This series of posts has an intro & index that you should start with. As I mentioned last week, I might get some of the details wrong because it’s been a few years since I first read this book. Bear with me, I’ll correct myself as I go.
PROBABLE SPOILERS AHEAD
As we enter the meat of the novel, China employs an interleaved flashback structure to the chapters, divided between “Formerly” and “Latterday”. The Formerly chapters detail Avice’s return to Embassytown and her relationship with her husband Scile (and later, with others). We learn a lot of the key exposition about Embassytown, the Hosts, and their Language, through their conversations. Meanwhile, the Latterday chapters return to the day of the Arrival Ball from the book’s very beginning, which is kilohours after Avice’s return — a period of time probably in the ballpark of Earth-months.
This entire part of the novel, about 50 pages long (in the UK hardcover), keeps the reader in kind of a holding pattern. We linger at the ball, where we know something momentous must soon occur; and in the meantime China takes advantage of this lull to impart some must-know worldbuilding, in order to get us up to speed on how human-Host relations work on this world, so we understand how everything goes wrong. It’s not until the conclusion of Part One that the main conflict of the book swings into motion.
At the Arrival Ball we meet a great deal of the main players for the rest of the novel: the numerous Ambassadors, some of the other Staff, and the autom Ehrsul.
Ehrsul is one of Avice’s friends, and is a bit of a unique entity on Arieka. She seems to be her own entity, having originated in another world, and once owned by some human but has been autonomous since her owner’s death. She is bound to nobody and has no real responsibilities, but she also has no real rights in Embassytown. However it seems she’s tolerated (although Ez treats her as a piece of equipment when he’s introduced to her, illustrating the broader Bremeni attitude towards artificial intelligences).
The rest of Embassytown’s automa are said to be much less human-like in their intelligence and personality. Interestingly, Avice is unsure whether Ehrsul’s personality is authentic, or is merely, cleverly simulated by Ehrsul’s software (“Turingware”) for Avice’s benefit. Avice thinks it’s rude to ask. I really like this ambiguity of sentience in Ehrsul. I forget if we ever find out the truth about her, but I guess I’ll see as I keep reading.
The Ambassadors too are interesting, but I don’t have much really to say about them at this point, other than I think the couplet naming system China came up with is pretty cool. EzRa arrives of course, and the first impression Avice has is that they look “mooncalf and quite impossible”, which I think is a neat piece of description.
Arieka and Embassytown
In the flashbacks (as well as at a few points in the Arrival Ball chapters), we find out more details about the planet Arieka, the nation of Bremen, and the wider universe.
Embassytown was established by Bremen more than 2 megahours (~230 Earth years) previous to this novel, and pioneers had been in contact with the Hosts for at least 3 and a half megahours (~400 Earth years). We still don’t really get an idea of the objective point in our own future this book takes place, though.
Embassytown is a “ghetto” of the Hosts’ nameless city — which is the only city on Arieka, strangely enough. Almost all of the planet’s native population is here, with the rest of the world used for farming and generating power. There’s also only one language. It’s a rather monotypic civilisation. I know it’s probably this way for the convenience of plot, but the evolutionary biologist in me would like to know how this race originally evolved, and why there was not a huge biogeographical and cultural dispersal like with humanity.
At one point it’s mentioned that Arieka and Embassytown run on a 12-day week, but we’ve still only heard the name of one of the days, Dominday. We learn that Arieka has 19-hour days, too.
The Hosts, Language, and other Arieka biology
Miéville details some of the probable evolution of Host biology. Here’s what we learn about them:
They have four life stages (Miéville uses the invertebrate terminology “instars”), but only the third, the prime stage, is sentient. The first instar are like “elvers” (eels), swimming in a nutrient-rich broth. The second are youngsters, and it’s said that many of them kill each other off in this stage. In the fourth instar the Hosts become mindless husks, which are led around with respect by the sentient adults. In the past these fourth-stage Hosts were used as a walking food source, although this practise isn’t done anymore.
Physically the Hosts are incredibly alien, and I must commend Miéville for going all-out weird with this creation. They’re freakish, and can only really be described as a collection of parts: a central, carapaced body; four multijointed, haired legs; two wings, one large and colourful that acts as an ear (the “fanwing”) and one small and manipulatory (the “giftwing”); two mouths, one set in the front of the body, the other on a stalk; and coral- or antler-like eyes. I’ve collected some very good depictions of what the Hosts might look like in this post.
The two mouths are given some evolutionary explanation as well: one is a combined vocalising & ingesting mouth, like we have, while the other was once a specialised organ of alarm. I can’t remember which is the Cut and which is the Turn. The use of “cut” and “turn” is nagging at me, like there’s some kind of meaning behind these two words. I would have thought it was some kind of musical reference, but googling them only brings up automotive connotations.
Language itself is explained (and we learn a lot about it through Scile’s enthusiastic research). Honestly, the explanation about how Hosts hear the meaning/thought behind the words, rather than the phonemes themselves, is still a little strange (especially as it is made clear they’re not telepathic), but I guess it’s essential to the plot. The other fundamental aspect of Language is the inability to lie, which we observe quite humourously in the Festival of Lies scene. This reminds me of Kryten trying to learn to lie in Red Dwarf, and thus comes across a little goofy; but when you think about it, what better way for Miéville to illustrate this incredibly alien method of thinking?
China sneaks in some references to other works of fiction when Scile is researching Host biology. He shares some fictional, Host-analogous races with Avice: Chorians, Tucans, Ithorians and Wess’har. I went to the trouble of looking these all up for you.
- Chorians are an alien race from the novel Singing the Dogstar Blues by Alison Goodman.
- Tucans are a race from the original Battlestar Galactica TV series.
- Ithorians are from the Star Wars universe; you can see one of these hammerhead-like aliens in the Mos Eisley cantina scene of A New Hope.
- Wess’har are from Karen Traviss’ 6-book series that begins with City of Pearl, which I’ve read.
These are all mentioned due to having two mouths, although honestly I can’t remember that about the Wess’har. Then again I’ve only read the first of those books. I recommend it, by the way!
Arieka has a lot of non-sentient wildlife. Firstly there are the Terre animals, many of which are referred to as “altered” — possibly genetically engineered to survive on Arieka? Some species mentioned are “altoysters” (a food source for the humans), and “altbrocks” (“brock” is a word for badger). There’s also a “stickleback-cat”, maybe a cross between a fish and a cat?; and what Avice calls a fox, but it’s described as simian in appearance; I’m not sure if these are examples of altered biology. One introduced species, native to neither Arieka or Terre, is the self-bifurcating “trunc”.
The Hosts keep with them little biorigged pets/engines called “zelles”, which generate power for all sorts of uses. There are of course the huger lifeforms that act as buildings, bridges, farms, power stations, and so on. There’s an incredibly disturbing quote when Avice looks down on an Ariekene building project: “Construction sites like combined slaughterhouses, puppy farms and quarries.” What a lovely image. Living in Embassytown must be pretty horrific from time to time.
The wider universe
More evidence that Bremen is a European-derived culture: the currency used is Eumarks. Embassytown uses its own however: Ersatz.
Some more planets and moons are named: Sebastapolis (where Scile originates from), Treony, Sebzi, Fata Morgana, and Fiddler’s Green. The latter two might be jokes or mythical places, but it must be noted that humanity has spread so widely in this future that to people on some worlds, Bremen is only a myth. Humanity’s reach is huge in Euclidean space: some settled worlds are outside of our own galaxy.
Another alien species is mentioned, the huge Corscans. Avice has met others, including a hive-living species with hourglass bodies that we don’t learn the name of. There are a few details we learn about some of the species we’ve already heard of. Kedis, we find out, are poly-gendered, and have frills and prehensile genitals. The Shur’asi move about on cilia instead of legs.
We also learn some names, if not details, of alien technologies used to cross vast distances of space. There are swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech, and whorl-drives. Oh what I’d give to read Miéville’s worldbuilding notes on some of these topics. Or just another novel set in this universe. I’ll probably never stop mentioning that I’d like that to happen.
- When Scile is searching for good epitaphs for his manuscript, he considers using a quote from the famous early SF novel Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott: “You are of course aware that every Man has two mouths or voices”. I can’t help but think Miéville is playfully referencing his own search for epitaphs for Embassytown, and whether this quote is one he considered using for the novel.
- And a correction from last time: Christ Pharotekton (also referred to as Christ Pharos) is the deity worshipped by many Bremeni. The first time this religion was mentioned, only “Pharotekton” was named, and I’d forgotten that it was an adaptation of Christianity.
In this part, and throughout the whole novel, China is generous with hints about the setting he has created; but more often than not I hear about some background detail and end up wanting to read a whole novel about just that. The same goes for the Bas-Lag books. It’s kind of a trademark of his novels: he teases and insinuates about a complex world that he’s an expert on, but we are permitted only hear about fleetingly.
Now that the plot has kicked into gear, I’m excited to keep uncovering more of the worldbuilding details that I might have glossed over last time. I kind of sprinted to the finish once the conflict started, and this time I plan to take it more slowly. I’ll be back in a week or so with another post about “Part Two: Festivals”!