Friday, June 17, 2011

China Mieville

On Friday my review of China Mieville's new novel, EMBASSYTOWN, went up on the web site for the WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF BOOKS. You can see the full review, titled "China Mieville and the Far Edge of Science Fiction," here: Here I will just summarize what I said.

This is a good book. It is not, however, a book for everyone. The novel asks a provocative question: What are the abilities and limits of language? It also inadvertently raises a different question: What are the abilities and limits of science fiction?

EMBASSYTOWN takes place in a far future on the planet Arieka, which we see through the eyes of narrator Avice Benner Cho. She grows up there and then later returns with her husband Scile, a linguist, during a cross-cultural crisis with the native Ariekei. The Ariekei have two “mouths” and speak through both at once. This is ironic because a key feature of Ariekei thought is that they are unable to lie. Language for them does not signify reality, it is reality, and they are literally unable to double-voice anything that is not true. Nor can they, again literally, recognize any speech that does not feature two words spoken at once by the same creature. Humans, wanting valuable trade with the Ariekei, have developed genetically-engineered “ambassadors,” clones who speak separate words in perfect synchronicity.

SF built around the potentialities is not new, but nobody I can think of has taken it as far as Mieville. This is a fully detailed world, fascinating in its strangeness. The characters are interesting. But Mieville is so close inside his narrator's head, who is of course familiar with everything, that he explains nothing. Scores of new, unexplicated terms come at the reader from page 1. The result is that a reader needs patience and persistence to unravel everything, especially since the actual conflict doesn't begin till one-third of the way through the book. For the hard core SF fan. this book is a delight. For the uninitiated, the casual SF reader, or those preferring a fast-paced plot, this one may be a difficult read.

I loved it.


Kendall said...

Great review; I'm quite intrigued. :-) I'll check it out.

Juliette Wade said...

This sounds right up my alley; I'll have to find a copy. I love pushing the linguistic boundaries myself.

Unknown said...

WOW! This was such an amazing read! You are so lucky to have the opportunities to travel to such amazing destinations! And your writing is so good, I feel like I was right there with you! :) Petter Joe