Embassytown is the latest book by China Mieville, who is perhaps best known for his novel Perdido Street Station. He’s written several books in the speculative fiction genre, some of which have won major awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hugo Award, and the World Fantasy Award. Embassytown, a science fiction novel, came out in hardcover and ebook formats this year and will be released in trade paperback in January 2012.
Since I’ve heard a lot about China Mieville and thought the premise of Embassytown sounded really interesting, I was thrilled when I got a copy through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Unfortunately, I found it a struggle to get through and it ended up taking me forever to read it. If this had been a book I bought myself to read and felt no obligation to complete for review, I would never have finished it. Since the reception to this particular novel has been very mixed, even with fans of Mieville’s other books, I still want to try Perdido Street Station – but if I thought this was supposed to be a good representation of his novels I never would have wanted to pick up another one.
Toward the beginning, it really did interest me and I was expecting to have a good time reading it. While it was confusing at times, that’s not a dealbreaker for me since I enjoy being thrown into a strange world and experiencing it firsthand. Reading about the early life of the main character, Avice, was a fascinating look at life on another world with some great details. She showed us what it was like to live on a planet where the humans couldn’t breathe the air and the games the children played, trying to see who could get the farthest outside the boundary in which they could breathe safely. Their society, which involved children being raised by many adults they viewed as their “mums” and “dads,” intrigued me as well. Avice’s early life also introduced the mysterious Hosts, aliens who requested Avice herself to act out a simile and become a part of Language forever. She readily agreed and was taken to act the part of what was shortened to “a girl ate what was given her.” This was actually a somewhat brutal event since the long version specifies a girl in pain, but Avice glosses over her bruises, seeming to considering it an honor and one she found far more strange than intolerable. As a part of Language, Avice does become some sort of superstar, even later gaining groupies among the Hosts who find the expression she performed particularly valuable.
For a little while, the novel alternated between the past and the present before continuing with the present day. This also kept me fairly interested, although I found the present parts a bit hard to fathom without the rest of the context. The past, which told a lot of how Avice met her husband and returned to her home planet, was easier to read and gave more of the background. Scile, whom Avice married, was fascinated by the Hosts and quite captivated to learn Avice had become a part of Language. For a time, I was eager to see what ended up happening and learn more about these aliens and their Language.
That soon changed and I was thoroughly disappointed and really didn’t like this novel, to be completely honest. For the most part, I was mind-numbingly bored as the book dragged on and on and became more and more pointless. It didn’t seem to be so much a story as an examination of ideas on language, which could have been interesting except it seemed to be trying much too hard to appear clever without really forming a basis for the concepts involved. Avice, whose perspective I had found so delightful earlier on, also became tedious as she had no personality and was mostly just a window through which we saw events. She did end up having some importance to how it ended, but she still never really became a living, breathing character that one could triumph and sorrow with. Actually, all the characters were flat and dull, although I did find the aliens less so just because they were so inhuman and, well, very alien. By the end, I didn’t care about anyone or anything in the book, which was a shame because it did seem so promising early on.
The basic concept revolves around the Language of these aliens, who only understand sounds to be a form of communication if they’re spoken simultaneously and has “soul.” In order to communicate with them, the humans created ambassadors, two people with a bond allowing them to speak in unison to the aliens. Once it gets going, most of the plot revolves around what happens when an ambassador comes along who is like a drug to these aliens to the point where they become hooked on his speech. It’s about how they resolve this and the changes they must undergo in order to once again become a functional society. Also important to the plot is the fact that these aliens evolved to the point where they could not tell a lie. In order to be able to use figures of speech such as similes they needed to have the event they wanted to speak of happen, which is why Avice acted the part of “a girl ate what was given her.” On occasion, they had a festival of lies in which the aliens got together and attempted to do things like state an object was a different color than it actually was.
While this is all interesting on its own, I really think that a novel containing all these central ideas needs to flesh them out much better than this one did. Much of the book focuses on the fact that the aliens act in unusual ways, but the “hows” and “whys” are completely ignored. What happened to cause the aliens to be unable to lie in the first place? How did they come to the conclusion that they needed similes in their language since it was mentioned they started performing similes with objects even before the humans came? What made them realize they were missing something without being able to use similes and metaphors when they were all alone? If the aliens could describe what they needed to have acted out to add a new simile to Language in the first place, why couldn’t they just talk about it? While I love this as an ode to the beauty of language and the desire to have imagery – and that these aliens wanted to add some artistry in their speech and choreographed these displays to use for making their points – it seemed like an idea that really needed to be a lot more detailed. Without more of a foundation, this premise just seemed far-fetched and there for no more purpose than to illustrate a point, not to tell a well-executed story with well-integrated ideas.
Embassytown started off strong in the earliest pages when it introduced the titular place. It has an alien world that feels very different from planet Earth, populated by aliens that are as alien as that name implies they should be. There is the occasional turn of phrase that also made me see glimpses of some great writing. I also really have to admire the love of language expressed through the central idea. In spite of all those things and a strong beginning, I was just tired of it by the end, though. It prattled on and on, and the characters were dull. Also, for such an idea-centric novel it didn’t flesh out the central idea of Language enough to be a concept I could believe in, leaving me with more questions about just how exactly this was supposed to make logical sense. The positive aspects are easily outweighed by the negative ones, especially because the more I read the more I disliked it (and the same goes for when I reread much of it over the course of writing this review).
My Rating: 2/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.