Embassytown: a meandering not-review

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.

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