Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review: Embassytown

Embassytown marks China Mieville's first foray into the science fiction genre.  For the most part, I've been a big fan of his fantasy works, but I'm not nearly as much a fan of SF as I am Fantasy, so I was definitely feeling a little bit of trepidation going into this read.

Mieville's tenth published work is set in the far future. Humans have colonized a distant planet populated by the Ariekei, an alien race famed for their language that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.  Avice, one of the human colonists, has the dubious distinction of being a part of the Ariekei language.  As a child, she became a living simile, and is literally a figure of speech.  Avice has returned to Embassytown after years of deep space travel, and finds herself caught in the middle of some political turmoil as a new ambassador arrives in Arieka and upsets the delicate balance between the humans and the aliens.  With total catastrophe looming Avice  must thread the currents between the political system she no longer trusts, the humans she cares about, and the alien race which has made her an indelible part of their language.

The opening pages of Embassytown can be a confusing bunch as Mieville throws the reader in at the deep end.  You have this far future universe-scape that needs to be understood; kids are raised by shift-parents who take turns caring for the children. Time is measured in kilo-hours instead of years, and to top things off, Mieville jumps back and forth from past events to present as well.  Sure, understanding a strange and different world is all part of reading SF/F but Mieville doesn't do any hand holding or add any exposition to help ease the reader into the novel.  I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but it did make me have to work a bit harder than usual to get into this book.

I found myself torn over Embassytown.  On the one hand, it is an incredibly ambitious novel.  It is a book about language, and how different cultures communicate and understand each other. As far as concepts go, that is a pretty bold choice.  Intellectually, it provides some interesting food for thought, and explores some topics, like how language is created and built upon, which I never thought I'd read about in a SF/F novel.  However, the story that surrounds the concept is not one that I found to be all that interesting or engaging.

As usual, Mieville's world building is top notch.  Arieka is a planet where technology and biology seem intertwined, with little distinction between the two.  The Ariekei are an interesting bunch too, and Mieville does a solid job of showing the reader how their relationship with the human colonists is a strange and strained thing at best.  I've always reveled in Mieville's created worlds, as they are the perfect blend of weird, scary and fascinating, it's a treat I don't often get from any other writer.  It was nice to see that this trait made it's way over to his SF writing as well.

Though Mieville is responsible for some of the most memorable characters I've ever come across, Avice, and the other folks, both human and alien, fall pretty damn flat in Embassytown.  Sadly, I can't say that any of them stood out, or had qualities I could relate to.  This may have been deliberate, as Mieville might have wanted his far future world to seem completely strange and foreign to his readers, thus making his ideas about language and the culture clash of communication that plays a pivotal role in the novel have more impact.  I can see that working to his advantage from a conceptual standpoint, but for the kind of reader that I am, one who needs characters to connect with, or to loathe, it led to further dissatisfaction with the novel.

The kicker here is that I found it hard to relate the world building, the conflict, the characters, and the concept to one another.  I never felt like they all meshed or worked in symphony.  While I was reading I kept getting the feeling that the story, characters and world were nothing more than add-ons to this one thing, (language), Mieville really wanted to write about.  The result is a book that I never was able to sink into, or fully enjoy.  To say the least, this lack of cohesion is a departure from what I've come to expect from Mieville.

From the past few paragraphs, it must sound like I am totally poo-pooing this novel...which is kinda true I guess, because I had a hard time being a fan of this book.  That being said, it wasn't all bad.  I was very interested in the concept of the book.  Embassytown provides a very interesting look at language.  It is a book that made me think, and a book that challenged some ideas of my own. So, the book isn't a total let down. Still, it didn't really work for me as a piece of fiction.  I've come to expect great things from Mieville, and this was a disappointment.  Though it is an impressive achievement in terms of exploring an interesting concept, it is a rather dry book and not up to the standards story-wise I expect from such a great writer.  The result is that I can only recommend Embassytown on the merits of it's concept, otherwise, it is not worth the read.

Grade: C-


redhead said...

Embassytown did have it's flaws, and i completely agree with you that Avice, as a character, fell pretty flat (although while reading, I interpreted her as being ambivalent and somewhat embarrassed at being a figure of speech).

but i loved the things this book pushed me to think about. I loved that it was a massive, oversized treatise on language, communication, bad translations, and how horrible things happen because humans are uppity enough to believe we understand aliens.

that means i've got to disagree with the end of your review. This isn't the best place for readers new to Mieville to start, but for fans, Embassytown is most definitely worth the read.

Ryan said...

Thanks for your comments Redhead! I appreciate getting another opinion on the novel.

This one was a put off, but I'm still a read-it-no-matter-what Mieville fan. I think he's one of the most creative and inventive minds in the genre. Have you had a chance to read Railsea yet? I'm looking forward to it.

redhead said...

I couldn't help myself, I bought a copy of Railsea the week it came out. It's sort of YA, which means there's less horror and mortal danger, but it's still got that Mieville style of dense prose and wordplay. I def recommend it!

Ryan said...

It seems like I'm usually a year behind on Mieville books, but I might just get my hands on Railsea sooner than later...