Embassytown by China Miéville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This, I think, will be a novel that you will either love or hate or land somewhere in between.
But, really, it’s certainly not for everyone, and not even necessarily for those who loved his previous novels [I’ve only read the Bas-lag ones, which are fantastic for so many reasons]. It’s a book that escapes easy classification. It’s complex and challenging and incredibly ambitious, and, even its failings, are causal and inherent to the style. I’ll try not to compare Mieville to himself until a bit later, but, in many ways, this is a very different book.
I think part of the difficulty of the novel stems from its complete otherness. It takes place in a different time, in a different galaxy [possibly universe–there’s a single sentence within that leads me to believe this is about three universe cycles after our own], charactered by some aliens who’re taken more or less for granted as being present, by people who’re, in certain ways, very different than us [post-homodiaspora–self-defined–and so certain of these humans cannot, for unexplained quickly brushed over reasons, have sex with one another (and this is maybe a failing in the characterisation of the novel, excluding this pivotal aspect of human relationship and interaction or at least not treating it with the respect some may assume it demands)], and a certain species–Hosts–who the novel really centers around, who’re so vastly different than any creature created that I’ve ever encountered in fiction of any medium, and then a planet and city so other that defy easy categorisation or analogues. But, yes, so the novel takes place in this world, in this extremely other place populated by extremely other creatures. And what makes this difficult and, I think, what leaves many readers at arm’s length is that Mieville has taken a character perspective.
There’s, of course, nothing odd with telling a story in first person, but when the universe being explored is so vastly incomparable, it puts serious limitations on explanations and explication, which, certainly, Mieville likely has no intention of giving and sees this as a nonissue or at least a necessary risk in telling the story he wanted to tell. But, the practicalities of first person: to keep this narrative going, one can’t get too bogged down in details and explanations, because, as this is our narrator’s–Avice–homeworld, it wouldn’t make sense, internally, to the character, to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining all the intricacies of life in Embassytown. And so it’s a very gradual reveal, with much of the innerworkings dropped throughout the first half of the novel. Also, potentially frustrating are the many terms that go unexplained or undefined, though many of them become quite clear due to context and so on. What gives the narrative a little leeway to explicate and give things to the reader is the tense and the way Avice goes about telling the story. She is, literally, explaining what happened to the rest of the universe, maybe–to herself, certainly. But so we get more from her than would normally be allowed, but it puts the narrative at a distance and also her own self at a distance. The things she glosses over, such as sex and motivations, are not always divulged in straightforward terms, some of them, likely, because she doesn’t know how to explain it to herself why or what or how.
So this leads to further difficulty in relating to the who and the what of the novel. And in many ways, the characters are filled out by what’s not said, by what’s not even assumed or guessed, but by the briefness of their actions, the way they speak, the way they do not act, the tears that fill their eyes, and even the outrage simmering beneath. And, yes, these issues certainly do not make it easy for the reader to understand or to care, but I did.
And I think Mieville should be commended for his bravado here. In choosing carefully what the reader learns and how she learns it, the reader gets a picture that she must fill up or get lost in. The complete otherness of everything leaves all to chance, but it gives the reader that greater sense of agency, where a book is more than an artefact, but something built collaboratively with the author.
And this is a hugely ambitious novel, which, I think, is saying something when considering Mieville’s work [even just the few I’ve read]. This is a novel about so much. About colonialism/imperialism, about language, about thought, about obsession, about religion, about revolution, and even about the devolution of class and society. A lot of attention is paid to language within the novel, for obvious reasons [or, they’ll become obvious once read], but it’s more than simply an interesting concept or a peculiar way to examine language. It’s about culture and how language is fundamental to the way in which we view the world/how the way we view the world informs culture/identity.
The colonial/imperial aspect of the novel is certainly the most curious to me, if only because of its moral ambiguity. This is the only novel written in a long time that addresses colonialism from the perspective of the imperialiser. And that opinion may be my own ignorance, but, in much fiction of the last couple decades, imperialists have only been seen as the evil invader. Embassytown addresses this issue in no clear terms. The Hosts are the culture imperialised, but, in many ways, it’s a postcolonial conscious effort. Meaning, they are deferred to and respected, possibly because of their otherness, and no attempt to really exploit them is clearly evident, though there are certainly some implications early on, but they seem trivial. What the humans gain from the Hosts is vastly superior to what’s traded, but the Hosts seem, in all ways, completely ambivalent of human existence on their planet. They see humans as a peculiar curiosity and, due to their language, can only communicate with specially trained humans called Ambassadors [joint clones, really]. The Hosts have only a vague curiosity for human customs and do not recognise most humans as beings with any agency or thought. So alien to them are we that we barely register. And so the usual paradigm of the invader is, not tossed away, but almost neutralised at the beginning of the novel. Things begin to unravel and then quickly collapse and the humans are forced to make some tough choices, including lethal experimentation on the indigenous population in order to understand how to solve the problem they’ve accidentally [carelessly] made. This act of vivisection is called brave by the narrator, herself a member of the invading population. It’s here where I stopped for a moment and a few moments more, because this is not the kind of action one considers brave. It’s the kind of nefarious predatory actions we’ve come to see as a trope of the imperialists. And so what we know to be true and what we feel to be almost true [that being, we know this is wrong, but we empathise with the human characters, if, for no other reason, because they’re human] conflict and collide. And this is where our narrator, Avice, becomes especially important, for all of the limits built into her narration are essential at this crucial point of morality. We, the reader, may–and likely will–see this as monstrous, but we are explicitly told that it is brave. And so who Avice is begins to fill in surprising ways. And that’s not to say we begin to hate Avice or see her as amoral or psychopathic, but we begin to understand [and this is, I think, a truly brave thing, for a writer to challenge us in this way] how ordinary people can do evil while not becoming evil.
This is not the only time these questions are raised to the reader, but it is certainly the most explicit, and maybe the only explicit one, as I can’t seem to think of another one. However, the conclusion of this novel, which I will try not to spoil as I’ve mostly been speaking in vaguery, brings these questions of morality into sharp focus, even as they are pushed deeper and deeper into the narrative, away from the focus of what is happening.
As readers, we’re looking for our conclusion before it gets there, always trying to anticipate it, always hoping to be surprised. And Embassytown succeeds here. And because it’s so casual, we stop questioning what it does, what it truly means.
I would love to address this in clearer terms, but I think spoilers should be avoided in a review. I will say a few things, though.
This is very much about the push and pull of cultures, where both begin to give and take, but, as is usual, the imperialised culture is at the most risk and, eventually, is the one that suffers or changes the most. Both of these are true in Embassytown as they are in reality. What’s important about the change undergone by the Hosts is that its implications are not addressed objectively, ever. We watch a culture become no longer what it was in order to survive what was done to it by bad policy/careless experimentation of the imperialists. But we only ever get Avice’s voice in full. A voice we’ve spent the whole novel with, learning to love and care about, or, at the very least, trust. And so we trust and believe her conclusion, which is a conclusion that doesn’t address the questions about cultural significance and what it means for that culture that it can never actually be what it was originally, even on a linguistic level.
And that, I think, more than the language, is the center of this novel. What and who and how we are, and what those all mean, collectively, individually.
And, like I said, it’s hugely ambitious, even for Melville, but it lacks some of his narrative flair, such as his strong sense of worldbuilding. But, I think, again, that’s completely due to the otherness of the world and the closeness of the narrator to that world. Whereas New Corbuzon and the Armada of the Scar are so clear in the reader’s mind that we can see every nook and cranny, even smell the streets and the sweat [because of our realworld analogues that we’ve been inundated with visuals of through film and television and histories–because, even though vastly different, these places are very much modelled on the world of the past], Embassytown and its world are so distinctly without analogue to anything we know or have experienced that it cannot be given in easy terms, and the problem is exacerbated by the narration of Avice, who has lived there most of her life. However, we do feel this place as a reality, even if seeing it is difficult.
I’d love to give this five stars if only for its ambition and bravado, just as I’d love to recommend it to the world, but there are some averse affects to all of this. It is not, I don’t think, what we’ve come to expect from Mieville, which, to me, is pushing it further up in value.
It’s a risky novel and it is not always successful. But those risks are important and should be encouraged, because even when failing, they lead to future promises of success.
And so, in this long review, I’ve convinced myself of its five stars. And so there that is.
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