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Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

Humanity has been described as the story-telling animal. Our society is shaped by history but our fictions, in many ways, have just as much power over us. From the stories that we share in literature and film, to the lies we tell ourselves and each other – fictions are essential to the way we view others, as well as ourselves.

In Embassytown, China Mieville asks the reader to imagine a species that cannot lie. It’s not a new idea, but its treatment here is. The otherworldly Ariekei can only speak what they truly think, but they live alongside humans and other species which can speak falsely. The possibility of lying divides the Ariekei ‘hosts’ from the ‘guests’ on their homeworld – they cannot understand the languages of those who can lie without the assistance of specially trained interpreters known as ‘ambassadors’.

Language is the visible heart of Ariekei society. To improve their ability to communicate, the hosts enlist the help of humans and other guest species in creating metaphors. One of these metaphors is performed by a young girl called Avice Benner Cho, the protagonist and narrator of Embassytown’s tale. As part of their language, Avice enjoys a kind of celebrity among the Ariekei. She is invited to be present at important discussions where her metaphor will form part of the conversation, and to festivals where the Ariekei celebrate the art of lying, which has become fascinating to them. Unsurprisingly, this means that she’s in the perfect position to become part of events when the fine balance of Embassytown’s society begins to shift.

The possible threats to a species without guile are many: they come in the form of new guests, and from among the hosts themselves as they attempt to evolve. Any one of these threats could prove predictable – but as the events unfold it is the combination of external and internal forces that push the situation and the Ariekei out of control. The resulting descent is compelling, perhaps more so the darker it gets.

China Mieville is the sort of sci-fi author that even the non-geeky variety of serious reader has heard of – he’s discussed in university literature modules and attends the Hay-on-Wye book festival. Does that mean that the science in his fiction is somehow watered down? Absolutely not. The universe that Mieville creates teems with life, and extraordinary ideas, even beyond the confines of Embassytown itself. Fantastic details form the backdrop to the events: the Ariekei are bio-engineers, creating buildings, mechanisms and even prosthetic limbs out of living tissue. The strangeness of the notion is never really explored, because for Avice it is perfectly normal. ‘Living’ rooms are the standard, she only notices them when they begin to show signs of weakness. It’s also notable that the physics underpinning the universe as a whole seem to differ from our own, although this is only apparent before Avice returns to her home.

If the novel has a weak side it’s to be found in its protagonist. The problem with Avice Benner Cho is that, other than survival, the reader is never really certain what motivates her. She’s haunted by the failure of her marriage, not least because her husband Scile keeps turning up, but he’s more of an irritation than a source of grief. Stepping away from the novel, it is the world and the Ariekei that the reader remembers, rather than the heroine and that’s a shame for a novel told in the first person.

Embassytown may be Mieville’s 9th novel, but in a 2011 interview for the Guardian, he explained that the story was actually based on ideas he first had at the age of 11. It’s true that there’s something powerfully childlike and fantastical about the Ariekei. Their inability to lie is almost magical – a witch’s curse waiting to be broken. That said, the novel is not for kids. Avice is a grown woman with a complicated romantic life and an adult vocabulary that she isn’t afraid to use. Some of the details of her lifestyle, and the society she lives more generally, may not be for everybody. But it’s those same details that contribute to the deeply alien feel of the novel – giving Mieville the freedom to explore ideas from philosophy and linguistics to the psychology of modern media culture. That he does so effortlessly, and without putting any strain on the reader, is a sign that you’re reading a real master of the craft. Embassytown isn’t a must read, but it’s an absolutely fantastic one.

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