Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Review: Embassytown By China Mieville

Embassytown by China Mieville
Del Rey
352 pages

I was very much looking forward to this book. China Mieville has got to be one of the smartest genre authors out there. I saw him speak at a book signing at Powells promoting his book City and the City a few years back. Just as I had when I listened to interviews I found myself thinking, wow this is one smart dude. He is in fact one smart dude, and like many of his other novels Embassytown is themed somewhat around the multi-dimensional life-form that is a city. (Another great sci-fi novel about a city is John Shirley's Classic 'City Come a Walkin')

I was excited because the idea of Mieville who has written mostly steampunk-ish fantasy or otherwise surrealist new weird fiction doing hard Sci-fi sounded great. From page one Mieville creates a strange landscape of the far future in way that reminds me of 'Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursala Leguin or 'Crucible of Time' by John Brunner. Were talking seriously speculative fiction, all three novels are in such alien worlds it is sometimes easy to forgot a human wrote the book at all.

It is the tale of a city know as Embassytown on a planet colonized by humans. The planet is home to a species called the Ariekei who speak a unique language that only a few genetically altered humans are able to speak. To speak it they have to be cloned and two doppel humans have to speak it together, these ambassadors eventually because a important part of the Ariekei culture. The hosts become addicted to the sound of their voices, and some ambassadors die, others come into power and the novel explores the social fabric of this alien society.

Some of the things I respect about this book are the very things that frustrated me about it. I am a quick reader and I slogged through this 352 pages over weeks. I often had to re-read paragraphs over and over, especially during the first quarter of the book that felt more like a anthropologist's memoir that a narrative. Of course in the universe of this novel, thousands of years into the future with humanity spread out across the universe Language and terminology itself would be alien to us. Mieville throws us in to the deep end without swimming lesson here. I learned those terms quickly enough, as a brief example deep space is referred to as “The Out,” and space Travelers are “Immersers.” The novel is written as if you already know that, I am not complaining I liked that choice and to a serious genre reading this is not that new of a concept.

Unlike Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness I felt the “gee-whiz” factor of the ideas constantly got in the way of the story. I felt like I was so busy trying to figure out what the author was trying to say about language and decipher the ideas that I had trouble following the narrative.

It would be easy to read this novel and think that it was simply a exploration of the power of language. It is that, but the novel also explores the concept of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. I think there are amazing elements to this novel, but I can't give it more than three stars out of five because of what a struggle I had keeping my interest. I respect China Mieville enough that I think there is a strong possibility that I am just not smart enough to follow some of the concepts, but I feel he could have kept the story closer to the surface and it would have been a better novel.

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