Start with the intro & index if you are new to my series of re-read posts. And a note: I can’t remember a lot of the details of the book (which is one of the pleasures of re-reading) so I might be mistaken about some of the things I talk about early on. I’ll correct myself as I go!
PROBABLE SPOILERS AHEAD
Embassytown has a strange structure, even for a China Miéville book. It begins with a vignette from a crucial point from later in the story, then there is a 39-page (in the UK hardcover) prologue section, titled “Proem: The Immerser”. The “proem” (just a fancy word for prologue) is divided into three chapters, headed “0.1”, “0.2” and “0.3”. Oh, China Miéville.
Personally I love this introduction to the book. It keeps a lot of the main concepts a mystery (e.g.: the nature of the Hosts, the nature of the Ambassadors, the key points of the Language, the planet Arieka outside of Embassytown itself, and so on); instead focusing on Avice, her youth, and her adventures in the out.
The prologue functions as a broader stage-setting, saving the meaty plot-related concepts for later introductions. Miéville knows the books he writes can be mindbogglers (see The City and the City), so he draws you in gradually, gently. Nonetheless, there is still a lot about the universe of the book that we get introduced to, and I’ll go through what we know so far.
Arieka and Embassytown
Arieka is the name of the planet; “Host” is the Embassytowner word for the native intelligent species, but “Ariekei” is the broader word amongst humans (or at least the Bremeni; more on them later) for these creatures.
The planet seems to have a longer year. The method of time most used in the book is hours and powers thereof (such as kilohours). Avice says she was 7 years old, or around 170Kh old, when she left Arieka, and 11 years old, or around 266Kh old, when she came back. Converting into Earth years that makes her around 19 and 30 years old respectively. So Arieka’s year is around 2.7 times longer than Earth’s.
This metric method of time measurement is similar to the Qeng-Ho’s system in Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, although that was based around seconds rather than hours. Vinge’s book included a helpful conversion diagram, while Embassytown does not, which led me to use a calculator a lot the first time I read it. This time around I made a table for quick reference:
And remember, Arieka years are about 2.7 Earth years.
The year is also divided into what seems like 36 “monthlings”, named after the 12 months we know, but with three of each, which leads to strange dates like “the third sixteenth of September”, and bizarrely, having three Christmases. The days of the week have new names, though. We only hear of one during the book’s proem: Dominday. I’ll list the rest if I come across them.
No idea yet as to a) the length of Arieka days, b) the number of days in each monthling, or c) the number of days in the Arieka year.
Embassytown is the human settlement on Arieka, which is a dome of human-breathable atmosphere called the “aeoli”, held in place by nanomachinery that “sculpts” the winds. Humans are the main inhabitants of Embassytown, but there are other non-Host aliens (referred to as “exoterres”): Kedis, Shur’asi, Pannegetch, and some yet-unnamed species: all of these are species that share “conceptual models” with humans, which allow them to live alongside and understand humans.
There are also “centaurs” in one scene (perhaps bio-engineered humans, similar to the Remade of Bas-Lag?), and artificial intelligences inhabiting android bodies (“automata”). I’m not sure if the latter are created (and indentured to humans, or others), or autonomous citizens in their own right. Humans themselves have all sorts of technological augmentations. These are most notable in Embassytown’s Staff and Ambassadors, who are in charge and have most of the contact with the Hosts.
The human children of the city are raised not by their biological parents, but “shiftparents” who are somewhere between guardians and teachers. Avice seems to have quite a few. It’s stated that this is quite an unusual situation amongst the wider nation of Bremen.
Random bit: The human children of Embassytown play a game with coins and chanting the words “Turnabout, incline, pig-snout, sunshine“. I’m trying to think if these four words have any significance together, but I think it’s just a silly little thing Miéville made up.
The city also has plenty of bio-technology (“biorigging”) gifted by the Hosts, such as the siphons (with enormous mouths) that bring supplies into the city from Arieka (and which put me in mind of the sandworms from Dune), “herds” of houses, and an entire bridge that grows from a cell. I assume that some of the augmentations humans wear are also invented by the Hosts. Not much of this technology seems to have made it outside of Arieka, because on other planets biorigging is considered to be a luxury. We’ll learn a lot more about the biorigging of the Hosts later on.
It is mentioned in passing that the Hosts are “quarantined”, presumably because of the remoteness of Arieka, but also maybe because the nation Bremen (see the section “The wider universe” below) is monopolising the bio-technology that the Hosts are giving freely to humans.
On a side note, I love the end of chapter 0.1, where Avice asks her Dad Shenmi how to spell Bren’s name, and we learn that there are four pronounceable letters and three unpronounceable ones. I had no idea what this meant when I first read it, naturally, but it’s nice foreshadowing about the Ambassadors.
The wider universe
Embassytown is an outpost city of Bremen, a space-faring nation whose home planet is Dagostin (the capital city of which is Charo City). I don’t know if these place-names are meant to be references. Bremen, for instance, is a town in Germany; while Dagostin might be an alternate spelling of D’Agostini, Augustine, and so on — also a European name. This implies that Bremen is a nation of humans descended from European stock, until you remember that Avice’s last name is Cho. I’m probably putting too much thought into it. Miéville’s future for humanity might just be very multicultural. Anyway, the language Avice speaks (and I assume most of Bremen) is Anglo-Ubiq, which implies it’s at least partly descended from English.
(Talking of Avice’s name, I love that her initials are ABC — very apt for a book primarily about language.)
Bremen seems to be a rather progressive nation, because we learn that Avice has had four spouses, both men and women. A serious religion amongst the Bremeni is “Christ Uploaded” (Scile seems to be a member), which I think is just one of those funny ideas Miéville likes to throw in without ever elaborating.
Another nation, independent of Bremen, is the cityship Wasp of Kolkata that first takes Avice away from Arieka. I like that a spaceship can be its own nation. Some other named planets are Tarsk and Hodgson, and there is a city called Pellucias, but it’s not clarified whether these places belong to Bremen. Other nations and planets will probably be mentioned as the book goes on.
Earth itself is mentioned, but Avice and another character do not know where it is. Perhaps this means Earth is a lost world by the time of Embassytown, or perhaps it’s just not a place most Bremeni citizens have been to. Earth is also referred to as Terre, such as in “exoterre” (extra-terrestrial) or “Terretech” (all human technology). I must state at this point that we never get an indication of how far in the future Embassytown takes place.
We learn about more exoterres at the “Conference of Human Exoterre Linguists” that Avice attends (oh god how I’d love to attend one of those). There are the Homash aliens (not sure if this is a place, species or language) who regurgitate pellets filled with chemical meaning; Burdhan, a sightless species who communicate by touch; and an unnamed species who signal with chromatophores. These little ideas are great, and they remind me of the excellent short story “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Ken Liu (included in the anthology I recently reviewed called Aliens: Recent Encounters, check it out!)
The exoterre species of this universe have many methods of travel between stars, most of which are not understood by humans. Some people travel slower-than-light (“sublux”) but this is usually done by religious nomads, for whatever reason. The method most humans use (but did not invent) is Immersing.
The Immer and Immersers
The Immer is described as the “always” that exists outside, above, below, before, and after our own reality (AKA the “Manchmal”, meaning “sometimes”). Our universe is said to be the third one since the dawn of time, a fact that most people seem to know in Avice’s time. Previous universes had different laws of physics to this one.
The Immer is a different plane of reality whose geography/geometry does not resemble ours whatsoever, so Euclidean distances are meaningless. Distances of light-years can thus be traveled in just hundreds of hours, using ships that general fields or bubbles of manchmal. Miéville consistently uses marine terms and metaphors to describe the Immer, which makes it all the more enigmatic, while also putting me in mind of The Scar. I’m very fascinated by this creation of his, and I hope it gets used again in a future book.
Immersers (AKA immernauts) are humans (and presumably members of other species) who can stay awake, well and sane while traversing the Immer, and they act as navigators for ships. Most passengers and crew have to stay in stasis (“sopor”) during immersion. Immersers either jokingly or seriously worship/revere “Pharotekton” (Greek for “lighthouse builder”), a god they have invented out of whoever built a network of warning beacons (“pharoes”) within the Immer. It’s never revealed how humans first learned to access and navigate the Immer, and it’s probably a mystery to them which species managed this feat beforehand.
Other presences in the Immer are “hai”, predators that might be a form of life, or might just be random fluctuations of Immer that are dangerous to ships immersed.
“Miabs” (message-in-a-bottle) are unmanned craft that arrive at Arieka through the Immer often, carrying all sorts of goods. They can also get infected/tainted with bits of the Immer (“stichlings”), as we learn in a terrifying moment.
It’s rather interesting that Miéville invents the concept of the Immer mainly as a way to have Arieka isolated, without it having much bearing on the overall plot of the book. After the proem I thought I would be reading a lot more about immersing and the terrors within the Immer, but it doesn’t come up much again throughout the story. Perhaps, hopefully, Miéville will save such adventures for a second book set in this universe.
And that’s the end of the first part of my Embassytown re-read. These posts won’t come out very fast but I’m going to aim for at least one a week. They’ll probably be based around each Part of the novel, so the next post will be all about what we learn in “Part One: Income”. Be sure to comment if you’ve noticed anything I haven’t, or just to tell me if you’re enjoying these posts!