Yet another geek blog

4 January 2013

Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown by China Miéville

In Short

A story of mutual incomprehension that becomes a study of language itself.

The Ariekei are an alien race that speak like humans but do not need to learn to speak. The ability is hardwired into their brains. When one hears another, they perceive the meaning in the same way that a human perceives the blueness of a clear sky of the heat of a flame.

This puts the small human settlement on the Ariekei world in a very odd position. They have learned to understand and speak the Ariekei language but they cannot talk to them. When the Ariekei listen to humans (or even recordings of themselves) they only hear a noise. Not only do they not understand their own language, they have no concept of language at all.

Things to Like

Too often in science fiction, aliens are not really very alien and language is treated as a problem that is best ignored. It is wonderful that Miéville confronts both of these things head on and makes them central to the book.

The story is told as an account by the main character, Avice Benner Cho and her voice really adds to the incomprehension. Cho is a hyperspace traveller- something that cannot be described to anybody who has not experienced it. She talks about Ariekei as if talking to somebody who knows what they are like. So all the reader gets is references to the chitinous sounds of their walk or the retraction of their eye-coral. This lack of a proper description maintains their alienness.

This could have been a very dry and cerebral study. Instead there is an ingenious catastrophe that engulfs both races triggered by their lack of mutual understanding.

Things not to Like

Alas, Cho is not a very good story-teller. She gets muddled up, interrupts herself and changed track. This is good for her character, but it occasionally spoils the atmosphere. Particularly when horrible things happen because these are things that the reader is interested in but Cho does not want to talk about.

The plot is also a little simplistic. Nothing much happens at the start so that the reader has the chance to understand this strange world. Then disaster strikes out of the blue and there is a mad scramble to deal with it. The final resolution is ingenious and satisfying, but seems to happen far too quickly.

Things it is like

I honestly do not know what to compare this book to. (A recommendation in itself). However, other Sci-Fi that uses language as a central theme is:

  • The Disposessed by Ursula LeGuin.
    A colony of anarchists create an artificial language with no possessives of way of expressing ownership.
  • 1984 by George Orwell.
    The state controls thinking by removing words.
  • Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin.
    Women have their own language to protect themselves.
  • Babel-17 by Samuel R Delany.
    An artificial language is used as a weapon because learning it produces traitorous thoughts.


posted by Yet Another Geek @ Friday, January 04, 2013


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