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Embassytown by China Miville

This sophisticated novel addresses who we are
Ursula K Le Guin
The Guardian, Saturday 7 May 2 01 1

Courtesy of Del Rey Books

Some authors fill a novel with futuristic scenery and jargon and then strenuously, even
stertorously, deny that it's science fiction. No, no, they don't write that nasty stuff, never
touch it. They write literature. Though curiously familiar with the tropes and
conventions of the despised genre, they so blithely ignore the meaning of terms, they
reinvent the wheel with such cries of self-admiration, that their endeavours seem a
doomed effort to prove that one can write a novel without learning how.
Embassy t own
by China Miev ille

China Miville knows what kind of novel he's writing, calls it by its
name, science fiction, and exhibits all the virtues that make it an
intensely interesting form of literature. It's a joy to find this
young author coming into his own, and bringing the craft of
science fiction out of the backwaters where it's been caught lately
between the regressive drag of publishers marketing to a "safe"
readership and the bewildering promises of change and growth
offered by postmodernism in all its forms and formlessness.
Embassytown is a fully achieved work of art.

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Only the trash forms of science fiction are undemanding and

predictable; the good stuff, like all good fiction, is not for lazy
minds. Where the complexity of realistic novels is moral and
psychological, in science fiction it's moral and intellectual;
individual character is seldom the key. But Miville's characters
are deftly sketched, and his narrator-protagonist, Avice, is a
subtler portrait than she seems at first. Nothing in her behaviour
offers conventional signals of femininity or unfemininity, an
indication that gender may be differently constructed when
humanity finds itself dealing with genuine Others.

There are men right now who have never learned how to talk to women. How will we
talk to somebody really different aliens? The Ariekei of Embassytown are immensely
unlike us. The problem of communication, the nature of language and of spoken truth, is
the novel's core.
When everything in a story is imaginary and much is unfamiliar, there's far too much to


explain and describe, so one of the virtuosities of SF is the invention of box-words that
the reader must open to discover a trove of meaning and implication. The imaginative
leaps involved in decoding such inventions and appreciating their wit can give a reader
much pleasure. Miville sets the bar rather high I still haven't figured out what a miab
is but most of his neologisms come clear with a nice shock of revelation. My favourite is
the immer, which is to our space-time reality as the sea is to our lands: therefore, to
travel through space is to immerse. Other elegant images follow, for this is a book by a
writer who loves language. And then there are new twists on ordinary words such as
Avice's realisation that she is a simile. Before she could speak the Ariekei language, they
made her part of it, a figure of speech, like our boy who cried wolf. She is "the girl who
ate what was given her".
The Ariekei want similes because their language, which is innate, does not permit lying.
Like Swift's Houyhnhnms, they cannot speak that which is not. This contradicts the
nature of language as we know it language is a wonderful vehicle for untruth and
perhaps a necessary vehicle for invention, the leap to the not-yet-existent. But why
should all language be like ours? The Ariekei have got on very well with only truth,
cultivating a high bio-technology that Miville describes with gleeful poetry, the living
houses with their parasitical furniture, the great farms lurching over the countryside
behind their keepers . . . I wondered how the Ariekei thought of making such creatures if
they can think only of what is, but that question may be indirectly answered: it seems
they crave that which is not, the unthinkable untruth, the lie.
Our species has put a colony on their planet, and we are certainly well qualified to teach
them how to lie. They are eager to learn but no good at it at all. A different kind of
human ambassador is sent to Embassytown, one who can give them what they want or
an intoxicating imitation of it, a misuse of their language producing a kind of false lie.
Such paradoxicals, once heard by the truth-tellers, act on them like heroin or meth
utterly destructive of their grip on reality, and fatally addictive.
The picture of a society shaken, shattered, wrecked to the foundation by a universal
drug addiction infecting even the houses, even the farms, for they are all biologically
akin, is apocalyptic vision on the grand scale curiously beautiful, alien in every vivid
detail, yet psychologically and socially only too familiar. Science fiction, like all fiction, is a
way of talking about who we are.
The story, at first a bit hard to follow, very soon attains faultless impetus and pacing. If
Miville has been known to set up a novel on a marvellous metaphor and then not know
quite where to take it, he's outgrown that, and his dependence on violence is much
diminished. In Embassytown, his metaphor which is in a sense metaphor itself
works on every level, providing compulsive narrative, splendid intellectual rigour and
risk, moral sophistication, fine verbal fireworks and sideshows, and even the oldfashioned satisfaction of watching a protagonist become more of a person than she gave
promise of being. And all along we thought she was only a simile . . .
Ursula K Le Guin's Lavinia is published by Phoenix.

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15 comments, displaying Oldest


8 May 2011 9:58AM

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What a wonderful publication The Guardian can be sometimes,


that you might actually find an author such as Le Guin reviewing


an author such as Miville.

Am a short way into the novel myself and enjoying it, for all the
reasons given here. Finding it an extremely satisfying return to
what the author does best after the previous two novels: creating
entirely new worlds and subtly revealing their wonder through
that peculiarly spec-fic art of making up evocative new terms or
expertly deploying the ones we already have.
9 May 2011 6:54AM
I do hope Embassytown is better than Kraken, because while
I enjoyed the latter well enough, it did little or nothing to

Recommend (2)
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convince me Mieville is an accomplished literary novelist.

Kraken reads like a rosary of geek cool, a string of set pieces
(however memorable they often are) merely masquerading as
plot (and I'm not sure I've ever read a novel set in London that
so unsuccessfully evokes London). And he needs to look to Ron
Hansen's fiction as a worthier, more elegant litmus test on how to
verb nouns -- because one does, doesn't mean one does so well.
And as characters go, Billy Harrow makes Dan Brown's Robert
Langdon look positively Dickensian...
9 May 2011 9:50AM
What's the best book of Miville's to start with?

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9 May 2011 10:55AM
@grjc - Perdido Street Station got me hooked. It won the Hugo,
the Nebula and the Arthur C Clarke awards. If you like it you

Recommend (10)
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then have the following two books in his Bas Lag trilogy to look
forward to - The Scar and The Iron Council. Enjoy...
9 May 2011 11:20AM

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Miab is an acronym of 'message in a bottle'.

9 May 2011 11:46AM
What's the best book of Miville's to start with?

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The City & The City is incredible, and based on a brilliantly

imagined concept. Didn't care much for Kraken: for me, way too
dense and meandering without actually making a point or telling
an interesting story.
9 May 2011 12:00PM
it did little or nothing to convince me Mieville is an
accomplished literary novelist.

Recommend (3)
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If you went in looking for "literary fiction" then it's no surprise

you'd be disappointed. Kraken is, as you say, a "rosary of geek
cool", an unabashed "genre thing" - SF&F geekery by an SF&F
geek for SF&F geeks. It's a sort of shared joke. UnLunDun aside,
it's probably his most whimsical novel-length work yet. Looking
at it literarily, it examines and subverts all manner of Spec Fic
tropes from a position of genuine respect for genre. It was a nice
departure to sunnier climes, a bit of fan service maybe, after the
sometimes dry Borgesian premise writ large that was The City &
The City.
9 May 2011 12:09PM
Trawler, Roguish - Thanks.

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9 May 2011 12:30PM
Mr. Miville does seem to knock them out, doesn't he? The City
and the City, Kraken and now this is very short succession.

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9 May 2011 1:35PM
aCarnegie - totally agree.
I wonder who are the other authors that readers of this blog

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consider to be the leading the field in SF at the moment. From

my limited reading I would count China Mieville, Dan Simmons,
Richard Morgan, Paul McAuley, Paolo Bacigalupi, the science
fiction author Margaret Atwood and possibly Alaistair Reynolds
among the leaders. Who am I missing?
PS. Iain M Banks, Vernor Vinge and Neal Stephenson don't do
much for me personally but I'm aware of their esteem.


9 May 2011 2:07PM
Mieville, though, wants to seem to be taken seriously as a literary
novelist no less than as a sci-fi novelist, as a point at which the
two dissolve into one another. And admirers of his -- not unlike

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Le Guin -- seem to want the literary community to acknowledge

him as the bearer of that flag, too. But it isn't there. Gene Wolfe
works that literary sci-fi terrain; Mieville (on the strength of
Kraken, that is) does not.
9 May 2011 6:45PM
Am not sure whether he himself wants to be taken "seriously" in

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that way. As far as I know, it comes down to a deeper argument

(/can of worms) about the way Sci Fi & Fantasy are currently
regarded verses the way the Literary Fiction genre is regarded
by the literary establishment and so on.
I'd say Embassytown is literary in possibly my favourite way: as
an exploration of language (and therefore narrative, as the two
are inextricable) - metafiction in other words. I would also
venture to say that Kraken's self-awareness, as Fantasy novel
about genre Fantasy in a sense, marks it out as fairly literary too.
But as I said, the whole concept seems fairly subjective and
Agreed on Gene Wolfe by the way, he's brilliant. I would say that
Miville's very much one of his literary heirs though - I would
place the Bas Lag series next to the Book of the New Sun with no
10 May 2011 1:04PM
I read Embassytown at the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it.
If I had to pinpoint a criticism amongst a whole pile of praise...

Recommend (1)
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I would say that nearer the end of the book it is focused slightly
too heavily on 'Language' and treats too lightly some other
aspects of the story. The voice of Avice as the narrator on the
page, talking in past tense, will nonchalantly skip over parts of
the story I would have liked to be fleshed out slightly more. It
felt like by the end the author wanted to strip away all parts of
the story extraneous to the central idea.
13 May 2011 7:42PM
So you didn't read The City and the City then?
17 May 2011 2:51PM

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@Roguish: Perdido Street Station was shortlisted for the Hugo

and Nebula awards, but lost both of them to Neil Gaiman's
American Gods. It did win the Arthur C Clarke Award.


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