Embassytown – China Mieville

I was at the launch event for China Mieville’s Embassytown at Foyle’s in Charing Cross Road in 2011.  He talked about the new book and did a short reading and Q&A before signing copies.  Mieville inscribed every copy with the same Oliver Holmes quote – “Language is the blood of the soul.”  He said this choice would make sense once people read the novel.

Mieville inscribed every copy with the same Oliver Holmes quote – “Language is the blood of the soul.”.

In many ways, language and semiotics is a natural subject for Mieville to write about.  His books are always densely written and multply-layered with meaning and symbolism.  A dictionary at one’s side is often an advantage.  And in Embassytown we see the way that language both enables and hinders communication between cultures. There are no direct equivalents for words and concepts, and all communication is based on approximation.  Language (as spoken by the Ariekei) relies on an inherent truthfulness.  This is an extension of the way all language works: without the words to express them, it’s impossible to think particular thoughts, let alone articulate them (an idea Orwell played upon when he created Newspeak in 1984).  The way the Ariekei deal with the limitations on their language is through the creative use of simile, but each simile must be based on something that has happened or continues to happen to retain its utility.  This limits the evolution of Language and the Ariekei’s development.

Signed title page of Embassytown by China Mieville
Signed title page of Embassytown by China Mieville

Interesting though this is, Embassytown shows itself as one of Mieville’s early works (he explained at the launch that it was one of his first completed novels and had been significantly revised for publication, presumably so his publisher could capitalise on the wave of popular and critical success that Mieville was then experiencing).  The sections on Language are one of the least successful aspects of the book for me.  They are comparatively unsophisticated compared to Mieville’s later works.  Early on in the book I found the debates about the evolution of language heavy-handed.  Scile’s entire purpose in the novel is to resist the change and evolution of Language.  And it was clear to me that the significant evolutionary development of Language in the book would be the ability of the Ariekei to use metaphor.  Such predictability is not characteristic of Mieville’s later work.  But even an early, less polished Mieville is an interesting book.

Where Embassytown succeeds most for me, is in its critique of colonialism, with its allusions to the Opium Wars of the 19th Century and the Boxer Rebellion.  The attempts of both Colonial Bremen and the Embassytown establishment to (at first) undermine Embassytown’s trade monopoly (the only way that trade with the Ariekei can occur is through the only interlocutors who can speak Language and be understood) and then impose a new position of dominance by fostering Ariekei dependence on the god-drug is challenged by a popular rebellion of the Ariekei themselves.  Reaching a negotiated agreement between equals and removing the inherent privilege of the Ambassadors is the only sustainable way through  the present crisis: all other options simply delay or defer what would be the eventual disintegration of the Embassytown colony and the potential destruction of the Ariekei themselves.

And it is in its portrayal of Embassytown’s gradual decline and disintegration that the novel is at its most successful for me.  There are the distractions of bacchanalian orgies, the breakdown of social order and institutions and those who react to their position across the whole spectrum from denial to suicide.

Where the novel also succeeds for me is in Avice Benner Cho’s experience of leaving a small town and returning to confront the place of her birth with broadened horizons and an off-world glamour.    Floaker she might be, but she is the girl who ate what was given to her: she finds new purpose in crisis and proves to be the ultimate salvation of both Embassytown and the Ariekei.

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