How can a novel about language leave one speechless? In a good way, I hasten to add!
This was the third Mieville I’ve read, and they are all very different in style, content and my liking (or not).
The core idea of this one is language: how minds shape language and how language shapes minds. Wonderful as it was, I can see reasons why some people would hate it, or find it too weird, or just not sci-fi enough. If you don’t delight in polysemy and are not interested in the difference between simile and metaphor, this is unlikely to be the book for you.
Because of the tantalising style of storytelling, drip-feeding the reader snippets about things from the trivial to the fundamental, it’s definitely a book worth rereading, and that is especially true on the subject of language, to which I’ve devoted a whole section of this review (which I will doubtless need to rewrite after a reread!).
The plot is to some extent secondary, but it is the reminiscences (going back to childhood) of a woman from Embassytown who travels, comes back and becomes enmeshed in the extraordinary Language (capital letter) of the alien Hosts.
The first section left me exhilarated but reeling. It was so vague and yet specific, nearly familiar, yet also strangely different, and in such an enticing way. It hints at all sorts of weirdness that I couldn't quite put my finger on (odd units of time and some odd typography in the pages ahead) and others that I couldn’t even get my head around (what are “alien colours”- related to Douglas Adams’ Hooloovoo, a “super intelligent shade of the colour blue”?). Even the names and numbers of the sections were hard to fathom, making the reader as disoriented as an ambassador in an alien land.
This teasing bafflement continues throughout most of the book: Mieville doesn’t pad with early exposition, so the reader is fed occasional snippets about what things mean. Sometimes I wondered if I’d missed something, particularly things that were clearly fundamental to the book (e.g. what was special about the Ambassadors, what the Hosts looked like, and what being/performing a simile means) but as I read on, and gradually learned more, I realised that was just part of the style of the book.
Having just read Mieville’s The City & The City (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/396185571), I was also struck by parallels: there is lots about borders, separation, boundaries, outsiders, the strange duality of the city ("the Host city, where the streets changed their looks... not quite a hard border but was still remarkably abrupt, a gaseous transition.") and one character is "cleaved", when cleavage is a significant aspect of TC&TC.
SENSE OF PLACE
Embassytown is a trading outpost used by humans from Bremen and Earth (Terre) in the future. It is on a planet inhabited by the Ariekei, more respectfully known as Hosts. They have a unique Language that requires two simultaneous voices from one mind
, and the Ambassadors are the translators. The Hosts are also experts at biorigging, so many aspects of the city and its technology are appealingly bizarre, giving a very strong sense of place, even though some aspects are left to the reader’s imagination.
The immer is more amorphous concept of space or outer space, and Avice’s first experience of it is “impossible to describe”. “There are currents and storm fronts in the immer” as well as borders, but the usual laws of physics, and even direction, don’t apply. For instance, “in the first one [universe]… light was about twice as fast as it is here now” and some places are closer together in the immer than in the everyday. “The immer’s reaches don’t correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies
or overlies, infuses
, is a foundation
.” Also, “People get lost in the overlapping sets of knownspace.”
Avice is an immerser (traveller of and in the immer). She isn't a fluffy, girly sort of woman, but I would have little interest in reading about her if she was. Even so, she came across as plausibly female to me, which is not something all male writers can achieve.
She wasn’t especially endearing, and in the middle of the book she was often faffing around, trying to find out what was going on, but not actually achieving much. In particular, there are some key plot points where she relies on hearsay (“I wasn’t there but that’s how I was told it happened”), which is brave decision on Mieville’s part, though I think he just about retains her credibility. Despite those instances, she is central to the story, mainly in her childhood, and then towards the end of the book.
Given that the Host’s Language is thought and literal truth, the most obvious theme is the nature of truth and lies and the question of whether we make language or language makes us. See the section on Language, below.
I don't think we're meant
to have a clear idea what the Hosts look like. Mieville drops little clues throughout the book, but it takes a long time to build up a picture, which remains somewhat fuzzy, but utterly alien. I think that's indirectly telling us not to judge by outward appearance. When newly arrived crew stare, unashamedly, at the Hosts, Avice recounts a theory that “no matter how travelled people are… they can’t be insouciant at the first sight of any exot race… our bodies know we should not ever see [them]” (Of course, the vagueness is also a teasing tactic, which entices the reader to keep reading, and avoids distracting from the main force of the story.)
Related to that is Ehrsul: an autom who is Avice’s friend, albeit they rely on “all the exaggerated intimacies of our friendship”. Scyle can never quite think of her as human enough to be friends with her, whereas Avice pushes any doubts to the back of her mind. Maybe an autom who is TOO realistic is more unsettling than one that is clearly not human? On the other hand, “She only ever used one corpus, according to some Terrephile sense of politesse or accommodation… having to relate to someone variably physically incarnate would trouble us [humans]” and her apartment is decorated with pictures on the wall, so that visitors feel relaxed and at home. Would Ehrsul pass the Turing Test? The fact she runs on Turingware suggests she would, but perhaps it would depend who tested her, which then questions the whole nature of the test itself.
Other aspects of what it is to be human touch more on Brave New World, and Soylent Green. In the latter case, the Hosts’ natural “last incarnation was as a food store for the young.” Having given that up, they “respectfully shepherd the ambulatory corpses until they fall apart”, despite their “dignified mindlessness”. The former relates to the way Ambassadors are bred: identical twins, raised to be able to think, act and, crucially, speak, as one, as that is the only way to be understood by the Hosts
Colonialism and all the socio-political and practical issues around it are central, though not my main area of interest. I saw many echoes of the Opium Wars, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_wars)
a particularly shameful episode in British colonial history. I suppose the main difference is that the Language Ariekei were addicted to (albeit a corrupted form) was something previously regarded as unequivocally good. Does that change the ethics of addiction, drug-pushing, treatment (“they might not be addicted any more but they’re not cured; they’re changed”), and do the means justify the ends?
IDEAS ABOUT LANGUAGE
This is the heart of the book, but so hard to do justice to, but I’ll attempt it.
The Hosts’ language (called Language) is the most important to the story, and it is wonderfully strange: it must be spoken simultaneously in two voices by a single mind: “The sounds aren’t where the meaning lies… it needs a mind behind it”. The Hosts themselves have two means of vocal output (cut and turn), but it’s more of a challenge for humans to utter it in a way that the Hosts even register as speech, let alone understand.
The other distinctive feature of Language is that it is an utterly concrete and literal language: lies and multiple meanings are not possible: “For Hosts, speech was thought” and “Words don’t signify: they are
their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language?”
Side-effects of the strangeness of Language are that the Hosts have no system gestures nor of writing (Mieville accommodates the duality by writing simultaneous words above each other, like fractions).
However, it’s not quite so straightforward or static as that sounds…
The Hosts use similes to express things that are not literally true – the catch being that the similes themselves must be concrete and must continue to be true. (“The man who swims with fishes every week” has to swim with fishes every week. If only the simile had been in the past tense, his life would be much easier.)
Avice was a simile (“You speak Language. I am it”), but others were examples and topics, and later, Avice declares, “I don’t want to be a simile any more. I want to be a metaphor”.
One puzzle is how the Hosts know they need a simile, let alone define it, before they have it in Language?
Similes are the thin end of the wedge where truth is concerned: “Similes start… transgressions. Because we can refer to anything. Even though in Language, everything’s literal… but I can be like
… anything… Similes are a way out. A route from reference to signifying.” It’s a relatively small step from “You are like x” to “You are
x”. A metaphor is a step further: a lie that is the truth.
The Hosts can understand lies, and they also have a Festival of Lies, where they entertain each other by trying to lie. I was reminded Lister, in the comedy sci-fi, Red Dwarf, trying to teach the mechanoid, Kryten, to lie –using fruit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oB-NnVpvQ78).
There are several tactics to lying; they tend to be incremental and often use similes: collaborative, going slow, going fast.
But does lying have a moral cost – does it inevitably lead to evil? And what is “evil” in a non-religious place where some barely have a concept of the word?
The ideas of Sapir-Whorf underlie much of this: “Without language for things that didn’t exist, they could hardly think them”, with “hardly” being the crucial get-out. What about Hosts who lose the power of speech? “If they can’t speak, can they think? Language for Ariekei was speech and thought at once.”
Do we make language or does language make us? As the book progresses, some Hosts have a strong desire for the former: “We want to decide what to hear, how to live, what to say, what to speak, how to mean, what to obey. We want Language to put to our use.” Avice realises “Their longtime striving for lies [was] to make Language mean what they wanted”.
Another way of looking at it is whether “Language is the continuation of coercion by other means”, as one character claims, or whether it’s cooperation, as another claims.
OTHER LANGUAGE-RELATED IDEAS
Other odd languages are fleetingly mentioned, such as Homash: “They speak by regurgitation. Pellets embedded with enzymes… which their interlocutors eat”. There is also mention of “Tactile languages, bioluminescent words… Dialects comprehensible only as palimpsests [a favourite word of Mieville’s] of references to everything already said, or in which adjectives are rude and verbs unholy.”
The quirks of Language affect the writing of the book. In particular, are Ambassadors singular or plural? The answer is both, even in a single sentence, for example, “Ambassador JasMin was
in earshot and I made a point of asking them
…”. This makes sense, the more you understand about them.
The vagueness of some things, and the neologisms (see below) only added to the appeal for me: maybe I became a little addicted to Language?
There is a wonderful passage describing the joy of a Helen Keller moment, when one who lacked the power of communication suddenly “got it”.
A trivial surprise was that in a largely non-religious future society Christian-based swearing continues in recognisable form, “Jesus Pharoahtekton Christ”, whereas I’d expect the words to have morphed a little (like “crikey”).
Finally, I’m not enough of a linguist to be sure of the truth of this, but it’s thought-provoking: “Sometimes translation stops you understanding.”
Most of the coinages are thrown at the reader early on, and there is no glossary (this isn’t one either). However, the meanings are usually clear from context and common-sense etymology:
Shiftparents, voidcraft, exoterre, biorigged, immerser (versus landstuck), plastone, bookware, newsware, alt reality, sidereal, monthling, basilisking (I love that one), oratee, augmens, datchip
Floaking: “the life technique of aggregated skill, luck, laziness and chutzpah”.
Trid: This seemed to cover quite a lot of things, but all involved a video player/display.
Miab: An acronym Message In A Bottle, i.e. cargo from afar.
Floak is my favourite, and I think Mieville is fully aware of its appeal and the perils of overuse: ‘”Did they tell you I can floak?” I said. “I wish I’d never told them that fucking word… they just want the opportunity to say ‘floak’.”’
I also like the fact that "exot", which refers to exo-terre (of or from Earth) conjures strong implications of "exotic".
• “Like all children we mapped our hometown carefully, urgently and idiosyncratically.”
• “Its surface sheened with the saft that evanesced out from its crystal shielding in threads that degraded to nothing.”
• “It was an insinuation at first, composing itself of angles and shadows. It accreted itself from its surrounds, manifesting in the transient. [Things] spilled toward and into the swimming thing, against physics. They substanced it. Houses were unroofed as their slates slipped sideways into a presence growing every moment more physical, more suited to this realness.”
• Someone flirting was “using augmens to make his face provocative, according to local aesthetics.”
• “the gluttony of the architecture… the frantic eavesdropping of the walls.”
• Because the building are biorigged, and thus alive, when demolition happens “construction site like combined slaughterhouses, puppy farms and quarries”!
I read this in part because of Betsey's review, focusing on the fact it's about language: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/169632424
An interesting Q&A with China, here on GR: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/566606-ask-china-mi-ville
And here is a video of him talking about the book:
For a completely different angle on metaphors, see Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23326297). The narrator has Asperger's or similar, and hates metaphors because they are untrue (even "the word metaphor is a metaphor", meaning "carrying something from one place to another"), but doesn't mind similes because they are true.