Wednesday, July 04, 2012

China Mieville: Embassytown

My first experience reading China Mieville was his noirish "crime" novel, The City and the City -- still one of my favorite books of recent years. Calling it a crime novel is, of course, deceptive. The premise is startlingly complex -- a police procedural that unwinds itself between two cities that are really one. The cities have different names, governments, cultures, but rather than occupying distinct physical spaces they are overlapping, really the same place, but its citizens are adept at "unseeing" anything that doesn't belong to their own city. And there are fearsome penalties for anyone who makes the mistake of  "seeing" what is forbidden, for moving across borders in any but the prescribed fashion -- a transgression that is known as "breaching." It's a difficult concept to wrap your head around, but once you've suspended disbelief, the story is addictive.

Embassytown is Mieville's foray into science fiction -- there are aliens, exotic planets, advanced technology, and intrigue, but again, calling it simply sci-fi doesn't begin to describe the full range of its concerns. Primarily, the novel is about the nature of language -- its power, how it transforms the world, or limits it -- how it corrupts and how it can heal. Embassytown is a distant outpost of humans from the ruling country of Bremen on the planet of Arieka, whose natives are simply called the Hosts. They are large, hooved, winged creatures, with multiple appendages, eyes on stalks, two mouths -- thoroughly alien to their colonizers (see this blog for one person's artistic rendering, based on Mieville's description) but existing in a peaceable state of long-standing compromise and trade (although it's never clear to me what the Ariekei really get from the humans of Embassytown, other than the curiosity factor). The planet's atmosphere isn't adapted to humans so they are somewhat confined to their ghetto adjoining the Host City, thanks to a bio-rigged bubble that allows them to breathe without additional equipment in Embassytown.

Mieville drops you into a world that is thoroughly disorienting -- he doesn't do a lot of exposition, so you just have to go with the flow, even if it means you are thoroughly lost for 40 or 50 pages while the new-coined words and bizarre culture eventually begins to make sense in context. The protagonist is a woman, Avice Benner Cho, born in Embassytown, educated to become an "immerser" -- a space traveller, a sort of trader, adventurer, and minor functionary of the Bremen government. After many years in the "out" she returns with her new husband, a linguist, who is fascinated with the Hosts' unique language. Here is the crux of the story, and without getting into all the nuances, the idea is this: The Hosts speak a language that the humans have learned to understand and mimic to an extent. However, since the Hosts speak with two mouths, simultaneously, and from the perspective of a single mind, humans can not duplicate it in a way that Hosts understand. A human speaking the duality of Host Language is mere noise, the equivalent of scrambled static.

Hosts' minds were inextricable from their doubled tongue. They couldn't learn other languages, couldn't conceive of their existence, or that noises we made to each other were words at all. A Host could understand nothing not spoken in Language, by a speaker, with intent, with a mind behind the words.
 The only way humans have found to communicate "in Language" to the hosts is through an elite caste of Ambassadors, not just twins, but identical clones, bred so as to share a natural empathy with one another and enhanced by an embedded link that enables them to speak Language, from a single mind, even though to other humans they are separate people. They are known by a single name, such as CalVin, MagDa, CharLotte, fused forever. The other complexity of Host language is that they can only speak what is essentially a truth claim. There are no metaphors, no abstractions, no imagination. No word exists without a referent. Nothing "signifies." This is where your old linguistics class might come in handy. The Hosts are unable to lie. The entire plot of political intrigue, dysfunctional relationships, planet-wide catastrophe, addiction, and war is powered by this fundamental limitation of Host Language and the humans who must try to communicate with them.

To say more won't really clarify the plot -- it is a story you have to experience, and you have to be willing to play with ideas and be a little perplexed on the journey. I found the payoff to be worth it -- unexpectedly powerful and beautiful, and unlike anything I've ever read.

If you've read other Mieville novels, let me know what you think of this writer. I'm reading backwards through his oeuvre at this point, having read only the two most recent ones, but I'm certainly planning to work my way through the preceding books. It might take awhile to get there because they do take a bit of brainspace (speaking for myself).