Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown by China Mieville
Published: Del Rey/ Macmillan UK, 2011
Awards Nominated: Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, John W. Campbell, and British Science Fiction Association Awards
Awards Won: Locus SF Award

The Book:

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties-to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.” ~from

It looks like Embassytown is going to end up being this year’s most nominated book, in terms of speculative fiction awards.  I’ve only ever read one Miéville book before, The City & The City, which I liked fairly well, and I have a copy of Perdido Street Station waiting to be read on my bookshelf.  Of the two I’ve read, I would say Embassytown is my favorite Miéville novel. 

My Thoughts:

The science fictional universe of Embassytown was intriguing, though most of it was pretty standard science fiction fare.  In Miéville’s universe, faster-than-light travel revolves around a state known as ‘immer’, and ‘lighthouses’ that were left behind by some older, vanished space-faring species guide their space routes.  The “Embassytown” is the point of contact between humans and an alien species, known locally as “Hosts”, on the planet Arieka.  While the state of the wider universe does play a role in the story, most of the action takes place on Arieka, in Embassytown.  The plot is driven by conflict arising from the fundamental differences between the Hosts’ and the humans’ way of perceiving the world.  Perhaps because many of these building blocks (vanished superior alien races, space politics, FTL travel, alien contact) are so familiar, they aren’t explored very thoroughly here.  Instead, the novel focuses on the eventual source of conflict between the Hosts and the humans, their differences in language.

Like the details of the wider universe, most of the characters also didn’t seem to be explored very thoroughly.  The most developed character is the narrator, Avice Benner Cho.  As a woman who left her rural home to have a career and travel, and who returned to find her hometown the same and yet somehow different than she left it, I think that Avice’s basic state of mind is one that many people would find it easy to understand. However, the way the story was told instilled a feeling of distance from all of the characters, Avice included.  Relationships were generally not developed ‘on-screen’, but the reader was instead told how various people felt about one another.  For instance, we’re shown very little of how Avice and Scile’s marriage collapsed, we are just told that it happened in the usual way.  I think I would have preferred to see the characters develop in a more organic fashion, rather than simply being told about their current opinions.

While details of the physical environment, technology, and characters sometimes feel a bit hazy, much thought has clearly gone into the Hosts’ Language and it’s implications.  Even the mechanics of speaking Language is a complication between Hosts and humans.  Hosts have two voices that speak in unison, and they only understand a speaker whose words are produced in a similar fashion (i.e. one person with two mouths).  This has resulted in the production of the social class of Ambassadors, twins who attempt to emulate being a single person.  There are also conceptual differences between the languages.  For the Hosts, Language is synonymous with reality, so attempting to lie is something of an extreme sport.  More than scene or character, the story follows and explores the results of these and the other ways humans and Hosts perceive or mis-perceive each other.  The end result is a story that is intelligent and creative, and one that requires a fair amount of thought on the part of the reader to appreciate.

My Rating: 4/5

Embassytown is a creative, intelligent novel about the clash of two very different ways of thought, that of the Hosts on Arieka and the humans of the outpost.  I loved reading about the Hosts’ Language, and seeing how complicated the implications of their way of thought could eventually become.  While the story was very engrossing, I could never shake a feeling of detachment from the characters.  I think most of this came from the manner in which the reader was directly told about the characters’ relationships or attitudes, rather than seeing these things revealed about them in a more natural fashion.  I wonder if Miéville is planning on returning to this universe in future novels.


  1. I'm reading this shortly, can't wait. It appears to be quite the difficult read.

    "Perido Street Station" used to be my favorite Mielville, but "The Scar" has really blown me away. Much criticism against Mielville's work is aimed at his sparse characterization, but to it's not overly bothersome. His settings (like in "The City & The City") kept me emerged in the story.

  2. I mostly haven't read "Perdido Street Station" yet because I'm hesitant to start another series. There are so many series that I'm in the middle of right now! I am looking forward to that one, though :). In "Embassytown", the setting and the ideas definitely kept me engaged, despite the sparse characterization.

  3. The Crobuzon books are really all three quite independent from one another. It's not a series where one has to read them in order. It's actually not a series at all. The three narrative are about the world of Bas-Lag. There are no re-occurring characters. You can comfortably read them any which order.

  4. Oh, I didn't know that! In that case, "Perdido Street Station" needs to be moved up on my reading list!