China Miéville’s Embassytown: re-read — Part Two: Festivals

embassytown_re-readAfter a little bit of a break, it’s time to talk about Part Two of Embassytown, a section titled “Festivals”! Catch up on the previous posts in this series by visiting the intro & index page.

PROBABLE SPOILERS AHEAD

Here we have nine chapters, continuing the alternating Formerly/Latterday structure so that Miéville can intersperse the slow-but-steady acceleration of the plot with more worldbuilding-dense flashbacks. First I’ll talk about the Latterday plot events, before continuing to examine the background details of the novel’s universe.

“A slow catastrophe”

After the turning point at the end of Part One, when EzRa opened their mouths, there is a period of confusion as to what went wrong. Something is undoubtedly wrong but not everyone is privy to the “slow catastrophe” brewing. The Staff and Ambassadors are suddenly on edge, but are keeping tight-lipped, leaving Avice and the majority of Embassytown (not to mention the reader) in the dark with a faint feeling of dread and unease. This tantalising, but opaque, slide into apocalypse makes the eventual moments of clear terror all the more delicious for the reader — much like the slow, uneasy build up to the reveal of the Slake Moths in Perdido Street Station.

The Latterday chapters of Part Two are the last moments of denial for Embassytown’s inhabitants, with everyone trying to continue about their business while things slowly go awry in the Host city outside. There are signs of a new wrongness however, such as human aircraft no longer receiving signals from landing sites run by the Hosts. There’s a great amount of terror in the idea of being isolated in a small habitable town-bubble, while the larger city that surrounds you has gone deathly silent — and not knowing why.

Avice is unsettled by the change; her narration notes that “beyond Embassytown, the oddness of angles and movements that had touched the city seemed to be spreading.” Actually, I was quite surprised by the speed at which the “damage” caused by EzRa spreads. Perhaps his Arrival Ball speech was broadcast by the weird organic speakers into the wider city.

There’s a fantastic paragraph that sums up how it must feel to suddenly be reminded of the alienness of something that you might have become familiar with:

We thought of Ariekei in terms of stuff from an antique world — we looked at our Hosts and saw insect-horse-coral-fan things. Those were chimeras of our own baggage. There they were, the Hosts, humming polyphonically in reveries that were utterly their own.

The humans of Embassytown have come to, if not anthropomorphise the Hosts, then at least “Earthropomorphise” them. And now they are at a loss, with no clue as to the sudden change of behaviour. Have the Hosts been gravely offended? Attacked, as one theory goes, by a Bremeni weapon in the shape of a new Ambassador? How could humans predict or pretend to understand the workings of a truly alien mind? Miéville paints this dilemma so perfectly, making Embassytown, in my opinion, one of the best SF novels ever written about the nature of communication. It shits all over Speaker for the Dead, I reckon.

By the end of this Part, the Hosts show up again after their strange absence, and any pretence the Ambassadors and Staff have of being in control of the situation is lost. EzRa have lost their confidence and professionalism almost immediately, with Ra in particular showing signs of not being the most stable of people. Things are not looking good, and they are going to get worse very soon.

And now to talk about some of the worldbuilding details found in Part Two:

Arieka and Embassytown

There’s a bit more description of Embassytown itself in this Part, although unlike New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station (and to a lesser extent in Iron Council), the geography of the city isn’t all that important to the plot. Embassytown’s streets are narrow, and there aren’t many powered vehicles: just a small number of “altanimals” and biorigged carriages for transport. The Embassy itself is the largest structure, a pillar-like building more than 100 metres high with lots of things such as landing pads sticking out. The Czech cover art for this book (painted by Edward Miller) illustrates this pretty well, I think.

It sounds like there are nicer places and grungier places within Embassytown. Avice spends a lot of the Formerly chapters of this Part in a bar located in a slum, with a number of her fellow similes. This bar is on a shopping street that specialises in altleather, grown on biorigged trees — altleather purses, for instance, are kind of an animal-fruit hybrid, which need to be scooped clean of their innards before being tanned. Ick. Avice also sees a crop of umbrellas, moving of their own accord (rather reminiscent of the “unbrellas” from Un Lun Dun!), with “verspertilian” canopies — that is, like bat wings.

We get to hear a bit more about religions in Embassytown. There seem to be the usual Terre ones (churches, synagogues and mosques being found in the human district) as well as the modified version of Christianity featuring the deity Christ Pharotekton. However it’s stated that most of the humans don’t practice religion. The Hosts aren’t religious at all (perhaps because they can’t tell lies? #dawkinsmoment), and neither are the Kedis, although the latter believe that the souls of both their ancestors and their descendants are jealous ghosts haunting those alive in the present.

Shur’asi too are mostly atheist, and it’s noted that apart from accidental causes, they don’t die. They also apparently are rarely born. This is weird. I wonder if they’re cellularly immortal or if something else is going on with them.

At the end of this Part we’ve now heard of three of Arieka’s twelve days of the week: Dominday, Overday and Utuday. Utuday is a religious day for the Church of God Pharotekton.

The wider universe

Some early human history is revealed: aliens were the ones who made contact first, coming to Terre, rather than humans making it out of the solar system and subsequently meeting them. We haven’t found out which exot species was the first encountered by humans, though. A lot of Terre history and culture is still known and celebrated: Captain Cook is mentioned, as are Laurel and Hardy, and even some Hawaiian mythological figures (Ku and Lono).

The current state of politics in this future is one of war: Bremen is warring with other nations on Dagostin, and with other planets. Miéville gives us hints about battles in both normal space and the immer, the latter described as “terrible strange firefights”. It’s mindboggling to even imagine what they might be like.

The nation of Bremen, it’s mentioned, has 37-hour days. Presumably this is the day length for the planet Dagostin as well. These are almost double Arieka’s 19-hour ones.

There’s another mention of an alien species: the Cymar. I kinda wish we could meet all these background aliens.

Hosts and Language

Avice, in her role as a piece of Language, has fans amongst the Hosts. One says “I do not know how I did without her, how I thought what I needed to think”. The most common meaning of “the girl who was hurt and ate what was given to her” is “making do” with a situation; but to the Host called Spanish Dancer (not its real name), she means more: the potential for change. Other Hosts think some better simile could have been engineered with Avice, and therefore, better thoughts thought. The idea of not only a language, but also a way of thinking for an entire species, being dependent on set-up scenarios like this is mindblowing — such a fantastic literary invention. No wonder Ursula K Le Guin called this book a work of art.

Avice often visits Hosts’ debates and conventions where she is collected and displayed with other “enLanguaged” things: objects, animals (which have to be anaesthetised), and other humans. The humans, particularly the similes, have a little clique which Avice is accepted into. There we meet all sorts of enLanguaged humans. It seems to be quite a common occurence on Arieka, actually. I wonder why the Hosts favour using humans to create elements of Language so much. I think it’s mentioned at one point that they never needed to do so before humans arrived on Arieka, because before then they had no reason to lie.

Some enLanguaged humans that Avice spends time with:

  • Hasser, “the boy who was opened up and closed again” (this sounds kind of gruesome, I think Avice got off lightly in her case)
  • Darius, “who wore tools instead of jewellery”
  • Shanita, “who was kept blind and awake for three nights”
  • Valdik, “who swims every week with fishes” (and has to continue to do this for his simile to still have meaning!)
  • Burnham, “who balanced metal”
  • Davyn, who is referred to as a “topic” rather than a simile; and some unnamed people who are “tropes” — very interesting to imagine what these people might mean

I have to wonder what kind of arguments the Hosts must be making with such similes, etc? The fact that I can’t imagine the use of such expressions makes the Hosts’ alienness all the more believable. There are also inanimate objects used in similes, such as a house in which furniture was removed and put back again, and a stone that was split then put together again.

We finally get to meet some individual Hosts, as well. No longer are they the faceless alien mass; they start to have individual personalities in the narration. Avice and company give the Hosts they frequently encounter nicknames, based on differences in their appearance. The nicknames are marvellously silly: we have Stumpy, Croissant, Fiver, Spindle, Longjohn, Beehive, and Spanish Dancer. The latter is named because of its colours, which resemble a flamenco dress, although knowing Miéville this could also be another mollusc connection, referring to the variety of sea slug.

Beehive (whose real name is surltesh echer) is one of the regular performers at Lie Festivals, and is one of the most successful liars. We see it pushing against the boundaries of its own language at another Lie Festival in this Part, which is foreshadowing for much later in the novel.

What passes for fashion amongst Hosts are decorative sashes that make different sounds in the wind, with all their “fins and filigrees”. To the Hosts these are as distinct as garish colours are to us. This may be a hint about Ariekei physiology — their hearing must be excellent. They might also be colour blind.

Other notes and thoughts

  • During the confusion after EzRa’s first speech, you have to laugh at the overly-polite confusion of the Ambassadors trying to get through to the Hosts: “Has something happened to make you suboptimal?”
  • I like how Miéville plays with plurals for the Ambassadors, using phrases like “both the new Ambassador” or “a men or a women”.
  • Merlo and Rattleshape get mentioned in passing. They seem to be comedians in this future, and are listed alongside Laurel and Hardy.
  • Ehrsul drinks hologram wine at the Arrival Ball, to better fit in. This is kind of adorable. Sometimes her behaviour is weird, though. In a Formerly chapter, she is put off by the appearance of Hosts in an informal setting such as the bar Avice frequents, and abruptly leaves. I’m wondering just what is up with Ehrsul?
  • Ambassadors are routinely corrected to be completely identical: even things like marks from pillows are copied over or erased from both. Reminds me of the Lovers from The Scar, although this time around the connotations are far less creepy.
  • It’s hard to do the fractional text of Language in HTML. The best I can do is to use <sub> and <sup> tags, like so: surltesh echer. I don’t know if I’ll keep that up though, or just render the name as Surl Tesh-echer from now on (like Avice has to).

That’s it for now. In “Part Three: Like As Not”, we’ll read the last of the Formerly flashbacks. After that, the rest of the book will take place in the Latterday. I hope to have the next post up soon!

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3 comments

  1. man this really makes me want to re-read this. you are a damn good writer and someone should throw bags of money at you.
    as an aside – would you consider doing a post about your thoughts of The Immer? Would love to hear your insights.

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