Sometimes words can shatter worlds.
Especially when they are like this:
"I don't want to be a simile anymore," I said. "I want to be a metaphor."
This book lived up to all my expectations. No, it did not quite knock The Scar off its Miévillish pedestal but it came pretty damn close to it. I loved it so much, and yet when a colleague politely asked what it was about (when I told him I stayed up half the night before taking call to read it) I could not figure out how to describe it in a few words. So I'll remedy it now.
What IS this book about? It's about language, of course, or rather - Language. It's about the inevitable and destructive culture clashes. It's about the painful casualty-filled struggle between the New and the Old. It's about the allures and the dangers of power. It's about inability to escape politics. It's about love and friendship and betrayal. It's about a surreal fantastical world in the best sci-fi traditions. It's about the easiness with which even the formidable things can get destroyed by slightest mistakes - mistakes that can destroy worlds. And all of this is done with the usual Miéville flair and love for weirdness - albeit Miéville slightly toned down as compared to his Bas-Lag works.
"Language, for the Ariekei, was truth: without it, what were they? An unsociety of psychopaths."
How about I try to give you a glimpse of the plot? It's Miéville's forage into the sci-fi territory. Set on a far-away planet (in a galaxy far far away), it's a story narrated by Avice Benner Cho (the ABC of this language-centered book), a native of Embassytown, a human outpost on a planet inhabited by the Ariekei (The Hosts), the alien race whose lives are ruled by the Language - which IS the reality and the thought rather than merely a way of expressing the above. There are no lies, they are not possible, they are inconceivable.
"I differ with myself then agree, like the rock that was broken and cemented together. I change my opinion."
There are no metaphors. There are only similes - as literal as they can be, and very necessary in this literal world. Avice Benner Cho, for instant, is a Simile - "a girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her." Only specially raised Ambassadors are able to communicate with the Ariekei. And it is this way - until one day an unexpected new Ambassador arrives. And everything goes to hell.
"A world-destroying mistake. Not a stupid one: only the very worst luck."
China Miéville once again does what knows how to do best - gives the readers an amazingly vivid and weird bit of worldbuilding, creating the environment that is so alive and real despite - or maybe because of - its inherent strangeness. On this canvas he layers the story of war and destruction, the power struggle with the appeal and danger of politics, and brings in the colonizers vs. the colonized relationship perspective - from the weirdest angle imaginable. And it works, as usual, full of CM's captivating storytelling magic. It's all-immersing and impossible to put down.
And in reaching into the depths of this story, taking in the message that is being spoken to me, I'm LIKE a girl who ate what was given to her. I'm NOT unlike a girl who ate. I AM a girl who are what was given to her. (Hehe, that was fun! Misused, yes, but fun).
"Before the humans came, we didn't speak so much of certain things. We were grown into Language. After history we made city and machines and gave them names. We didn't speak so much of certain things. Language spoke us. The words that wanted to be city and machines had us speak them so they could be."
The Language, albeit described in such a fascinating way, is only an excuse, a background, a way to make the reader reflect on the power dynamics and the attempts to reconcile the old and the new, the culture that is brought in and the culture that already exists. What is better - the purity of what is already established or the allure of the unknown that leads who knows where? How much stake can we put into championing what we think is right, what we think there should be?
And speaking of championing what you think is right - I loved what was done with the character of Scile, the admirer of the way Ariekei lived their lives. He subverts the common trope of an outsider stepping into the world and realizing the power and rightness of the tradition of the 'natives' and championing it successfully. Scile's role gets turned on its head, he becomes a fanatic with a noble but unsustainable mission, and I love this turn of events. Because he is wrong and yet not entirely wrong.
"It's not the Ambassadors' job to understand the Hosts," I said.
"So whose is it?"
"It's no one's job to understand them." I think that was when I first really saw the gap between us."
There's not a correct answer to the above question, even in the light of Miéville's uncharacteristically optimistic ending (but in all honesty, once I read it again I realized how much hidden bittwersweetness it holds, and how much potential for badness there is even in this optimism).
"I never, in Embassytown, the immer or the out, had the constitution for the intrigue. Floaking, I'd hoped, was a way around it. But politics finds you."
And a special applause goes to CM's protagonist, Avice Benner Cho. She is a very strong and brave character, and yet is rather calm, low-key, and even somewhat detached. She is self-sufficient and resourceful, level-headed and determined, and I love all of that. She has a very healthy attitude about life, and it's very refreshing to read the story in such a voice. She does what needs to be done, without whining, without needless deliberation, without any extra drama.
After all, she is the girl who ate what was given to her. She is like... well, many things. And that is vitally important.
I loved this book immensely. It is the second sci-fi book revolving around language that I've read this year (The first was Delaney's Babel-17), and it spoke to me, referring to so many things that I care about. It was a great read, an amazing book from a favorite author, and yet another proof that China Miéville can succeed at writing about anything (c'mon, he already successfully wrote about space elevators after all!). 5 stars!
"We speak now or I do, and others do. You've never spoken before. You will. You'll be able to say how the city is a pit and a hill and a standard and an animal that hunts and a vessel on the sea and the sea and how we are fish in it, not like the man who swims weekly with fish but the fish with which he swims, the water, the pool. I love you, you light me, warm me, you are suns.
You have never spoken before."
March 2013: Having just reread this book with the Miévillians group on Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/topic/group_folder/161027), I was thrilled that I loved this book even more the second time around. Thank you, my friends, for taking this Miéville linguistic space journey with me! This time, politics behind the events of Embassytown caught my attention much more than they did on the first read when I focused on Language most of the time. This book is definitely one of my favorites now.