Every book I’ve ever read by China Mieville has started with me feeling off-balance and uncomfortable. He has an utterly unique, in my experience, talent for feats of imagination in science fiction that are so completely unlike anything familiar but that manage to make a point about the world that we live in at the very same time. To some extent, his books require the reader to just let go, assume that we aren’t going to understand every detail of the worlds that pour out of his amazing brain, and to simply absorb the story he’s trying to tell.
Such is the case with Embassytown. We begin with our narrator, Avice, half telling the story as a small child and half as a grown woman facing the consequences of a diplomatic assignment in Embassytown. I felt like it took a while for me to actually grasp the world, but once I did, I fell right into it. Now that I’m a little more accustomed to reading science fiction, I noticed that either this took less than time in some of the previous books of his I’ve read, or that this one is more accessible, but there was still that period of confusion that slowed the start.
In the world he’s created, or rather in the world that contains a city called Embassytown, ordinary humans rely on the native alien race, the Ariekei, to construct their world using their biotech skills. Buildings, power, even replacement body parts are built using Ariekei technology. But communicating with the Ariekei is a challenge, as they can only speak absolute truth, and they have two voices which speak at the same time. To say something, they must witness it happening, and those who are chosen to act out these bits of language are special. Those who actually speak with the Ariekei are called Ambassadors, and are two people chosen and made to be exactly the same, so that their voices will resonate in a way that the Ariekei can understand.
The primary thing I loved about this book was the way that Mieville plays with language. I’ll keep quiet on the reasons why this becomes important, but he highlights the different aspects of language and the subtle ways we shift into metaphors to express what we’re trying to say, and how we can morph those all the way into lies. I found that aspect particularly fascinating.
Like other Mieville books, I didn’t really fall in love with any of the characters, not even Avice, but I found myself wrapped up in their story once I knew what was going on, and the book to be satisfying read afterwards which kept me thinking about it once I’d finished.
I wouldn’t recommend Embassytown to someone who wasn’t comfortable being tossed in and working out what was happening as the book went on, but for those who do enjoy speculative fiction, Mieville is a must-read.
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