China Miéville Builds a Foreign, Familiar City of Language
Okay, yes, I know you don't read science fiction and fantasy. Good for you. Really. But I'm warning you, that means you're never going to read China Miéville's Embassytown. It is full-on, unabashed science fiction, with aliens and weird technology and space travel and things that could never exist in our world. Miéville takes no arch distance from the genre, and he doesn't try to sneakily shuttle sci-fi elements into the story, apologetic-like. And I'm telling you that if you don't read Embassytown, you're missing one of the best novels of the year.
Avice Banner Cho, the narrator of Embassytown, lives on a frontier world at the far edges of the universe. The town is noteworthy only because of its proximity to an alien race called the Ariekei. This isn't a Star Trek alien that can be played by humans with a little bit of crenulated rubber cement pasted to their foreheads; they're really, truly alien in every sense of the word. They have chitinous skin and their eyes totter around on stalks, and they have two distinct pairs of wings—one for gesturing and one for sensory perception. They hover at the edge of scenes in Embassytown, influencing events in an inhuman way; they're more like weather than relatable characters.
But the thing that makes them most alien to us, and us to them, is their language. Because the Ariekei have two mouths, their language incorporates two different voices entwined around one another (think Tuvan throat singing—or Google it). Sometimes those voices repeat each other in sync; sometimes the mouths (one mouth is named the Cut, the other is the Turn) say slightly different things, giving additional nuance to a statement. Because this mode of communication is all they've ever known as a species, they fail to recognize a single human voice as a legitimate source of information; identical twin human ambassadors are trained to discuss matters of trade and coexistence with the Ariekei.
The Ariekei can't lie. Actually, that's not quite right; they hold festivals where they gather together and try to lie for sport, but the lies are always something small and harmless, such as getting a shade of color slightly wrong. When humans arrive and build a city (Embassytown is constructed in the center of an Ariekei settlement, like a bull's-eye), the alien language adapts to accept these new concepts, and they need new tools—figures of speech, similes—to expand the language. But since they can't fabricate these ideas from whole cloth, they have to gauge what they anticipate the language will need, and then they must enlist humans to act out these ideas, to, in effect, become a part of their language.
When Avice was a girl, she was recruited for this purpose. This is what we hear about the experience:
What occurred in that crumbling once-dining room wasn't by any means the worst thing I've ever suffered, or the most painful, or the most disgusting. It was quite bearable. It was, however, the least comprehensible event that had or has ever happened to me. I was surprised by how much that upset me.
Avice became a simile. Specifically, the simile she became was this: "There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time." Through use, the Ariekei would shorten the simile to "a girl ate what was given her," and Avice never really comes to understand what her simile means. Years later, as she returns—"I was about 170 kilohours old when I left Embassytown. I returned when I was 266 Kh"—after probably a couple too many marriages and a few long stretches of space travel, Avice resembles Pip at the end of Great Expectations: wearied, vaguely bemused by the extraordinary life that happened to her by mistake, desperate to learn how to be of use. Embassytown is about what happens next, and how everything falls apart, and then how everything comes back together again.
The act of reading Embassytown is a bit like learning a language. The first 25 pages are like those early days of trying on a whole new vocabulary and grammar; everything is darkness, with a few familiar words shining out of the black for you to follow. Miéville lays on the sci-fi terminology heavy and thick; within the first five pages, you'll check the back of the book for a glossary that isn't there. Words get tossed at you with no explanation, like shiftparents and altoysterman. There are references to "the third sixteenth of September, a Dominday," which in combination with the aforementioned kilohours suggests a method of timekeeping that we don't understand. There are no explanations hidden in the text; you just have to force your way through, grit your teeth and smile and pretend like you know what's going on. You figure it out by context. Around page 30, you start to get the gist of what's happening. By the time you finish the book, you go back and read those early, dense, dark pages and all of a sudden you can see everything. It's not intimidating anymore. You have become fluent in Embassytown, and you want to read the book all over again to see what else you missed.
Novels about language are hard to pull off. Either the writing becomes too insular and precious and about the writing of the novel itself or the book ascends into a kind of hysterical, self-doubting mess. This is because language is too big. You can't think about language without using language, and the feedback loop immediately gobbles up your brain. The trick, the way to write about language, is to make it about something relatable. Nabokov knew this when he wrote a memoir about his difficult love affair with the English language and buried the story inside a marinade of metaphors and similes and it emerged in the form of a novel named Lolita. And Miéville knew this when he wrote Embassytown.
By using science fiction, Miéville has a little more freedom; he can talk explicitly about language because he's discussing an imaginary language. To the reader, the Ariekei sound like whatever we imagine an unknowable language to sound like. But he also hides some of his best thoughts about language inside passages about his other great fictional love: the city. All of Miéville's books—from the stunning, sprawling Dickensian debut that was Perdido Street Station to the paranoid ode to the particular insularity of urban life that was The City & the City—are about cities. Even the author biography on the backs of his books ends with a ringing grace note of a sentence: "He lives and works in London." In many ways, it seems, that's all he wants you to know about him.
All of Miéville's great themes—multiculturalism, fluid sexuality, the difficulty of piecing societies together while keeping some essential part of ourselves separate from that melting pot—can be traced back to cities, where everyone lives on top of everyone else in a giant mess of humanity. He's fascinated by the way we fill up these places with our bodies and our hearts and our brains, and what happens, what it looks like, when we intersect with one another. And the great cities of the world are built on the intersection of languages.
Consider the story of the Tower of Babel, and how a jealous God tried to stop humanity from creating a tower that could pierce the veil of heaven. He gave them languages to confuse them. But the thing that's not in the Bible, the unintended moral of that fiction, is that now, even with these languages tunneling their particular paths through our brains, we still congregate together in cities around the world. To this day, we struggle to speak together in spite of our differences, and together we still try to build towers that can pierce the veil of heaven. Miéville knows that our attempts to muddle through language and translation and miscomprehension in search of that one perfect moment of understanding will never stop, and he knows that that is maybe the best part of being human.