My rating: 4 of 5 stars
At its heart Embassytown is about language. It pulses with ideas and challenges the reader in their attempts to grasp what the hell is going on. Like most of China Mieville’s books this is a hard read. The first 150 pages are all set up so that when the story finally starts churning the reader isn’t left behind.
Our narrator, Avice Benner Cho was born in Embassytown, the lone city of humanoids on an alien planet far from other worlds that is populated with beings (Hosts) who do not/cannot communicate with a standard human being. The city is the only place humans can survive thanks to the aliens willingness to allow them to live there by manufacturing breathable air and potable water and food. Only the Ambassadors, two identical clones who can simulate one brain and speak simultaneously can communicate with Hosts. It was thought that only clones were capable of this feat, but when the new Ambassador from the outworlds comes, all assumptions about what is possible vanish in the tumult they bring with them.
This narrative is rich with detail and expansive in the telling of Avice’s life and experiences before the present that is depicted in the books. The first several chapters are split into the before time which focuses on Avice’s childhood and younger adult years and the later time, what happened once she returned to Embassytown from the outworlds. This continues up until the initial conflict starts and during that part of the book things seemed to move at a glacial and confusing pace until it catches up to ‘current’ events. I’m not sure if I liked that style of narration as it made it difficult to really wrap my head around what was happening. Once it settled down to a linear format it was much easier to make headway and better at holding my attention.
The conflict in this story starts so slowly that at first you don’t realize that it will become the driving force of the narrative. But it builds, and builds…and keeps on building to a furious boiling point. With 50 pages left to go I was still mystified as to how it was all going to be resolved, but once the plunge to the end of the book starts it is filled with satisfying pay off for those who carefully read the somewhat rambling set up. To be fair, the concepts that are being presented are by no means simple or easy to express and require the set up in order for the overall intent behind the story to be clear to the reader. Without the explanations it would seem muddled, with the finale seeming tacked on and trite.
There are a couple of central themes to this story. One is the effect that impending catastrophic doom can have on both large groups and interpersonal relationships and how people react under that kind of pressure. Who has the internal strength to survive and claw their way out from under a hopeless situation? It examines those who try to forget themselves in wanton indulgence of all things pleasurable, those who shrivel up and withdraw from everyone, those who give up and end themselves before the doom comes, and the precious few who bear up under the crushing despair that such a situation must engender in us all and persevere no matter what.
The other theme is language and communication, specifically exploring the way that it shapes who we are and how we perceive and conceptualize the world around us. This was by far the more difficult theme to grasp and yet this was what made the story so captivating for me. It felt like an undercurrent running through the story expressed mainly in the writing style. It is written with a lot of the visuals left to the readers imagination. As few words as possible are used to describe the people, environments and especially the Hosts which was intensely frustrating at first. It seemed to be some kind of minimalism for its own sake that forced me to have to constantly revise what my internal pictures of the characters and their surroundings were like. But as the story continued I found it to easier to understand while having to keep my mind open to the idea that my perceptions could be wrong.
Mieville is as challenging and successful as ever with this novel and it definitely deserves its spot on the big awards nomination lists this year. I enjoyed it very much and although it was a bit slow going and abstract at some points, the experience was well worth it. If you enjoy mind bending, philisophical sci fi or have read his stuff before and enjoyed it you will probably like this.