Embassytown by China Miéville

What an interesting book! What a strange concept? At last I’ve found a science fiction book that challenged me. At this point, I’m not sure what I can add that hasn’t already been said beyond that. Here’s the New York Times review. Here’s the Guardian’s review. Here’s Ursula LeGuin’s review, also in the Guardian.

For the link-phobic: So far as I can tell, it’s about a race of aliens that can speak only of concrete events and literal truth and that only in person. They cannot lie, nor can they speak in metaphor or simile; poetry and most fiction is impossible and they use humans to create their own literal ‘similes’. They cannot understand prerecorded speech; there must be a living being speaking at the moment of hearing for the language to be understood. To complicate matters for the humans attempting to communicate with them, Arekei “Language”1 has two simultaneous spoken components which must be said by the same speaker. Two individual humans speaking together produce only cacophony; the humans must therefore rely on paired trained clones, who even then produce only an imperfect interpretation of Language, leading to misunderstandings which build up to a near complete buildup of diplomatic relations. The relationship between the humans and the Arekei is breaking down as the Arekei become addicted to humans’ indirect speech, and so the humans must teach them about figurative speech. So much science fiction concentrates on the hard sciences and technology–space travel, astronomy and planetary science–that it’s lovely to find a novel about the problem of communication with an alien race. Because, well, gee, they’re alien…physiologically, culturally and linguistically.

Miéville’s vocabulary isn’t terribly straightforward, though this struck me as an attempt at inventing terminology that might be used centuries in the future. Wouldn’t modern vocabulary be as incomprehensible to someone from classical Greece or Rome or Egypt? We might be able to put across the idea that an airplane is a mode of transportation or a telephone a method of communicating over a distance, but would they really understand what we were talking about? Probably not. One of the things I appreciate most, upon reflection, is Mieville’s comparatively spare description of the Arekei and the world of Embassytown. The aliens are winged creatures, mothlike and not wholly organic, and the planet not suitable to support human life without an extra supply of oxygen…beyond that, we’re on our own. I’ve always thought that the readers’ own imaginations were more appropriate for their own reading enjoyment of a book, though I know many people want everything laid out for them.

What to read next? Others have suggested Ursula LeGuin’s work, but I’d add also Cordwainer Smith; his Instrumentality stories have that same air of describing a future world almost beyond our comprehension in the vocabulary of that future world rather than in modern English.

1the name for their language as they cannot comprehend of any other form of verbal speech


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