Embassytown – China Mieville

This book has restored my faith in Mieville as one of the leading lights of modern sci-fi. With the sad loss of Iain M. Banks it was great relief to find that Mieville is still more than capable of creating truly original ‘proper sci-fi’ without any of the fantasy trimmings that have irritated me with other books of his I have read recently. Not since Perdido Street Station have I been so impressed with his work.

Embassytown is a masterful demonstration of taking a ‘what if’ scenario and weaving a thoroughly convincing and thought-provoking narrative around the central idea. In this case the idea revolves around the connection an alien race has between their language and their minds. A peculiarity of the race known initially as ‘the hosts’ is their inability to use simile or metaphor without first acting out with the help of humans. Coupled with this is their inability to tell lies. If they cannot see it, or remember seeing it, if it is not true they cannot speak of it in their curious double-voiced language.

Mieville’s exploration of this core concept is captivating and so too is his depiction of a truly alien race, their technology, and humankind’s efforts to find a way of communicating with them. The way they communicate, by paired people known as ambassadors, ultimately leads to conflict.

The biology of the hosts and the proliferation of ambassadors are somewhat reminiscent of Babylon 5, but only vaguely. Mieville builds up a cyberpunk world of biomechanical synergies way beyond a run of the mill TV show and more akin to his early award-winning books. He also, almost as an aside, introduces a concept of a consciously navigable hyperspace called ‘the immer’ which although perhaps influenced by Herbert’s Dune involves no spice but a certain state of mind amongst a select handful of humans.

The main character is a typically sassy sexually active female called Avice Benner Cho. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that her initials are the first three letters of our alphabet – this is a book about language and linguistics after all. Cho is nominated at an early age to become a simile thus helping the hosts in the formation of their language. After a stint travelling the immer she returns to Embassytown with a new husband and in time to have a seemingly peripheral (but inevitably a pivotal) role to play in the language based crisis that emerges following the arrival of a new ambassador.

To say any more would be to spoil a thoroughly good book; one of Mieville’s finest to date imho. This is sci-fi at its best and most original, and a sincere recommendation from this happy reader.

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