforms he created. I love the sheer originality that's in every chapter of the book. The Ariekei Language is a huge and intricate part of the novel: first of all, they, as a species, cannot lie. Before humans came to their planet, they did not even conceive of the concept of a lie. The very act of speaking an untruth is exciting to the species. Their speech is also very limited in vocabulary and expressions, and thus humans like Cho become living similes, examples (we are like the girl who ate what was given to her, see the boy who swims every week) for them to facilitate more Language for the entire Ariekei population. Additionally, each Ariekei uses two mouths so to speak, the Cut mouth and the Turn mouth both speaking simultaneously expressing two separate parts of the same word of phrase. 

Humans, clearly, cannot communicate with the Ariekei on natural terms; they lack the second voice sounding with the exact same intent and focus as the first voice. Thus the Ambassdors program began. Human mutations/clones or doppelgangers were created for the express purpose of sharing a life to communicate with the Arikene populace; they are always from Embassytown itself, for it takes an intrinsic knowledge to work with the Ariekei. They are raised and trained to speak with the Ariekei population for the rest of the humans in on their planet. So when an Ambassador is sent in from the home world of Bremen instead of grown in Embassytown itself, the colony wonders what prompted this strange, unlikely occurrence and how the Ariekei will respond to their Language. Will they even be able to speak understandable Language? And when Ambassador EzRa appears and things take an unprecedented, but not necessarily unexpected, turn in human/Ariekei relations, Cho and a select group has to figure what the truth is and how to turn the tide. 

This is a good book. It was slow starting in the beginning for me because it is a personal pet peeve of mine when nothing is explained and new terms and phrases are floating in every sentence and I have no idea what anything means. However, comprehension soon dawns and with it a realization of the depth of the world Miéville has created. An alien species that thinks as well as a man, but utterly unlike one. A hostile planet with a sentient species with Language far more pure than our own. Bioengineering, where "herds of factories" produce household goods in the wild... the list goes on. It is wildly imaginative and ridiculously good. It does get bogged down in the language aspect for QUITE a while, which I suspect may bore other readers and lower its rating across the board. I do not mind; I loved this book and recommend it highly. I'll definitely be rereading this before the end of the year.
It can be found here on amazon, or here on b&n's website.  I recommend this more than anything else I have read this year. 


  1. I can't wait to read this -- just got it. I'm seeing Mieville next week for a reading, too -- hopefully I'll have finished Embassytown by then! So glad you enjoyed it!

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  3. Oh, I'm jealous you're going to a reading. I've never been to one but I get a feeling he'd be a great one to go to!

  4. I'm practically jealous of myself! I can't wait to see him -- it'll be my first author reading.

  5. Just started this one, too- big fan from Perdido Street Station days to the present. Nice review, Jessie- keep 'em coming. And I'm also super jealous of the reading attendee above- you have to share, Audra, once you've been and absorbed the experience.

  6. MMDavis23: Mieville was really amazing. It was not as intimate as the other author reading I went to -- this one was in a small auditorium with Mieville on stage. But he was incredibly warm and real so it didn't feel aloof or formal.

    First, he's totally brilliant -- I mean, I knew that from his books but I hadn't realized he's really so accomplished (Ph.D. from London School of Economics!!) and one of the most moving portions of the night was when he got a bit teary talking about the student revolutions happening in the Middle East and Spain.

    Second, he's hilarious. While talking about writing Embassytown and his interest in SF he apologetically asked if he could swear. He's a self admitted geek and discussed linguistics, genre, making up aliens -- it's sort of a blur because I was laughing so much.

    Also, and I say this as a lesbian, he's super easy on the eyes.

  7. thanks mmdavis! After reading this I really want to check out Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun. Both shot the top of my tbr pile after Embassytown.
    And Audra: I'm glad both your readings turned out so well. Still incredibly jealous. And for a bald man, he is easy on the eyes!


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