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Embassytown by China Mieville

Embassytown (original 2011; edition 2011)

by China Mieville

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1,595None4,552 (3.92)209
Authors:China Mieville
Info:Del Rey (2011), Hardcover, 368 pages
Collections:Your library

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Embassytown by China Miéville (2011)

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  1. 30
    Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh (PhoenixFalls)
    PhoenixFalls: Cherryh excels in writing really alien aliens and always focuses on the nuances of languages.
  2. 30
    Anathem by Neal Stephenson (bertilak)
    bertilak: Miéville has written a philosophical science fiction novel that rocks and is not bloated: Stephenson please take note.
  3. 52
    The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (BeckyJG)
  4. 64
    Hyperion by Dan Simmons (BeckyJG)
  5. 20
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (ansate)
  6. 10
    Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (kevinashley)
    kevinashley: Both these books take the relationship between language and thought as central themes. They explore it in different ways but with a similar thoroughness; both really explore just how 'other' alien can be.

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English (118)  German (1)  All languages (119)
Showing 1-5 of 118 (next | show all)
One of his best books yet. A fascinating look at how langauge is interpreted. ( )
  ExpatTX | Mar 31, 2014 |
I was indeed amazed by this book. Written in first person, past tense, it reads like a memoir. The first chapters require commitment, but the effort is worth it. It is a science fiction book, with plenty of interesting space travel, and exotic world, and desperate adventure; but it is also a long and surprising contemplation of language and how we understand the world via the language we speak. ( )
  Kali.Lightfoot | Jan 10, 2014 |
I'm a huge fan of Kraken. Unfortunately, Embassytown failed to give me the same buzz. Far future sci fi is a tightrope act. As it turns out, this is really more of a fantasy novel set in a distant future. Fantasy sci fi doesn't necessarily include magic, but what it usually does is posit technology without any explanation for its basis in current physics. In other words, fantasy sci-fi usually applies the dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic and leaves it at that. Which is fine, nothing wrong with that as a framework for a novel if all other aspects of the novel support the enjoyment of reading it. (And here, I am reacting to this book in a non-postmodern/non-experimental framework. It is, after all, a straightforward narrative with nothing groundbreaking in the structure or style.) The key aspects of narrative that create the experience of a novel are character, plot (storyline plus tension and momentum), themes, and style/tone/use of language. Certainly there is a holistic "other" that that can make a novel compelling regardless of weaknesses in these areas, but I tend to think of that as falling into themes and style. In the case of Embassytown, Miéville lost me on character, plot (especially tension), and style.

The story features one Avice Benner Cho as hero. She left the far-flung human outpost Embassytown as a youth to travel as crew on ships that ply the vaguely-justified faster-than-light spaceways. Humanity has encountered numerous alien species and has varied levels of relationship with them but on balance, relatively peaceful interactions. Overall, the relationships with alien species are those of economic trading partners. Humanity seems to have a centralized government that is somewhere between dictatorship and a Representative Oligarchy, kind of where we stand today. We begin the story flashing forward then back again repeatedly to explain how she has returned to Embassytown where the locals, lead by highly trained genetic twin/clones, trade with an unusual alien species that speaks with two mouths simultaneously. The human ambassadors must be near identical twin/clones in order for them to speak words together to communicate with the aliens called Ariekei.

Kudos for Miéville creating a fantasy novel around linguistics. It was an unusual challenge. But unfortunately that did not make it riveting drama. The first weakness for me was the main character. Avice was uninteresting. Her character was overall flat and without any notable personality traits. I notice this is a trend in books by Miéville. Although I loved Kraken, I found the main character to be a cipher. Here, Avice wasn't so much mysterious as bland. Not unnatural, simply indistinct. I just did not find her compelling or emotionally affective. There were only a few other characters around her sketched in, and there wasn't much to them.

I would also note that while this book has as a central motif, the mysteries of linguistics, I found the central premise of this alien linguistics to be pure fantasy and not based on any recognizable science. You see, there is more to the Ariekei's language than simply two words being spoken simultaneously. There was also (this is a modest spoiler)the need for a "consciousness" to be behind the language for the Ariekei to comprehend it. So, for example, if an android spoke the language, the Ariekei wouldn't recognize it. If two humans who were highly trained spoke it, then the Ariekei wouldn't recognize it. But somehow if one creature with two mouths spoke it or two near identical clones spoke it, then they understand it. At one point in the novel, Avice/Miéville claims that "of course" telepathy isn't possible...but it seems to me this need for a combined consciousness is impossible without telepathy. He rather cheats in that key concept of the novel. It's not telepathy, but somehow...the minds have to be one to be recognized. Further, he cheats on his own concept by allowing the Ariekei to be affected when the speech comes from Ambassadors but is recorded. How could that possibly square with a unified consciousness when it is merely a recording? How is that any different from a computer voice? For those who don't read the spoiler, I will note that this linguistic issue I found to be a significant flaw in the premise of the story.

Style, I will only touch on that the writing is certainly solid but not outstanding. It's not written in such a way to counterbalance my overall feelings regarding the story. If I contrast Miéville's writing to Jeff VanderMeer's work in City of Saints and Madmen, there's no comparison. VanderMeer is sharp and vibrant whereas Miéville hums along with a balanced equilibrium.

Plot is the main culprit here. Despite the build up to a major cataclysm...it didn't feel as though there was to be a major cataclysm. I found the tension to be low throughout. And that could certainly be associated with various intangibles including not caring emotionally about what happened to the main character. I simply did not experience that intangible sense of concern about what would happen next. And another related flaw I note from both books is that Miéville seems to get caught up in politics. Not high-level politics, I'm saying he gets caught up in the minutiae of local (fictional) politics, stuff that just gets in the way of the flow of the story and drama. I felt at times that Embassytown got bogged down in the political drama of the politicians in such ways that it seemed at times Miéville was attempting to justify various plot points. I found a few plot points illogical here and there such as attempting to negotiate with rampaging aliens who have literally torn out their own hearing organs?

Things Miéville did quite well: creating a feeling of "alienness" and difference. Vive la différence! If anything this theme of the alien other was the most enjoyable aspect of the book. Miéville writes in quite offhand ways about things that are radically different from our current culture, a technique that helps to defamiliarise the mundane. Along those lines, he sets up the malleability of familial structures. A nice thematic, to highlight how so many things we are so ideologically "married to" could evolve dramatically over time. And thus, demonstrating the bankruptcy of so much dogma--religious, cultural and political. I do feel that Miéville's heart is in a good place when it comes to his views on politics and culture. Really, it's not a bad book. I'll call it 3+, if not quite 3.5. It won't prevent me from reading another Miéville. But I think I'll turn back to VanderMeer when I seek out my next hit of literary fantasy. ( )
  David_David_Katzman | Jan 4, 2014 |
The premise is great, the theorizing about language and such, but the plot itself fails to captivate. ( )
  stijnb | Dec 7, 2013 |
China Miéville is one of those writers whose books I save up, because I know I'm just going to love them, and I want to always have a few left to read. Even though I love his works, it has been two years since I last read one of his works, so it was time to pick up another one.
Embassytown is a town on a distant planet where humans live side by side the original inhabitants of the planet, the Hosts. Even though we can understand and speak their language, they can only understand us if that language is spoken by two ambassadors who are extremely in tune to one another. These ambassadors are taught in Embassytown, which is a colony of the Bremen empire. When a new kind of ambassador arrives from Bremen, everything changes in Embassytown, and Avice is caught in the middle of it.
This novel, while clearly science fiction because of the aliens, other planets, space travel and its setting in the future, is about more than that. It's also about politics, mainly those of colonialism (Bergen/Embassytown, but also Embassytown/the Hosts). And about communication, and what language is, and can be. That language can be so much more than just words, and that the way language works in a group of beings can influence their very core being. The novel is something special, something I could not put down. It takes a bit of effort to get into it, because Avice is the narrator so some of the language she uses and the settings the story takes place in are unfamiliar. But not so much so that the story is hard to follow. It is another Miéville classic, and a worthy winner of the Locus (and nominee of the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and Kitschies awards). Five out of five stars. ( )
  divinenanny | Nov 8, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 118 (next | show all)
Readers who want to delve no further than turning the pages will come away satisfied with "Embassytown," because Mieville's fertile imagination has created a fascinating alien species to go along with plenty of familiar human drama.
It is a miracle of a novel, one where Big Ideas cohabitate with Monsters, and neither is lessened by what academic propriety insists must be capital letters.
Miéville has a muscular intellect, successfully building a science fictional world around semiotics. For some readers, that will be enough.
I don’t hold this will to abstraction against him. Genre writers, and for that matter writers of the well-wrought middlebrow novel, mostly tell the usual stories in the usual way: narrative and character are advanced through conventional action. Miéville is up to something else.
In this sense, Embassytown plays out as a novel of metropolitan-colonial conflict, holding out the hope that language might not serve only as a tool of oppression, but be reclaimed as the instrument that makes resistance possible.
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"The word must communicate something (other than itself)."
Walter Benjamin, "On Language as such and on the Language of Man"
To Jesse
First words
The children of the embassy all saw the boat land.
"I don't want to be a simile anymore," I said. "I want to be a metaphor."
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Book description
On a distant planet in the far future, humans and an alien race coexist in a nonviolent but nonetheless uncomfortable arrangement. In general, they don't hurt one another, but they're not necessarily happy to share the city together. It is a marriage of convenience, arranged for economic reasons. But when a new group of humans arrives on the planet, one current citizen—a young woman—begins to realize that things are about to change for the worse.
Haiku summary
The Hosts - who are they?
Avise the simile, all
Ends in social change.

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Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist on a distant planet populated by the Ariekei, sentient beings famed for their unique language, returns to Embassytown after many years of deep space exploration to find she has become a living simile in the Ariekei language even though she cannot speak it, and she is torn by competing loyalties when hostilities erupt between humans and aliens.… (more)

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