These are some random thoughts, often connected to thoughts about other Mieville novels I’ve read; it’s not a thorough-going review, partly because there’s just so much going on that if I tried to write one, I would leave something out and end up feeling annoyed or inadequate; and partly because other people – including the awesome Ursula le Guin! – have already written those. So I won’t even pretend to put myself up there!
Mieville writes urban stories. Here, and in other novels – pretty much exclusively, at least insofar as I’ve come across. There are ‘agricultural’, or non-urban, areas on this world, but even they feel quite industrialised, by modern Earth standards; they’re tamed, and seem to exist almost exclusively to produce for the city, having no existence outside of that. This aspect is neither here nor there in terms of the story, but it is interesting in terms of his focus across the entire oeuvre. Or at least, I think so.
Also in consideration of all of Mieville’s works that I’ve read comes this observation: they’re all about obsession. Kraken obsessed over belief and social structure; Perdido St Station was obsessed with race; The City and The City was consumed with an obsession for truth on the one hand and blindness on the other. I’m not saying these were exclusive themes or foci, but they were significant and informed the entirety of each story. Embassytown is obsessed with language: how language works, what it does, what it allows. I think this is one reason why I loved it so much – I love language, and thinking about language, and thinking about how language constructs our world view and indeed perhaps even our selves. And so, clearly, does Mieville. The consequences of an entire race thinking about how to lie – not being able to do so, what that means for every layer of society but also for history and story telling and so many other aspects of human society – was totally riveting.
That all sounds mighty highbrow. Of course, as with the other Mieville novels mentioned above, this one works on multiple levels. I think it would be perfectly possible to read this as… not quite a straightforward narrative, because the structure itself isn’t entirely linear and straightforward… but it can be read without your mind being forced off into the philosophical byways indicated above (yanno, if that’s your thing. Me, I like the byways. The nicest flowers are usually there.).
The story itself reflects a post-colonial attitude towards what might happen when humanity spreads its collective wings and goes spreading its presence across the galaxy, thanks to a wonderful take on FTL. It’s not quite the drug-fuelled flight of Dune, it’s not quite the worm-holes of countless SF novels and movies, it’s… something a bit wilder, a bit more out-there, a bit more mysterious and weird and awesome. Ahem. Anyway, Our Heroine escapes from her annoying backwater of a weird human colony, out to the exciting wide galaxy… only to end up at home after a while, and then things get really weird.
Home is the eponymous Embassytown, and the particularly weird bit is how humanity communicates to the indigenes. With difficulty, and two people at a time, is the answer. Confusing? Somewhat. Eventually awesome? Absolutely.
I must admit that I found the first few chapters quite a slog, and if I didn’t trust Mieville to turn on the awesome pretty soon I may not have powered on through. But I did, and my faith was rewarded (obviously). One of the difficulties was the non-linear nature of the narrative. Past/future/present being entangled, chapter by chapter, is not a problem for me – I am constantly intrigued by stories that reveal a conclusion and then explain how characters got there; it’s like studying history, for me. What was a bit of struggle was not having a clear idea of sequence, or even – at the start especially – a clear idea of who was doing what. Like a palimpsest, though, Mieville built up the history/contemporaneity gradually and skilfully and rewarded just that bit of perseverance.
I loved it. It got my Hugo vote. I enjoyed the characters, I loved the intrigue of the humanity/alien interaction, I really enjoyed the philosophical challenges of language and colonialism. LOVE.
Diana Wynne Jones passed away.
Strange Horizons: dealing with the low numbers of female reviewers.
The Age on the poor numbers of women’s work being reviewed (in the literary “mainstream”), and coverage of a panel on the gender disparity, again in the mainstream.
Prometheus Awards nominees, from the Libertarian Futurist Society.
Authors, editors, and controversy: Running Press, Tricia Telep and Jessica Verday (links not necessarily linked to individuals).
Major disclaimer: I am no fan of Lovecraft. That is, I have never read any of the Cthulhu texts. I had a friend in high school who really got into them, but… yeh. My aversion to horror goes waaaay back, baby. So if there are clever and/or snide references to Lovecraftian characters, ideas, or themes, they swam right over my head.
I had no real idea about what this book would entail, except:
1. Tansy abandoned it for apparent lack of tentacle smut;
2. The other two books by Mieville I have read (Perdido St Station and The City & the City) I have adored;
3. There would be tentacles of some sort, even if it wasn’t smut.So I had few real expectations, except that I was hoping it would be as engagingly written as his other work. On this level, I was certainly fulfilled.
Mieville’s writing style really, really appeals to me. It’s not overtly fancy and obtusely “literary” – by which I mean that snide insinuation that the author is using fancy, opaque words for no good reason; rather, I know the words he uses, and they make sense, and they tell a story. But there is SOMETHING in the construction, something in the sentences he puts together, that is utterly enchanting. He is a delight to read. This particularly applies to his dialogue. Mieville captures the essence of different characters through their words with each other; he has a talent for the rhythm of conversation, without falling into annoying attempts at getting all the slang and dropped letters in there.
My delight at the dialogue brings me to one of the really interesting aspects of Kraken. In many ways, this feels like a snarky, conflicted, love-letter to London. As a big fan of the Natural History Museum I was way more pleased than I ought to have been to see how big a role that place played. And I really enjoyed Mieville’s imagining of London as the great Heresiopolis, with its own Londonmancers looking after it, and having a really distinct and important character in the book. In theory the narrative could have been set anywhere near the coast, but Mieville makes it a convincingly London story.
The narrative? Well, it’s not the most original aspect of the novel. It boils down to an approaching Armageddon and what can possibly be done about it. There is a somewhat hapless curator, a possibly obsessive Kraken devotee, some snarky coppers, and a whole raft of Big Bad Guys all running around getting in each other’s way. There’s a twist at the very end that I didn’t see coming – but then, I rarely do, unless they are glaringly obvious. It almost all takes place in London, and from memory it takes place over a relatively short period of time, too – maybe a couple of weeks. It’s all sparked off by a giant squid specimen going missing in a rather… fantastic… manner. Things go downhill for our heroes from there, until the whole world is nearly devoured by fire. OH NOES. While I’ve read end-of-the-world stories before, it didn’t matter much. I was genuinely unsure, on and off for the whole novel, about whether or how Mieville could redeem the world from the edge of the abyss (I’m not spoiling by saying whether he does or not!)
One of the few niggling problems I had was with the female characters (surely that’s not a surprise to anyone). There were only three women of any significance, and their significance isn’t large. There’s a female copper, who I will admit to being very fond of; she has an extremely foul mouth, a short temper, and a way of figuring things out. There’s Marge (short of Marginalia…), who I initially thought was going to be totally wet but turned out to have… not “hidden reserves,” but a determination that refused to be defused, even when ostensibly the reason for keeping on going had faded. She’s cool. And there’s a Londonmancer, too, who becomes significant towards the end, but she doesn’t have that much of a role. So… yeh. Coulda had more chicks.
Overall, this was a rollicking adventure, probably more like Perdido than The City but really nothing like either of them. I don’t think it’s as good as either of them, because the narrative isn’t quite as clever. But it’s possibly more fun – depending on what you’re looking for in your genre-reading.