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Minireview: Embassytown, by China Miéville

Embassytown is, as far as I can figure, the first pure science fiction book China Miéville has written – though it is, not surprisingly, a very strange one. At its heart, it’s an attempt at portraying a truly alien culture, and also an examination of language in the role of creating reality.

The story is set in the titular “Embassytown” on the planet Arieka, at the far edge of the known universe. Access is via the “Immer”, a sort of alternate space which can be used (with some difficulty and danger) for interstellar travel. The protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, has spent a long time in the “Out”, as an “Immerser”, and now returns back to her native Arieka (something few people do). Arieka is a very strange place, inhabited by the alien Ariekei, with Embassytown having an artificial human-breathable atmosphere, while the rest of the planet is more hostile to humans. Embassytown is where humans, the Ariekei and other “exots” can meet, trade and learn from each other.

What makes the situation on Arieka unique is the Ariekei themselves, or more exactly their way of communication. They speak with with a dual, overlapping language which requires multiple mouths to produce, and are utterly incapable of understanding any other form of communication. Humans, having tried various artificial means (to no avail), have stumbled on a solution where bio-engineered human twins are raised as “Ambassadors” and can speak with two minds but one “mind”, allowing communication with the Ariekei. To add to the difficulty, the Ariekei language does not allow for lies or any sort of speculation; their only form of doing that is having someone (who can be a human) physically enact similes, which can in turn become allusions for the Ariekei to use in their communication. For example, Cho herself is known to the Ariekei as “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her” (which is literally what was done to her). In addition, the Ariekei periodically host a “Festival of Lies”, where they compete is who can come closest to telling an untruth (something which is both exciting and a taboo subject for them).

Into all this walks a new Ambassador, who is a singular being engineered to be able to speak the Language by himself. This should not work, and has never before worked, but now it does. And all hell breaks loose.

It’s a very strange book, diving deep into a truly alien mindset and setting. The role of language is at the forefront here, and its role is shaping how we view the world. We tend to think of language as just a neutral tool, but it really isn’t that, even for our human cultures. Words matter, and many languages lack core concepts from other cultures. Here, of course, all that has been pushed to the extreme, with the Ariekei Language forming the ultimate shaper of reality for them, and also acting as the spark of conflict. While this may be a somewhat hard book to love due to its deep strangeness, it’s very much worth reading because of that.

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