Review by New York Times Review
THE innovative and protean British writer China Miéville's declared ambition to write a novel in every genre offers an insight into his powers of invention. "I'm in this . . . business for the monsters," he said in an interview a few years ago. "Unfortunately, you can't really sell books of monsters to publishers. They insist on stories linking them." To create the necessary narratives, Miéville repurposes genre formulas like a salvage artist, mixing a connoisseur's respect for recovered materials with heretical joy in putting them to surprising uses. The fashioning of intricately conceived parallel worlds plus the recombinant use of popular formulas equals a story-generating method that the 38-year-old Miéville has employed to write eight novels (he has also published short fiction, comics, criticism and a scholarly book based on his doctoral thesis on Marxism and international law). The formulas provide the plot structure and momentum that enable his characters to explore the fabulous places he imagines and reveal the underlying forces that make those places tick: colonialism, uneven development, cultural syncretism, urbanism. Thus far, in addition to various subgenres of science fiction, fantasy and horror, he's sampled the western, the police procedural, the sea adventure and more. Miéville's story-generating methods worked particularly well in his 2009 novel, "The City and the City," a police procedural set in the twin Balkan cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, which are imperfectly superimposed over each other so that residents of each are haunted by ghostly neighbors. A shadowy agency known as Breach enforces the habit of "unseeing" the other city. The novel could get lost in pondering its endless allegorical possibilities, but the plot conventions of a murder investigation keep it pressing forward. "Embassytown" belongs to the science fiction subgenre of planetary romance, in which the main purpose is to explore a richly conceived alien world. Embassytown is a human diplomatic enclave in the middle of an alien city on Arieka, a planet at the outer edge of the known universe. Like all of Miéville's additions to the literary atlas, this place seems, at once wildly imagined from scratch and phantasmagorically drawn from life. Flying out from the enclave, the novel's human protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, observes: "We crossed over the zone where the architecture went from the brick and ivied wood of my youth to the polymers and biorigged flesh of the Hosts, from alley-tangles to street-analogues of other topographies. Building-things were coming down and being replaced. Construction sites like combined slaughterhouses, puppy farms and quarries." Each of the Ariekei has a fanwing, a giftwing, several hairy, many-jointed legs and two mouths that speak different words simultaneously, making contrapuntal meaning. Their speech requires a distinctive fractionlike typography: a simple greeting is rendered as .... Because the Ariekei are traditionally able to say only true things, to speak only of events that actually happened, they stage "similes," scripted scenes that expand their range of reference by fashioning new experiences they can talk about. When Avice was a child, she was invited to play a part in a simile, so that from then on the Ariekei could compare themselves and others in various situations to "the girl who was hurt and ate what was given her." Language is the principal theme of "Embassytown," a particularly deep-thinking entry in a tradition of using the speculative resources of science fiction to address how language shapes culture and society. Miéville joins Jack Vance, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzette Haden Elgin, Samuel Delany and others in this project. The drama of "Embassytown" develops as the Ariekei learn to lie and are beset by violent addiction to a new kind of speech. The resulting plague sends waves of change pulsing through the semi-sentient buildings and machinery of their city - an inspired Miévillean touch, grotesquely original (addicted houses try to grow ears) and yet also strikingly familiar to anybody who's spent time in a neighborhood in steep decline. "EMBASSYTOWN" has the feel of a word-puzzle, and much of the pleasure of figuring out the logic of the world and the story comes from gradually catching the full resonance of its invented and imported words: exoterre, Anglo-Ubiq, turing-ware, manchmal, immer, zelles. There are times when I wish Miéville, brilliant as he is, would take a lesson from other writers he has clearly read - like Vance, the master of planetary romance - and devote a little more of his potent originality to showing rather than telling. Vance's stories feel as if they were engineered with great economy, tinkered up to impart strangeness while rolling steadily onward under their own power. Miéville's, by contrast, feel theorized, sweepingly grand in conception but sometimes a bit disembodied, not quite fully fleshed in scenes that feel genuinely lived. But I don't hold this will to abstraction against him. Genre writers, and for that matter writers of the well-wrought middlebrow novel, mostly tell the usual stories in the usual way: narrative and character are advanced through conventional action. Miéville is up to something else. In the case of "Embassytown," which with his usual confident ambition takes its monsters and spaceships deep into the zone of overlap between linguistics and politics, let's call it a ... . Carlo Rotella is the director of American studies at Boston College and a contributor to The Times Magazine.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 5, 2011]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Mieville (Kraken) adds to the sparse canon of linguistic SF with this deeply detailed story of the ways an alien language might affect not only thought patterns but ways of life. Avice Benner Cho returns to her backwater colony home of Embassytown so her linguist husband, Scile, can study the almost empathic, in-the-present language of the planet's natives, the Hosts. When a Host learns to lie, the resulting massive cultural earthquake in Host society is compounded by two new Ambassadors whose voices have a profound physiological effect on the Hosts. Mieville's brilliant storytelling shines most when Avice works through problems and solutions that develop from the Hosts' unique and convoluted linguistic evolution, and many of the most intriguing characters are the Hosts themselves. The result is a world masterfully wrecked and rebuilt. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
Avice Benner Cho is a born exile, one of a small human colony on a world in which the locals, the Ariekei, can incorporate humans into their weirdly literal language but not speak to or understand them-except for the Ambassadors, doubled humans bred and raised into an illusion of being a single creature. Made into a living simile as a child, Avice escapes to crew an interstellar ship, only to return to indulge her linguist husband's fascination with her home world. Both become caught up in the Ariekei's evolving view of their own language and the cataclysmic changes that result. Verdict Mieville's (The City & the City) latest novel is incisive, insightful, disturbing, and occasionally even uplifting. For its portrait of aliens that are convincing yet sympathetic, it ranks up with the works of Vernor Vinge and Candas Jane Dorsey's A Paradigm of Earth; for complex cultural interaction, with Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. Occasionally, Mieville's worldbuilding is inconsistent, as when a culture of "property-based" marital forms gives its children to be raised by "shiftparents"; Avice's central role in the aliens' mental shift verges on excessive upstaging, and overcleverness like her ABC name can puncture the reader's suspension of disbelief. Still, overall, this is one of the best sf books of this or any decade and likely to reach beyond the genre to appeal to book clubs and other literary fiction readers. [See Prepub Alert, 11/1/10.]-Meredith Schwartz, New York (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
A new venture into science fiction from the talented British author (Kraken, 2010, etc.) best known for his extraordinary steampunk-style fantasies.Avice Benner Cho returns to her childhood home, the remote planet Arieka, after many years of working in the immer, a weird hyperdimension that permits passage among the stars. Arieka's indigenous Hosts have a remarkable, entirely biological technology and maintain a bubble of human-breathable atmosphere above Embassytown. The Ariekei have two speaking orifices and utter their language through both simultaneously; for them, language, thought and reality are inseparable, hence they cannot understand the speech of individual humans, tell lies or speculate. The only way they can express things that haven't happened is by performing a ceremony in which a human is declared a "simile," an honor for which young Avice was chosen. The Ariekei hold contests to see which of them can come closest to uttering an untruth; by human standards, their efforts are laughable. Humans, however, developed Ambassadors: clone-twins so alike in appearance, thought and experience that when they speak simultaneously, the Ariekei can comprehend them. Then Embassytown's overlords send a new type of Ambassador, EzRa, dissimilar in appearance and thought. Somehow, they can speak and be understoodyet the Ariekei don't react as expected. Instead, they show every sign of being intoxicated by EzRa's speech; not only that but they turn out to be hopelessly addicted. As their civilization begins to crumble, Avice must team up with Bren, a former Ambassador whose clone-twin died, to unravel a most unpleasant conspiracy. Much of this is far too formidably dense and complex to be summarized, and Miville further blurs matters with a difficult, almost hallucinatory narrative structure. Conceptually, though, it's utterly astonishing.A major intellectual achievement that, despite all difficulties, persuades and enthralls.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.