Embassytown – China Miéville

Counterrevolution through language pedagogy and bureaucracy.

Reading a new book can be like learning a new language: disorienting, confusing, and a little bit exhilarating. There is a bar to entry, but once indoctrinated there is immense reward.

This metaphor is more literal for some books than others.

Embassytown is a small outpost on the planet Arieka, isolated from the other Bremen worlds and on the edge of the known universe. It is a bubble of environment safe for human habitation surrounded by and utterly dependent on the native civilization, which provides them with food and advanced biological technology (biorigging), including that machines that provide the city with breathable atmosphere.

The human population of Embassytown is constrained by these features of their environment and their culture shaped by it, but even more so by the unique way they communicate with the Ariekei. The indigenous race of Arieka is peculiar by human standards, but enormous emphasis lies on three features: the giftwing (a limb that functions as an arm), wings (ears), and their double mouths. The Ariekei only perceive language with two parts: simultaneous speech from two mouths (one ‘cut’, one ‘turn’), and the thought behind that speech. Thus Language is a direct correlative of thought; lies are impossible in Language, figures of speech need to be embodied by something true, and Language created by non-sentient things such as computers are ignored. In response to these Linguistic impediments, the humans of Embassytown have developed an Ambassador class of dual-entities, usually artificially produced twins, whose sympathetic links are carefully cultivated to approximate a single individual, the one speaking the Cut, the other the Turn. Social engineering of this sort is necessary for the survival of Embassytown, but it has the downside of creating an artificial hierarchy in the community that not everyone accepts.

Enter the narrator and sometime protagonist of Embassytown: Avice Benner Cho, an Immerser (crew on interplanetary vessels) raised in Embassytown and now returned with the husband of her fourth marriage (an a-sexual partnership), a linguistic researcher. Avice has few ambitions upon returning, but becomes bound up in events in part because of her sexual liaisons with respected Ambassadors. There is a crisis brewing in Embassytown between the Ambassadors and the Bremen representative, but things become more tense when they are forced to accept the first Ambassador not born in Embassytown…and even more so when it turns out that the new Ambassador, EzRa, is not made of two closely-related individuals. When EzRa speaks in Language the Ariekei experience a narcotic-esque high that causes physical addiction. Like with narcotics, the addict develops a tolerance and requires ever more stimulation until it becomes fatal. Addiction threatens Ariekei society, but Embassytown has a symbiotic relationship with the Ariekei, so the changes to the hosts and EzRa’s fickle personality poses an even greater danger to its existence.

Embassytown is a brilliantly crafted exploration of linguistics, linguistic change, and cataclysmic fissures that erupt in a society when something this fundamental changes. At the same time, the book is a slow-unfolding political drama between humans that unfolds through the point of view of someone who is simultaneously a total outsider and at the center of the developments. It is, in so many words, fiendish in its complexity and brilliant in its achievement. Yet, as much as I appreciated Embassytown and as much as it made me think about language and societies, I didn’t love the plot or feel a particularly deep connection to many of the characters. While still reading Embassytown I suspected that I would conclude that its fundamental flaw was that the story took a backseat to the linguistic and anthropological thought-experiment and thus that priority diminished my enjoyment. Miéville does not fall into the trap, so both character and plot are carefully intertwined with the linguistic evaluations, but Embassytown nevertheless did not grab me the way many of my favorite books do, for reasons both native to the book and particular to me. At the same time, it sold me on reading more of Miéville’s work.

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I finished reading a short story collection by Jenny Erpenbeck and George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and have started Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise.

The City & The City – China Miéville

China Miéville is an author whose work has been vaguely on my radar for maybe a decade now, but I never I picked up or even learned more about it than a few titles. I was aware, barely, that there were people who like his books, but, other than that, he existed in an enormous blind spot. Until now. I finally picked up a copy of The City & The City and read it in two days.

The City & The City is, in some respects, a straightforward murder mystery noir, following Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad as he looks into the death of a young woman. What sets The City & The City apart from most noir is that its setting that forces Borlú into a unique course of action.

Borlú is a detective in the city of Beszel, an ally of the United States with Balkan overtones; twinned and overlapping with Beszel, though, is Ul Qoma, interdicted by the United States based on Cold War allegiances, though that has not dampened recent Ul Qoman economic prosperity. There is speculation that the two cities stem from a common “Pre-Cleavage” ancestor, but they have been rivals and opponents since time immemorial. Large portions of both cities are cross-hatched such that many buildings and streets exist simultaneously in both, so existence requires a constant “unseeing” of vehicles or people that threaten collision should they end up in the same space. Rarely are there physical boundaries, but the chasm is preserved by tradition and by Breach—a mysterious and magical force that exists primarily to protect the balance. Borlú’s case thus becomes significantly more complicated when he learns that his victim was killed in Ul Qoma and transported to Beszel. Even more perplexing is when his request for Breach to take over the case is rejected because, in fact, no Breach had occurred.

Borlú doesn’t particularly stand out as a protagonist and mystery novels are so plot-driven that I hesitate to say more about it. Both are competently realized, but what made The City & the City such an achievement is how Mieville melds these traditional elements with the breathtaking setting that speaks to a huge number of contemporary issues. Alluded to above, the touchstones for the setting were almost all Eastern European, building on resonances of the Muslim and Christian cultures of the Balkans. Then there is a commentary about split cities like (Cold War) Berlin and (contemporary) Jerusalem, but intertwined to an extreme degree. But, even more, Mieville weaves in a subtler critique of modern cities with the idea of “Unseeing”, that is, seeing what is happening enough to avoid it, but actively and immediately forgetting what was just seen. Unseeing is a plot device in terms of Breach, but it can also be seen as a commentary about issues of economic inequality and the homeless—worlds that are intertwined, but, ultimately, entirely distinct.

I have found myself saying some variation on this a lot lately, but I am ashamed it took me as long as it did to read anything by Mieville, but am glad that I got around to it eventually. It won’t take me nearly as long to read something else of his.

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I built up a bit of a reading backlog this week, finishing Gail Tsukiyama’s Women of the Silk and Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit. Now I am between books and don’t know what I am going to pick up next.