By China Miéville
First Published: 2011
Jacket Illustrations by David Stevenson
Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Alien Contact, Fantasy
Alternate Spelling: China Mieville
Embassytown is a new science fiction novel from China Miéville who is well known for his boundary crossing fantasy novels which mix ingredients from a variety of genres including horror, steampunk, and westerns. He often describes his novels as “weird fiction” and is part of a movement some refer to as the “New Weird”. From what I understand, Embassytown is somewhat of a departure for Mieville towards a novel that fits comfortably into the science fiction category. The results are mixed. Mieville brings some tremendously original ideas to Embassytown but is not able to create a satisfying read.
Due to my general aversion to fantasy novels, I’ve never read any of Miéville’s previous works although I’ve been tempted because of his reputation for writing novels that are the opposite of “commercial” fantasy novels. I also noticed that Miévelle received a slew of awards over the last several years including the Hugo. When I heard Miévelle had written a real science fiction novel, I decided I couldn’t overlook this acclaimed writer any longer. I jumped this novel to the top of my reading list with high expectations although I was a bit concerned that Embassytown might lean too much towards the fantasy arena. My worries about too much fantasy were unfounded but the novel still ended up falling well short of my high expectations.
Embassytown starts off with some impressive world building as Miéville creates a wonderfully detailed depiction of a human outpost on an alien world which serves as an embassy to the alien Ariekei civilization. The novel starts off slowly as the background of the story is painted in great detail and we learn a little about the childhood and early adulthood of the main character, Avice. We also learn that the Ariekei civilization has developed amazing and valuable bioengineering capabilities. However, what is even more unique about their civilization is that their “Language” is profoundly unique. This is the central premise upon which the rest of the novel rests. A normal human cannot communicate with the Ariekei because they have evolved with 2 voice organs that speak different sound sequences simultaneously. In order to communicate, humans spend years developing specially altered and trained ambassadors with the capability to communicate.
The main plot of the novel really gets going when a new radically different ambassador is sent to Embassytown to communicate with the aliens. “Language” spoken by the new ambassador causes visible shock to the aliens that leads to much larger consequences than anyone imagines. The results lead to the once unified Ariekei splitting into factions and the outbreak of extreme violence and war with humans caught in the middle.
While Embassytown contains some very original ideas (especially about the complexities of communication) and fascinating descriptions of an alien world, this novel failed to really connect with me. I kept waiting to get past the background explanations to some engaging action or increased tension but no real tension materialized except, perhaps, at the final climax of the novel. In addition, the characters generally came across as being very two dimensional. The main character, Avice, is not unlikeable but seems to be quite unemotional. She tells the story from a first person perspective but her voice doesn’t seem like that of a real woman. Rather, she comes across sounding more like a man’s attempt to sound like a woman. In particular, her romantic liaisons and her marriage come across without any sense of passion. She seems to be able to change romantic partners without any strong feelings. Other supporting characters have even less realism, especially Scile who marries Avice and has more than one key action in the story. And then there is a robot AI who is one of Avice’s best friends for a fairly long portion of the novel only to disappear completely leaving one to wonder why the AI was ever mentioned in the first place.
In summary, I found Embassytown to have some original ideas about communication and aliens but this did not overcome the fact that the story never managed to be engaging. With flat characters and only a few sparks of tension, the story ended up being much more tedious than enjoyable. As a result, I can’t recommend Embassytown. You would probably be much better served to try one of Miéville’s earlier fantasy works.