SPOILERS Paradise Lost END SPOILERS
How do you describe a China Mieville story to own who has never read one? I reviewed one last year – Kraken – An Anatomy. It is one of my most popular posts. That is it gets hits still due to searches. People want to know about Mieville stories. I think it is because they are unique.
If you balance idea, character and plot Mieville is about idea, but like the best authors his strength doesn’t come at the expense of the other vertices of the triangle. Neat trick. Embassytown is the first Sci-Fi he has written, but it will be familiar to his fans. Not is the familiarity breeds contempt way, but in the coming home feeling of familiarity. But not again. It is challenging too. First it is challenging to comprehend the vista sprung upon you, then it is challenging to put down, and finally it is challenging because it makes you confront your own preconceptions.
There are a million ideas in Embassytown. OK – that is hyperbole. There aren’t even a million words. But new ideas are launched at the reader. The first chapters are hard. New vocabulary and unfamiliar settings and characters that are an impenetrable puzzle. Mieville wants his readers to work. Then comes the novels greatest flaw, I think. Mieville takes his foot of the idea accelerator and takes time for the reader to get comfortable. Instead of launching straight from wonderment into suspense there is a pause to let us catch our breath and wonder what is going on.
It is a second place for a reader to get lost. If they are not enthralled by the ideas themselves, there is a hundred pages where there is not much else the story offers. I was not such a person. The central idea is language.It hits realism, nominalism and conceptualism, but never uses a single one of those “boring” philosophical terms. In short it explorer the relationship of language and truth. The key to making the exploration work is that it is done through the lens of a character who doesn’t give a fig for such memes.
If you’ve gotten through the shock of the new at the beginning and a treatise in the first quarter then you get a story that comes together. Gah – I make the first bit sound too dull. The treatise is both entertaining and neato and it conceals in itself the seeds for the story and character that unfolds later. It is clever and engaging.
The story is told at the beginning through an alternate series of present day events and flashbacks. These continue until they both arrive at similar but successive events. In the past, the lead character Avice makes a decision. The rest of the book follows the present day events as they grow and culminate. In an impressive array of ratcheting up the tension to unbearable levels, hitting the release valve and then letting it build up even further, Mieville keeps suspense up and pages turning. Once the first third of the book is covered it is impossible to set down.
There are still mysteries in the text for me. What is the role of the character Ehrsul is one of them for me. Not because the answer isn’t there, but because with only a few hours thought I haven’t come to grips with everything yet.
I said earlier that the characters are impenetrable, but that is only how they begin. It is a read as you grown to know them better. This is not a story where the author introduces a character and tells you they are brave or witty. Or where another character tells you who is to b feared or acclaimed. The characters reveal themselves slowly through their actions. Often they are shocking and often they are melancholy. Often they are courageous. Often the characters surprise even themselves – that is groovy.
For those of you who have read Mieville before Embassytown it might most resemble Perdido Street Station. Like that book, the novel opens with joy and a rush of bewildering ideas. One is fantasy and the other sci-fi, but the approach is similar. But where Perdido Street Station takes its million ideas and stews them all together, Embassytown focuses on one idea and polishes it.
It is typical in a review to give a quick rundown of the plot, but it is hard to do in the case of Embassytown without giving away part of the fun for coming upon the twists and realizations yourself. There is a small town girl, Avice, who longs for a greater world. She achieves that dream and ventures forth. There comes a time though when she returns home and finds that even that community holds unplumbed depths that are more frightening then she had thought. The town is a human colony on an alien planet. The aliens are called the Hosts, as in they Host the human embassy delegation. The aliens do not travel through space (neither do the humans, but that is only because Mieville rethinks FTL travel in a new idiom) and are utterly unlike the humans. The greatest difference seems to be language. Humans and their technology are able to understand the Hosts, but unable to talk back. At least it seems that language is the main difference, but the turns in the novel show that it might be something much deeper. Or, perhaps, that language itself is deeper and more tied to being than the reader would initially fathom.
As these understandings come to both the reader and the characters the town and its citizens both human and alien find themselves trapped and in peril. Like all great perils it is not just one of body, but also one of the soul (although that is not a phrasing the author or characters would use.)
Embassytown is not my favorite Mieville book. That might be Un Lun Dun or Kraken. But it was exciting for me to read from cover to cover. I highly recommend it.