Embassytown by China Miéville: “A quirk of psyche and phonetics”

(This review is spoiler-free!)

Fans of the eloquent and endlessly imaginative China Miéville have been blessed by his recent annual output, with the third book in three years coming out this May. After the previous genre-benders which melded murder mystery with metaphysical weirdness (2009’s The City & the City), and urban fantasy with theological satire (last year’s Kraken), the latest novel Embassytown once again mashes together incongruent elements of fiction to create something beautiful, bleak and terrifying. Embassytown combines planetary science-fiction with colonial novel, lingual exploration with zombie apocalypse.

It is megahours in our universe’s future (all lengths of time are given in hours and multiples of, due to the difficulty of standardising day and year length over thousands of colonised planets), and the nation of Bremen has established a colony on the far-off planet Arieka: Embassytown, a human ghetto-cum-bureaucratic facility smackdab in the middle of the indigenous species’ only city. The natives are the Ariekei, known to humans as the Hosts—and gracious hosts they are, as they provide food and wondrous biotechnology for the settlers, asking virtually nothing in exchange. However, there is a bit of a communication hurdle as the Hosts’ method of speech is physiologically impossible for humans to copy. That is until a breakthrough occurs, and specially trained-and-altered humans known as Ambassadors are finally able to speak to the Hosts. Things go peachily for a time, until the Bremen capitol, unprecedented, sends a new Ambassador to join the embassy’s Staff. This Ambassador is different in a remarkable way to all those who have come before, and the effect on the Hosts is unexpected and disastrous. Horror ensues in typical Miéville fashion.

The protagonist, who narrates in first-person, is Avice Benner Cho, an Arieka-born human who has returned to her home planet after spending her early adulthood as a career Immerser — a rare human capable of withstanding the severe physiological and psychological effects of travelling through the sub-reality shortcuts of the universe, known as the Immer. Being unaffected by what makes most travellers need to spend journeys frozen in sleep, she helps crew ships all over the universe, in Bremen territory and elsewhere. In a 50-page prologue (or “proem” as Miéville prefers), Avice provides insight into life growing up in Embassytown, as well as describing the wider universe, its sights and its inhabitants, ever so briefly. This honestly could have been a novel in itself because Miéville’s universe is so packed with detail and tantalising hints of whole worlds. I can only hope that more novels in this universe are floating around that shaved head of his. Soon after the book starts, Avice returns home and the book spends the rest of its length literally grounded on Arieka, with no further spaceship adventure to be had. It’s of no matter though, as what happens on the ground is incredibly gripping, and Avice is a smart, likeable protagonist who conveys events with the same terror and bewilderment as we feel while we read. However I’m not going to spoil anything, so you’ll have to find out what happens in May.

Miéville has often been praised for being able to write settings that seem like they are alive, but that’s especially true here, as the greater city that Embassytown resides within is quite literally alive — buildings, machines, vehicles and weapons alike are all grown by the biotech-proficient Hosts. The inanimate are all too animate, with skeletons, organs, organelles and bodily fluids being possessed by everything imaginable. It’s creepy and strangely beautiful to read about the “avenues of meat-trees”, and skin-walled houses with grotesque antibodies scuttling about securing the place from intruders. The Hosts themselves are creepy and hard to hold a picture of in the mind’s eye: they are described as insectile and equine, with sharp hooves and coral-like eyes. It’s weird, but hey, it’s China Miéville.

Equally inventive is the bizarre language system Miéville has come up with for the Hosts. They cannot speak about something unless it is true, and has happened. That means no lies (although they put on popular Lie Festivals in which they compete to try to say untrue sentences), no speculation, no future tense, no metaphors. To even be able to speak of abstract concepts they have to engineer similes, often with the help of humans. Avice herself is a simile: as a child, she performed a small act for the Hosts so they could canonise her in their Language. Avice becomes “the girl who was hurt and ate what was given to her”, from then on used as a figure of speech by the Hosts in various manners, whether in debates or philosophy, always opaque in meaning to humans. The mechanical aspect of the Hosts’ language is also strange, hence the need of specialised humans to speak it (the Ambassadors are some of the most fascinating characters in the book); and to represent this particular lingual quirk on the page requires a trick of typography that makes me wonder how well this book is going to be rendered on people’s Kindles, or how the audiobook version is going to handle it. I guess we’ll all find out in May.

The book is beautifully and baroquely written, most similar in style to his Bas-Lag works: Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council. Many pieces of science fiction jargon are given a Miéville twist: “alien” becomes “exoterre”, “human” is usually rendered as “Terre”, “stasis” becomes “sopor”, “slower than light” becomes “sublux”, and so on. Talk of “trids” rather than “holograms” and “corvids” rather than “ships” helps to differentiate Miéville’s universe from the usual science fiction writing. He also co-opts foreign words such as the German adjective “manchmal” to distinguish reality from the bizarre Immer. One stylistic choice was actually a bit distracting while I was reading: the frequent use of “megahours” and “kilohours” (while necessary in-universe, as I mentioned above) had me calculating on my iPhone so I could get an idea of exactly how long a span of time 250 kilohours, for instance, is.

Miéville has explored colonial themes in the past in the world of Bas-Lag, such as with the plight of the Stiltspear in Iron Council. This novel could admittedly have been another Bas-Lag book, the bizarreness of the biology and biotechnology are very evocative of his earlier fantasy triptych; just change planets to continents and spaceships to, well, ships. However the themes of colonialism and the inevitable destruction of native culture work just as well, or even better, in a far-future science fiction setting, and readers, even those die-hard fans waiting for a fourth Bas-Lag book, will really appreciate Miéville stepping into a fresh genre. As well as science-fiction and colonial literature, he folds in zombie horror pastiche, with a sneaky reference to George Romero’s films nodding to this.

Above all this however, this is a novel about the difficulty of communicating with, and understanding the workings of, alien minds. I realised about half way into the book that it reminded me a bit (not a lot) of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker For The Dead; not that this is a first-contact novel (no, first contact happened megahours before the events of the book!), but there are similarities in the ideas regarding trying to talk to other sentient beings, and hoping to hell that they don’t misinterpret you. Card just couldn’t have done it with such disturbing and stylistic flair as this.

5 stars out of 5

Embassytown comes out on May 6th in the UK and May 17th in the US.


NB: the quote in the title of this review is from the book itself, I just thought it was a neat little clause that summed up the book.


  1. Thanks for posting the review, Embassytown sounds incredible! I’m doubly happy to hear that it seems like it has that Bas-Lag fantasical/horror-ness about it.

  2. I’ve described this to people as space opera from the perspective of Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” I think it’s going to end up being one of those books that defines some particular Big SF Problem that nobody knew existed before the book tackled it (much like gender and _Left Hand of Darkness_).

    I have no doubt that Mieville knows his linguistics — he’s a sociologist, after all — but I suspect a bona fide linguist couldn’t have written this as well. they’d have been too close to it.

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