Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

China Miéville is best known for his distinct version of weird fiction – be it the secondary world fiction of his Bas-lag novels or something nearer to our own as with The City and The City (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and Kraken (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). In his newest novel, Embassytown (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), Miéville shows off his literary versatility with his first science fiction novel.

Embassytown is a galactic backwater colony located far off the beaten path at the dead end of a minor inter-stellar travel route. Its only importance is in the unique bio-engineered products produced by its one indigenous sentient species, known as Hosts. Avice is a human who was born and raised in Embassytown and is one of the few locals lucky enough to get out as an immerser, a sort of inter-stellar astronaut. But what really makes her unique is that she comes back, and it’s through her eyes that we see events unfold that change Embassytown forever.

Miéville is a master of creating atmosphere and all things weird, which is one of the most exciting aspects of his foray into science fiction. Embassytown is an isolated backwater and Miéville subtly reinforces this through the travels of Avice. The atmosphere he creates is superb – and it’s utterly alien, which is where the weird comes in.

All too often sentient science fictional races feel too anthropomorphized – either that or they feel like too strong of an effort to avoid anthropomorphization. Miéville walks this fine line with excellence and subversion. The Hosts and their world are completely alien, yet the mistake made over and over again is to assume that they can be understood in ‘human’ terms. While Miéville’s descriptions of the Hosts are strong, they are just vague enough that I don’t really have a good mental image of what a Host really looks like, and that feels just right. Unfortunately, it’s a bit tricky to write about the most fascinating and more subversive qualities about Miéville’s aliens without giving too much away, so I’ll leave that for readers to explore on their own.

But the real emphasis of the Host’s alien nature is in their language. It is unlike any other known language in the galaxy and humanity has had to do some really horrific genetic engineering to develop communication with the Hosts – communication that is in reality not well understood at all. Through a bizarre ritual Avice actually becomes a simile in the Host’s language – she is an object of the language, an object of reverence and true meaning. And it confuses the hell out of her. I know my description of this aspect of Embassytown feels incomplete and probably a bit confusing, but long essays could be written on this and my advice is to read the book to come to an understanding of your own.

Miéville is really a spectacular writer and stylist. Over the years his subtly has increased and his writing has become more accessible as a result. An example of a very effective part of this is found in the first few chapters of Embassytown. I hesitate to write about it because doing so can spoil the effect, but it’s not any more of a spoiler than you get from reading the jacket description. The first person point of view feels more correct that I think I’ve ever read before. And it’s androgynous in its portrayal – how often do your thoughts think of yourself in terms of gender? I naturally fell into the subconscious view that the narrator was male – I suppose that’s because I’m male. As a result it was a bit of a pleasant surprise when the narrator turned out to be female. In terms of the overall book, it’s subtle and perhaps not of great importance, but I found it refreshing and it fits in well with Miéville’s playing with gender roles.

There has been a bit of discussion on whether Embassytown is a (critical) response to The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), with Miéville hinting at it himself. I’ve not read the The Sparrow (it’s been languishing on the shelf for years), so I can’t comment too directly to it – but from what I’ve read about The Sparrow, it could be true. Miéville does touch on some aspects of gender roles and sexuality in Embassytown, but they are mostly secondary and rather subtly presented, so I don’t think that the response is in the gender aspects of The Sparrow. If Embassytown is a response to The Sparrow, I believe it’s in the capacity of presenting a very interesting take on the consequences of actions and the changing of an alien species, but limiting Embassytown to a response and not a legitimate and independent work in its own right is probably a mistake.

It’s through Embassytown’s view of colonialism that it becomes rather interesting, if not necessarily unique to the writings of science fiction. Embassytown is not told from the more traditional perspectives of colonists seeking independence, repressed indigenous species seeking freedom, or the conquering nation/empire/species – it is essentially the story of simple people trying to survive. And the ambiguity of where those simple people fall on that list of traditional perspectives is thought provoking – especially considering how the book ultimately ends. Is it a happy ending? Is it a sad ending? Was a culture destroyed or saved? Is it overall a hopeful story or one of despair? Who were the winners and losers? Were there winners and losers? Miéville doesn’t take any clear sides – he lays it out for readers to consider.

China Miéville makes a refreshing and welcome journey into science fiction with Embassytown. It combines his mastery of mood and setting and his sense of the weird and alien with his distinct style. The story and ideas aren’t necessarily original and it remains to be seen how true devotees of science fiction will react to a few of his ideas on interstellar travel and such, but Miéville certainly breaths a breath of fresh air into a science fiction market that is often perceived as stale and dying.


Tree Frog said...

The Sparrow is the worst book I have ever read that was trying hard to be a good book.

I have full faith in Mieville though. Will get Embassytown.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed Sparrow, it just did not grab me the way it was suppose to. I think you sold me on Embassytown. As soon as I can clear some room for it. Great review.

Fence said...

I loved The Sparrow, and have enjoyed a lot of Russell's novels, not sure if that'll make me enjoy this more of less, but I know I'll be reading it at some point. Love Miéville's books.

Linda said...

I'm so looking forward to this one! I've always loved Mieville's books - and my elder son does too. He's just started the Bas Lag series. :)

Fence said...

Finally got around to this, and maybe I missed it, but I didn't see a huge amount in common with The Sparrow, although now that I think about it some more I kinda see some parallels...

I liked this book, and found it fascinating, but I didn't love it. It just didn't have enough character for me.


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