Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: Embassytown, by China Mieville

On one hand, I wish I could convince everyone I know that Mieville is the best science/weird fiction writer working today; on the other I'm kind of gleeful to have encountered his alien genius before he really does become the next big thing (at least among smartypants nerds). He is a writer always testing the boundaries of genre, and Embassytown is likely the most “literary” book he’s written so far . . . though perhaps not the most immediately accessible. Prepare for a novel that both blows your mind and gives it an excellent workout.

You know you're entering heady territory when a novel's epigram is a quote from Walter Benjamin: “The word must communicate something (other than itself).” (Although it might equally be another, quite different, quote: “Gifts must affect the receiver to the point of shock.” I'll let you work that one out as you read the book.)

In Embassytown, Mieville continues to showcase his deft world-building skills on the planet Arieka, a crucial node in the interstellar shipping lanes. Here, human colonists coexist in a state of mutual disconnection with a culture so physically and intellectually alien from our own that communication is nearly impossible, only achieved by a select few “Ambassadors,” genetically altered and rigorously trained for the task. Though the main thrust of the narrative is a tale of political intrigue, be aware that a significant amount of time is spent pondering the brain-bursting concepts of linguistic and semiotic construction. For example: the native Ariekei are unable to communicate or conceive of anything but that which is is literally true – they are incapable of a lie, and must construct elaborate, surreal tableaux in order to formulate even simple similes or metaphors. (Our protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, is herself a simile, having as a child participated in the creation of the unpleasantly loaded phrase "the girl who ate what was given her.") But what might change for the Ariekei -- and us -- when a communication breakthrough occurs?

In Embassytown, Mieville has mostly jettisoned his tendency to revel in the minutia of the grotesque, as he does in the Bas-Lag novels. Instead he works in simple, elegant prose to consider and illustrate evolution and destabilization of the ways in which thinking beings communicate -- constructing meaning (and misunderstanding) from sounds and other signifiers, and constructing civilizations from those meanings. (Now that sentence gave me flashbacks to grad school . . .) With his latest book, Mieville once again defies genre expectations, raising the bar for thoughtful, challenging science fiction.

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