Award-winning science fiction novel about cross-cultural alien communication
Content warning: war, addiction, mental illness
I picked up a copy of this book many Lifeline Bookfairs ago for one very obvious reason: the book’s tinted edges. While possibly originally black, the edges have since faded to a purplish colour. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a very long time and I was inspired to read it when it came up in the category of “7th most read genre in your all-time stats” of the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge 2022.
“Embassytown” by China Mieville is a science fiction novel about a young woman called Avice who comes from the eponymous city on a planet at the edge of the known universe. The city serves as a trading post and protected place of diplomacy with the endemic alien species the Ariekei, referred to as the Hosts. After becoming one of the few people born in Embassytown who manage to leave and travel through space, Avice returns to her childhood home with her partner: a passionate linguist who has a keen interest in the Hosts’ unique form of language. Diplomatic relations with the Hosts are conducted by a very select few humans called Ambassadors and while mutual understanding between humans and Ariekei is limited, Embassytown has enjoyed peace, stability and exchange of technologies for some time. That is, however, until a new Ambassador arrives from the Out.
This was an extremely clever and well-constructed novel and it is not a surprise in the slightest that it won a plethora of awards when it was published. Mieville’s premise is highly original and is an incredibly creative exploration of language, communication and diplomacy and how small misunderstandings can have catastrophic effects. Without giving too much away and detracting from the enjoyment of letting the reader’s understanding of the novel unfold, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding such as the expression of names as linguistic fractions, the buildings made from biomatter and the almost indecipherable concept of humans as similies that left me puzzling long after the book was over. Mieville leaves no stone unturned when it comes to exploring the implications of Embassytown’s establishment and each decision thereafter, but manages to do so without ever being boring. In some way, as the reader, we are required to empathise with the difficulties in understanding another culture by initially being faced with an unfathomable society and gradually gaining understanding and context as the book progresses.
I think the only very slight disadvantage to this book is that while Mieville’s pacing is very carefully done so as not to either overwhelm or underwhelm the reader with information, some readers may feel the time it takes to find your fitting a bit too long.
An exceptionally intelligent piece of science fiction, I am really looking forward to reading more of Mieville’s work.