Um, how did China Mieville know to write this book just for me? I love the way a great science fiction novel makes me almost feel my brain expanding as I read. AND I especially love thinking about identity and language, and how these two concepts connect and shape our view of the universe. So even in books as different as Ursula K. LeGuin’s extremely readable classic Left Hand of Darkness and Greg Egan’s challenging Schild’s Ladder, where frankly the quantum physics flew over my head a bit, I always seem to pay attention to how language and identity define and change each other.
In China Mieville’s newest novel, Embassytown is a small enclave on a planet at the very edge of known space in the universe with one claim to fame: the native Ariekei speak a language utterly unique in the universe. They think and speak simultaneously through two mouths, use no symbolic language and will only speak with specially altered doppelganger Ambassadors.
Human Avice Benner Cho became a living simile for the Ariekei in her youth, as they do not have the cabability to express symbolic language on their own. Then she left for more civilized regions of the Empire as soon as she was able. Upon her reluctant return, Avice learns more about the Hosts and their language and witnesses the moment when everything changes and life becomes chaotic for the Ariekei and the colony town that depends on their patronage and good will.
Don’t be scared off, though, by all this talk of language and thought-provoking ideas! Mieville’s big ideas are always melded into an interesting and suspenseful story. So yes, you must spend some time getting to know Avice’s world and how her past relates to the present day difficulties of the colony, but the characters are engaging and the plot moves right along. And the idea of a language that is literally directly tied into thoughts at all times (the Ariekei can’t lie, for instance) is amazing.
Mieville delights in pushing the boundaries of different genres and I’ve loved everything he’s written since his glorious mishmash of fantasy and horror, Perdido Street Station, came out. Also check out The City and the City if you dig urban noir with a peculiar alternate reality twist.