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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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Minireview: Kraken, by China Miéville

Kraken, a standalone “urban fantasy” novel by China Miéville, is a strange beast (and features one). It’s the story of Billy Harrow, an emplyee of the British Museum of Natural History, who suddenly notices that a forty foot specimen of a (dead) giant squid has suddenly vanished from its display case. At the same time, a dead man is discovered stuffed into a giant glass bottle with a mouth much too small to fit a man – an impossible crime. A special secret squad of the London Police is called in, one which knows there is something sinister behind it all, and one which focuses on Billy and his possible role in the events. Billy himself gets slowly sucked into a world of secret squid cults, sinister urban sorcery, impossible technology, and a dead god which may or may not exist and which may or may not be a harbinger of the end of the world.

It’s a mad mix of a ton of ingredients, and precisely the sort of tale I tend to love. It’s convoluted, and features strange occult themes and high weirdness. Somehow, however, the whole thing left me a bit cold. Maybe it’s a case of too many ingredients, too much fine detail which eclipses the plot itself. It’s confusing, and the writing style is also a bit hard to follow at times, switching viewpoints with wild abandon. The book is a somewhat exhausting read, and while there are lots and lots of fantastic set pieces here and interesting characters, somehow the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It’s well worth a read though; Miéville is a great writer and there’s a lot to love here. I view this book as a partly failed stylistic experiment.

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Minireview: The City & the City, by China Miéville

The City & the City is a deeply strange book… but then again, since it’s by China Miéville, that’s a given. I absolutely love many of his books, while sometimes, most recently in “The Kraken”, I can see what he’s trying to do but it just leaves me cold. This book lands squarely in the “absolutely loved it” department, in fact I think it’s one of his all-time best.

This is a stand-along book, not connected to any of his other stories. It’s set in the dilapidated city of Beszel, in some vaguely Eastern European country. It’s also set in the city of Ul Qoma, which… ok, here I have to post a warning, since it’s impossible to discuss this book without some spoilers.

So, you have been warned. If you have yet to read this book, I suggest you stop reading this, right now, and go read the book. Welcome back, afterwards.

Ok, so Ul Quoma both is Beszel and and very much is not. It occupies the same physical space, but it logically separate. Citizens of Beszel do not see citizens of Ul Quoma, and vice versa. Oh, they could see them, but they are conditioned since childhood to “unsee” things that do not belong. If you want to visit Ul Quoma from Beszel, you need to go to the border checkpoint (in the center of both cities), and then, having officially crossed over, are free to go back to the same exact spot – at which point you can see Ul Quoma, but cannot see Beszel anymore.

Sometimes, people accidentally see things they are not supposed to, they fail to “unsee”. This can result in bad things happening. Very bad things.

All this very slowly dawns on the reader, through the narrator: inspector Tyador Borlú of Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad. A native of Baszel, he describes everything in a matter-of-fact tone which, initially makes everything seem just like a routine police procedural. Slowly, the reader becomes aware just how weird this supposedly-normal city is, and that it’s about much more than a routine murder mystery.

The plot? Initially, it’s about a murdered young woman, a citizen of Ul Quoma found in Beszel – with no record of her having crossed over. Slowly, Inspector Borlú is drawn deeper into a plot that seems to involve much deeper and darker things, including a legendary “third city” co-existing with the other two, hiding in some mysterious dimension just outside reach. Sometimes people get too close to the real truth, and vanish, never to be heard of again.

It’s a fascinating and unique tale, with hints of Kafka and others. It teeters on the edge of “science fiction”, while arguably not being that. It also has elements of urban fantasy, without quite being that either. The fantastic, partly anonymous faux Eastern Europe locale even has some themes in common with Al Amarja (from “Over the Edge”), without being tongue-in-cheek.

An impressive book from an already impressive writer.

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