China Mieville's Embassytown

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by SLASH, Nov 16, 2010.

  1. Myotis_sarahii

    Myotis_sarahii New Member

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    You may have already seen this but for others who haven't, I thought I'd share it in this thread, China Mieville talking about Embassytown and his other books briefly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDm_5iMGSN0

    I have yet to read Embassytown and am excited to, as I have read and loved the 3 Bas Lag books and Kraken. :)

    Also adding to the standalone question, in the video above Mieville makes it sound likely he will return to the Immerverse. 'Give it a few years, If I do a few more books in that setting'
     
  2. Westsiyeed

    Westsiyeed The Fifth Dominion

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    Thanks for the interview link.

    I'm halfway through Embassytown town now; it's written in his unconventional style but is definitely a good story. Will reserve judgement until I finish.
     
  3. Westsiyeed

    Westsiyeed The Fifth Dominion

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    Finished Embassytown last night. Took a while to get going (at least 100 pages or so until I knew what was going on), but once it did I enjoyed the ride. Whilst essentially about whether two totally different races can survive coexisting in the same living space, Mieville's created a very unique story based on language and communication.

    The main criticism I would have is Mieville's writing style may put a lot of people off. It can come across as very clunky (almost the opposite of writers such as Priest and RC Wilson, for example) and his vocabulary is extensive. I'm usually a fairly fast reader but found myself slowing down to help fully understand.

    Overall an intelligent, original story, but personally I still prefer his earlier works especially those set in the Bas-Lag universe.
     
  4. pox

    pox Registered User

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    Started this yesterday, finished it today, so it's clearly 'a good read' but I wonder if he's not a touch lost in the creative writing classes he gives. It was a bit overwrought towards critical review for my taste. If that makes sense. Also prefer earlier stuff which has more intensity.
     
  5. Crusader

    Crusader Registered User

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    I've been promised a review copy of this, so hopefully I'll be reading it soon. I've seen it lauded as "literary" sci-fi. Hopefully that doesn't mean that it is overly complicated to appeal more to those who generally look down upon the sci-fi genre.
     
  6. Vooloc

    Vooloc Lord Of Mejik

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    im gonna get this book soon, was waiting a year or more for it and just realized its out.
    i had never heard of China Miéville before and i am wondering what genre are his other books in, all sci fi?
    this one sounds a good read anyway.
     
  7. Stephen Palmer

    Stephen Palmer Author of novels

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    China's thing is to wrap up lots of genres together...

    Start off with Perdido Street Station, then when you've recovered from that, The Scar. :D
     
  8. Crusader

    Crusader Registered User

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    I received the promised review copy of Embassytown and finished it last night. It's definitely classic Mieville with some genre-bending and absolutely weird and wonderful worlds.

    I've posted a Embassytown review on my blog, but must confess that it was one of the toughest reviews I've done so far. It's extremely difficult to describe it to someone who hasn't read the book.

    Heck, I'm not sure my review makes all that much sense.
     
  9. Eventine

    Eventine Uh, Staff Member

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    I finished this up about a week ago but haven't had time to post here. I enjoyed it, I particularly liked how alien the aliens were, and not chiefly by their appearance but by the sheer difference in how their thoughts were constructed.
    I found Larry's (critical) review quite interesting as I didn't hit the logic errors he did - but I suspect I was reading it at a very different level.
    At any rate, I enjoyed it, probably thought it was the best Mieville I've read since Iron Council (that is, better than Kraken and The City & The City, but not as good as the Bas Lag stuff).
    Not being a seasoned SF reader, I'd be interested in seeing more feedback from pure SF fans.
     
  10. Werthead

    Werthead Registered User

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    My take:

    Avice is an immerser, a person who flits between worlds by sailing the immer, the strange sea of time and space that underlines our own. To satisfy his curiosity, she takes her new husband to see her homeworld of Arieka, where the native Hosts communicate in a language unlike any other known to humanity and only specially-trained, genetically-engineered humans can talk to them. But back home in Embassytown she discovers that a new Ambassador has arrived, one with a different way of speaking to the Ariekei Hosts...one that may shatter their way of existence and endanger the human population of the planet.

    Embassytown is China Mieville's eighth novel and his first science fiction book. This shouldn't be taken to mean that Mieville has dramatically moved away from his traditional fare: this is very much still in the weird vein he is known for. Arieka is a world of uncanny bio-technology where farms and factories are living creatures, whilst the Hosts are an utterly alien, difficult-to-comprehend species whose thought and speech processes are totally different to that of humanity. Even Mieville's take on hyperspace - the immer - is a place where strange and bizarre things can happen. In Mieville's SF novel the usual SF trappings - spaceships, FTL travel, futuristic weapons - are given his typical weird spin, but it wouldn't be hard to re-set the novel on a remote part of Bas-Lag or in another fantastical milieu.

    What does make Embassytown SF is its take on the idea of language. The notion of one species trying to talk to another when their reference frames, histories, backgrounds and ways of life may be completely different is a difficult and challenging one, but also something that SF has usually papered over with a universal translator or the like. Here the difficulties of communication between two different species are studied in depth. The Hosts can only understand language when there is sentient thought motivating it: they cannot understand recordings in their language, nor can they communicate with AIs. They also can only think in terms of the truth: the notion of lying is something so foreign to them that they can only barely grasp how it is done, though a few individual Ariekei boldly try to become liars themselves, giving rise to the vividly-described Festival of Lies that Avice encounters at one point in the book. This discontinuity is a minor weak point in the novel: if the Hosts can lie, even with difficulty, than over the course of millions of years they should have developed the ability to do so more freely. If they can't lie at all, than the climax of the book (which is a tad predictable) is impossible. Them being only able to lie with human intervention does open up some interesting questions about inadvertent colonialism, however, that are almost certainly intentional.

    Mieville makes his aliens truly alien, so the only way to communicate with them is to make the human Ambassadors partly alien themselves through genetic engineering. Ambassadors are twins who are raised to think and act as one as a way of duplicating the Hosts' duality-based language. This in turn makes them something different to ordinary humans although, as is revealed several times throughout the narrative, not as different as perhaps first appears. This gives rise to an interesting parallel where humans have to alter themselves to talk to the Ariekei, bu the Ariekei cannot conceive of altering themselves to talk to humans...at least not until that decision is made for them, unwittingly, by the arrival of a new Ambassador.

    The book is a slow burn, with the opening half focused on exploring Avice's childhood (during which she is chosen by the Ariekei to become a living simile, a walking and talking embodiment of their language) and background before the action focuses on what is going on in Embassytown in the present. Whilst there is a major crisis in the book, one that leads to violence and a loss of life on an epic scale, Embassytown's writing is focused, intelligent and even quiet. The writing style is more like the pared-back City and The City rather than the chaotic Un Lun Dun and Kraken (the former enjoyably so, the latter rather more sloppily), which is a plus for me.

    There are big events with major ramifications going on, but Avice is much more of a passive observer of events than an active protagonist, only stepping up to this role quite late on in the novel. This results in a lot of major plot movements happening off-page (several times Avice arrives on the scene of an important, game-changing event just after it's happened) and only being explained later on. This could be slightly frustrating, but in Mieville's hands it's a well-executed inversion of the more traditional (and implausible) format where the narrator is at the centre of every major event in the book. Here Avice is playing just one role in a larger cast, and we don't always get to see what everyone else is up to.

    Avice herself is a well-defined but not entirely sympathetic protagonist. She's a bit of a snob, frankly, and invokes her travels to other worlds as an explanation for why she thinks she's better than everyone else. This results in amusing passages where Avice is frustrated because she's not involved at the centre of events. From her POV, she should be, but of course from the POV of the people running Embassytown there's no reason why she should. This frustration becomes more acute when the input of Avice's new husband, a linguistics expert, becomes more valued by the government than Avice's own contribution. It's a solid bit of characterisation that makes Avice more of a plausible protagonist at the risk of making her unlikable, though I think Mieville avoids that pit trap. The other characters in the book are mostly well-defined (especially Avice's robotic best friend and the half-Ambassador Bran), though the limited POV structure means we don't get to know them as well as characters in some of his other books.

    Overall, Embassytown (****½) is a formidably intelligent exploration of language, colonialism and communication, not just between humans and invented aliens but between people and people. It raises interesting questions, doesn't give pat answers, and entertains along the way. It's not Mieville at his best, but it's certainly a strong novel and an interesting take on the traditional tropes of science fiction. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
     
  11. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    The man is obsessed with language, so this does not surprise me. Would you all say that it's as symbolic as Iron Council or is it anchored in the more concrete?
     
  12. Werthead

    Werthead Registered User

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    Haven't read Iron Council, so I don't know :)
     
  13. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    I'm terribly shocked at this information. :)

    In any case, I do want to see what Mieville does with aliens, so I'll probably get around to it.
     
  14. Eventine

    Eventine Uh, Staff Member

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    I got a feeling that this is actually tied to the Bas-Lag books - I've always had a feeling from the Bas Lag books (particularly The Scar) that a lot of the weirdness came from something crashing to earth and tearing reality - what if this tear exposes the Immer?
     
  15. Luke_B

    Luke_B Diamond Dog Staff Member

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    I was really enjoying Embassytown at the start. But I found that once I had conquered the intellectual challenge of piecing together the world Miéville created I lost some interest in the book. The problem for me, I think, is that Avice is a passive participant in the plot; she observes events without really influencing them. Given the cataclysmic nature of these events, this isn’t surprising and I think it would be unrealistic to portray one person as drastically influencing such a huge cultural change, but the lack of any agency on the part of the protagonist has really sucked some of the tension out of the novel for me at this point. I haven't finished the book yet and the last hundred pages might be as brilliant and as engaging as the first hundred or so, but at the moment I find myself reaching for something like Leviathan Wakes and leaving the bookmark in this one relatively static.
     
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2011
  16. Stephen Palmer

    Stephen Palmer Author of novels

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    Mieville did this in Kraken too. One of the problems of being a brilliant world-builder is that sometimes the world takes over from the plot...
     
  17. s271

    s271 Repudiated Ursus

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    I've finished Embassytown and it's brilliant. I have now problem with Avice being observer most of the book - she is not exactly the main protagonist. Main protagonist is the language (with small letter, not Language) itself.
    Russian SF patriarchs Strugatskie brothers once said that most of SF is about adventures of the body and very few is about adventures of the mind. Embassytown is an adventure of the mind.
     
  18. Luke_B

    Luke_B Diamond Dog Staff Member

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    I posted when I finished this in the monthly reading thread. I actually ended up liking this once I had finished, even though I did find the middle 100 pages a bit of a slog. The story picks up again towards the end. Conversely, I felt very "meh" about Leviathan Wakes when I finished it, which I also mentioned in my earlier post. They are very different books, but out of the two I certainly enjoyed China's more in the end.
     
  19. NeonKnight

    NeonKnight Protector of the Realm

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    Deleted this message sorry.
     
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2012
  20. NeonKnight

    NeonKnight Protector of the Realm

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    Something about China Mieville, it is hard to put my finger on it, but he is really something special. Just finished off Embassytown, and once again I am just super impressed with his supreme talent and gifts.

    His world building ideas are always so wildly inventive, and his dazzling use of vocabulary makes a read with him a challenge but the payoff is well worth a little extra effort. In Embassytown, his depiction of the strange aliens "The Host" is so utterly weird, they become perhaps as strange as true aliens must really be, almost beyond human comprehension. As if that is not enough, Mieville weaves disparate themes like addiction and the true meaning of language into a tale that succeeds like the best entertainers always do: by leaving the audience with the compulsion for more of this stuff.

    As always it seems, Mieville loves to feature an urban setting, like New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station, the Armada in The Scar, and London in The Kraken, he excels when his characters inhabit the chaotic maze-like dirty streets within these bizarre new worlds.

    I also found his conception of "immersion" a novel way of interstellar travel. to be very creative and as he put in the interview linked earlier, a throwback to a time when traveling by sailing ship was a very dangerous and superstitious way of transportation. He mentions he might want to explore this universe in the future, which is a very fine thing by me.

    Looks like Railsea, a unique China take on Herman Melville and Moby Dick, is another must read.
     
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2012