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Embassytown

by Rob Friesel

If you are acquainted with China Miéville’s work, there will not be too many surprises for you when you read this novel. Which is not to imply that it is predictable or formulaic, but that it quintessentially one of his novels. It’s all there: the weird landscapes that are intimately, almost erotically detailed; how the landscape collapses singularity-like onto one pivotal city that is populated by the most bizarre people and things that he can funnel from his imagination into yours; how those weird people from beyond the far reaches of your imagination are enmeshed in grand and bizarre plots that are rude combinations of the political and/or the social and/or the epistemological and/or the aesthetic and/or etc.… He takes all of these things and uses them to frame these peculiar philosophical tangents that he seems to be the only author brave enough (or weird enough) to embark upon.

And in that way, Embassytown is pitch-perfect Miéville. And also in that way, did I experience my “Murakami moment”[1] for Miéville.[2]

To delve specifically into Embassytown though, we have an interesting, if (slightly?) self-undermining novel. On the surface, we have a science fiction novel with some interstellar[3] political intrigue happening: Embassytown is a human city on the planet Arieka, on the frontier’s edge of the Bremen empire[4] as it looks to expand its spheres of trade and influence. Human beings and other “exots” have lived in relative harmony with the indigenous Ariekei for generations, even if their relationships are largely opaque and mediated through genetically-engineered and highly-trained linguists called “Ambassadors”. Then Bremen sends an Ambassador of its own which radically upsets the balance of power in Embassytown and causes an upheaval of inexpressible proportions. At the heart of this is our narrator, Avice Benner Cho, a living simile for the Ariekei–whose language lacks signification and is thus strictly literal by nature–who becomes a focal point for the events of the novel.

And though the novel works its narrative through Avice, it is not about her. The narrative is very clearly about the Ariekei–“the Hosts”–or, perhaps more accurately, about their Language and their pursuit of a kind of… anti-ontology.

First, about Language:

The Ariekei Language is a language but only inasmuch as it has a vocabulary and a grammar. Capital “L” Language has no literary tradition. It has structure, but no signification beyond that which is literal. This is not to say that the Language of the Ariekei has no symbols or “figures of speech”, but those symbols–those similes and examples, etc.–must be “real” to have any meaning. We are introduced very early in the text to the (what we would see as) extremes required for this to be true: for the Ariekei to incorporate a simile into their Language, it must actually have happened–and they are not above staging the event in order for it to be “true”.

Which brings me to my assertion that the Ariekei, throughout the course of the narrative, become obsessed with a kind of anti-ontology. If “ontology” is the study of the nature of being, the pursuit of truth through comprehension of that which is “real”, then the whole foundation of “native” Ariekei thought is grounded by this, since they are only able to process the world around them in literal terms. They are biologically incapable of symbol substitution (e.g., symbolism, metaphorical comparison). Meanwhile, after they meet human beings (and especially after they encounter Ambassador EzRa), they become acquainted with the notion of lies and of lying, of using things which are not strictly or literally true to tell the truth. The Ariekei call it lying, where by “it” I mean any form of language/Language which does not immediately correspond to some absolute truth. The trivial figures of speech that you an I use every day are anomalous and baffling to them. We might not call a metaphor a “lie”, but to the Ariekei it is something so unsettling that they cannot even hear such speech.

Even the most casual student of science fiction will recognize the trope that is embedded in “Language”. You are probably jumping out of your chair right now to point to the obvious[5] example: “They’re like Star Trek’s Vulcans, right?” And you would not be strictly wrong, but the Vulcans don’t lie because of a strict embedded morality; they can lie,[6] and that they do not is because that behavior is so deeply entrenched in their culture and their shared belief system that it is as though they cannot. Meanwhile, the Ariekei are biologically incapable of lying; they simply do not have the neural circuitry required to produce or even consume figurative sign systems. Lying is not just an extreme anathema, it is effectively an impossibility.

That a species might develop language that is completely devoid of lies may seem like a utopian vision, but even a cursory read would reveal otherwise. The Ariekei are largely alienated from the other “exot” species (not just the humans). Several times in the text, they discuss how the Language of the Ariekei is unique among the exot species of the Out; all other species seem capable of (with some effort) “hearing” and “speaking” each others’ languages, of processing each others’ figures of speech, of detecting each others’ falsehoods. But the Ariekei cannot. They are largely alienated from other species. And (but?) it is questionable whether they perceive that alienation as such, or if they treat these other species with the kind of detached curiosity that we usually reserve for animals or climate patterns.[7]

Presumably this is where Miéville turns that utopian vision of a lie-less Language on its head: that the Ariekei have a “pure” and literal language, unclouded by confusing figures of speech, a cultural history that is unsullied by wars predicated on intrigue and double-dealing–this should be a Good Thing. But instead we have a species that is simultaneously advanced (see also: the biorigging) and primitive (see also: they are not an immer/space-faring race), a species that is “trapped” in the domain of the literal. But here is also where the text begins to undo its own success: the suggestion (and in some cases outright declaration) that the Ariekei are “trapped” in the realm of the literal, that they are caged in the prison of Language, makes the text begin to seem rather… Homo sapiens-centric? I thought immediately of Peter Watts’ Blindsight, of the Scramblers and of Rorschach and of his deep-dive into the notion that consciousness was not a pre-requisite for intelligence.[8] And here: the Ariekei are clearly conscious, but they follow the kind of linguistic literalism that we popularly associate with Asperger’s. How does that undo the text? It turns the alienness of the Ariekei on its head–it suggests that for them to “advance”, that they must engage in symbolic thinking. They become deficient instead of simply different.[9]

The narrative has the Ariekei rather distinctly reacting to their own lack of symbolic thinking as a deficiency. The early attention given to how they must enforce a simile’s “reality” before deploying it as a figure of speech seems a foreshadowing of this: that they are capable of having vague notions that can coalesce through guided stagecraft. This lapses into the text as a kind of foregone conclusion for many pages before we return to it via the Festival of Lies, and Surl tesh-escher, and the other Ariekei in the Liars Club. We discover that there are many Ariekei who have become obsessed with the notion that one might make revealing, even illuminating statements about something–and not by making flat and clearly literal statements about it, but by colorfully embossing it with similes, metaphors, synecdoches… They become obsessed with “truth” as it is manifested through untruth, through language which is not strictly true. Hence: Surl tesh-escher’s assertion that the Ariekei “did not speak” before the humans arrived. More so than any other character in the novel, he creates and aligns himself with this anti-ontological metaphysics: that “speaking” is not merely reflecting upon what is, but by probing reality through what could be, by drawing disparate items together for unique insights, by reveling in the majesty of language for its own sake, for its own beauty, and not for what factual “truth” it might bestow upon the listener.[10]

All that business about EzRa (and later, EzCal) manipulating the Ariekei through the “god-drug” speech? That is all merely secondary to the notion that Ariekei seek to burst into some new phase of existence that includes symbolic thought, right down to the capacity to lie.

That is where I disjunct ever so slightly. Did Miéville give us a happy ending? It is (thankfully?) ambiguous: a whole lot of idle speculation about “what next”, on Avice’s part. Nothing in that final chapter seemed set in stone. But the Ariekei had changed, and they had changed fundamentally. Were they changed for the better? Perhaps our own sense of symbolism is being used against (?) us here: perhaps the story stands as its own allegory for colonialism? or perhaps the take-away is that we must concede absolutism for ambiguity in order to achieve cooperation? The covers close with some discomfort, and without easy answers.

  1. The phrase “Murakami moment” is one that has its roots in a conversation that I had with a friend of mine. To summarize: in discussing Haruki Murakami with this particular friend, he emoted: “I love Murakami’s style, and don’t get me wrong, he’s a great author, but it just seems like… I don’t know: like all his books are the same somehow.” This spiraled into a good half-hour discussion that put William Gibson, Margaret Atwood, Ernest Hemingway, Dave Eggers, and Chuck Palahniuk (to name a few) all under the microscope; to varying degrees (we concluded) all authors suffer from this tendency to “write the same story”, either by leaning on familiar plots, familiar themes, and/or familiar characters and settings. Murakami, unfortunately, is the one that has become synonymous with this “tendency”. Thus do I deploy it here. []
  2. Yes, I think this might be a little unfair. []
  3. At least, I assume it’s interstellar. The narration about travel “to the Out” “through the immer” could just as easily have our narrator catapulted through parallel universes. This is, however, largely irrelevant to the plot, and thus a question of strictly academic interest. []
  4. The specific governmental and political configuration of Bremen is left, I believe, more/less purposefully oblique. That Embassytown is referred to in the text as a “colony” is sufficient enough for me to go ahead and call Bremen an “empire”. []
  5. Most famous? []
  6. The fact that Spock is half-human has nothing to do with it. []
  7. There is some evidence in the text to support both arguments. There are a few direct references to how the Ariekei are basically indifferent to the humans of Embassytown. But then there’s the whole messy business with the Festival of Lies and the virtuoso liars, etc. that just has you nodding your head that yes indeed, at least some of the Hosts feel some kind of absence by not being able to communicate. []
  8. For a fantastic and thorough review of Watts Blindsight, try Jonathan McCalmont’s 2007 review; for a shorter but less fantastic review, here is mine. []
  9. Which I believe is what the whole sub-plot with Scile was about. (I know I haven’t mentioned Scile but…) In a way, Scile’s presence in the narrative serves first as an excuse to get Avice back to Embassytown; then he winds up as a means of illustrating this question of “Do the Ariekei really need to change Language to ‘advance’ as a species? What was wrong with them before?” But that Scile is painted as a villain clearly orients the text in favor of “symbolic processing as advanced thinking”. And of course, Scile et al.’s whole “what was wrong with them before Similes and Lies?” argument also pretty clearly harkens to the whole notion of “the noble savage”. []
  10. And in that way, perhaps what the Ariekei are after is the birth of their own aesthetics? []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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