Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


It is generally more common for a science fiction writer to switch to fantasy since that is where the sales and subsequent *big bucks* usually are. China Miéville seems to have taken the reverse route. He achieved fame with three wondrous fantasies Perdito Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council, then shifted to a noir detective novel The City & The City, which still perched on the edge of fantasy, and a horror thriller Kraken.

But his newest novel Embassytown is pure science fiction concerning a human colony on a world inhabited by strange beings known as the Ariekei (but called the Hosts by the colonists). The novel’s primary concern is the attempts by the humans to learn the Hosts’ language, not merely to understand them, but the much more difficult task of carrying on a conversation with them.

You see, the Hosts have two mouths, and they speak through both of them simultaneously. After the original linguists learned their language, while they could understand the Hosts’ portion of a conversation, the Hosts could not understand the human portion, or even recognize that a dialogue was being held with them. Until the humans raised pairs of Ambassadors, two cloned beings who nearly share one mind and who are able to communicate in the same simultaneous manner as the Hosts.

Embassytown is told from the point of view of Avice, a girl who was raised on the colony world, then went into space for several years before returning with a linguist husband fascinated with the language of the Hosts. The novel then follows their lives on the colony world, particularly the relationships between humans and Hosts, especially involving the Ambassadors.

Things reach a head when a new Ambassador EzRa is introduced to the Hosts, the first one who was raised offworld, rather than in Embassytown. The Hosts immediately react badly to EzRa, and there are fears among the humans of trouble between the two groups, especially when thousands of Hosts leave their homes surrounding Embassytown and swarm into the streets of the human enclave.

I cannot say much more about the plot of Embassytown without giving away important details, but it is a rich novel whose world becomes more defined as the novel progresses, as do the characters themselves. As in most Miéville novels, the various plot lines grow more tangled but ultimately reach a rousing climax which is totally satisfying.

Linguistics involving communication between humans and aliens is a fairly popular theme for science fiction, and some outstanding stories have been written in this area: Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue, and Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Embassytown is another welcome entry in this sub-genre, and is a typical high-quality China Miéville achievement which ranks with The Windup Girl and The City & The City as the best novels I have read so far this year.


  • This sounds like a great novel. I have not tried any of Mieville's stories yet. Would this be a good one to start my Mieville reading with?

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 11:52 AM  

  • either this one or The City & The City or Perdito Street Station are all outstanding, and all totally different. City is a noir mystery while Station is a colorful fantasy.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 6:18 AM  

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