Monday, April 8, 2013
Ceci n'est pas une pipe
Embassytown by China Miéville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Avice Benner Cho is a human from Embassytown, a frontier outpost inhabited by Ariekei, whose singular Language can only be spoken by genetically modified Ambassadors. When a new Ambassador is sent to the Ariekei, his attempts to speak the perplexing Language results in devastating consequences for the entire planet.
This book takes about half of its length to warm up, but once the groundwork for the complex universe has been laid out the plot zips to its tense conclusion.
A basic knowledge of the language theory of sign/signifiers may be helpful to understanding the plot - but then again, maybe not. The alien Language, looked at too closely, is completely impossible but must be accepted at face value for the machinery of the plot to turn. There are plenty of puns and linguistic quirks (Avice's initials are ABC, after all), which is fun. I especially liked the way Language is written (like fractions, since it must be spoken by two mouths simultaneously), the naming convention for the Ambassadors (CalVin is an Ambassador made up of two perfectly identical people: Cal and Vin), and the idea of "biorigging"(basically all Ariekei tech are living machines).
There are plot points that don't quite pay off - Avice's friendship with a mysterious autom (a computer intelligence), and her odd relationship with her husband seem half-baked. Characters don't drive this science fiction story: ideas do, and the mystery of how the new Ambassadors could possibly eff up an entire species just by speaking their own language to them. The Ariekei are appropriately alien (I imagined them as giant praying mantises), but - like most of the characters - difficult to empathize with.
If you're into big-concept science fiction and don't mind struggling with disorientation as you try to figure out the rules, I think the ideas are interesting enough to carry you through. There is real horror and dread as Embassytown falls apart in the last half, and Avice's sense of the world ending is not an understatement.
I do question Avice's sense that breaking the Language with metaphor and basically creating a completely new subspecies of Ariekei (now suddenly able to recognize individual human intelligence and capable of reading and writing) is good for the aliens. Their self-contained culture protected them from the worst of human nature, especially considering the machinations that brought the Ambassador EzRa to Embassytown in the first place. She ends satisfied with her part in it, but I do wonder what conflicts would emerge after humans and Ariekei got to know each other on a personal level.
Still, I was on the edge of my seat as Embassytown disintegrated, and thought that EzRa and EzCal's reactions to the heady nature of suddenly being overlords of an entire species seemed fairly realistic. I'm glad I read this one, even if it isn't a perfect scifi novel.