Archive for June, 2011

Embassytown – China Mieville

June 16, 2011

China Mieville again proves what a clever bastard he is in his Science Fiction novel Embassytown. Mieville has stated an interest in writing a book in every genre and this is his first pure science fiction novel. As is the case with all his novels, Mieville is willing to stretch the reader’s vocabulary and doesn’t mind using Psychology as the Science in Science Fiction.
In this case the book revolves around an idea Philosophers have grappled with which suggests that the structure of a language in some way determines how the people that speak that language perceive the universe. Embassytown is a human outpost on the edge of known space on a planet where the dominant civilization is an almost indescribably complex alien life form whose complex language, spoken simultaneously through two mouths, locks them into a particular conception of reality.
Specially bred and trained human pairs, known as the ambassadors, are the only ones that can communicate with the aliens who, because their language determines their reality, cannot conceive of a solo speaker as capable of sentience. If you’ve ever read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and remember the concept of the Ur-Language, you’ll sort of understand how the Aliens work. Through an accident of sorts it is determined that the brains and reality of these aliens can be rewritten if their language is spoken in a particular way.
As is the case with Mieville’s other work, describing how things fit together gets horrifically complicated very fast and when my son asked me to explain what this book was about I felt like throwing up my hands, finally saying “look, you’ll have to read it when you’re about 15 because it involves some complicated ideas”.
This book doesn’t have an awesome moment of revelation like The City and The City does, but in using the idea that a language structure in some ways influences the structure of our own thoughts, Mieville has crafted an Alien species that is both alien in a unique way, and plausible once you grok the mechanics of what makes them alien.
If you’re looking for a book that will stretch your brain, you should check out Embassytown.