Embassytown Review

23:01 Tue 26 Jul 2011
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I just finished China Miéville’s Embassytown, and was quite impressed with it. I think it’s more like “straight sci-fi” than his previous works, while at the same time being ambitious and different in the Miéville way and achieving the strangeness present in most of his work.

That strangeness is slightly different here, contained within the genre rather than exceeding its bounds in the manner of his New Crobuzon works. One of the messages of those works was, “hey, we’re not science fiction, we might look like it, but here’s some crazy crazy stuff that’ll quash that notion!”—although you could replace “science fiction” in that phrase with “fantasy” or “horror” also.

In The City & The City, Miéville was already moving towards a greater willingness to work within a genre, although he picked two of them, science fiction and detective fiction, and I strongly suspect the text’s hybrid status between the two was meant to mirror the various other dualities it presented. Nevertheless, he worked within both genres in complementary fashion different from the New Crobuzon books[*].

Embassytown is very much a traditional science fiction novel, and I do not at all mean that as criticism. It’s still a highly original work, but it does fit into a classic science fiction framework, that of humans trying to live with and understand another species, and the transformations that ensue from that contact. I was slightly surprised, at the end, that the humans were not more transformed, but perhaps Miéville wanted to situate his story within the genre trope of humans remaining essentially unchanged as a species by the events that transpire.

I’m a Miéville fan, but found myself oddly reluctant to read Embassytown. Something about the sum of The City & The City didn’t equal its parts for me, and I feared that Embassytown would be similar. It wasn’t[†]. It pulled me along more than I expected from the start, and remained compelling throughout.

I’m not writing much about the plot, mainly because I want to avoid specific spoilers; much of its strength comes from the way in which details are revealed to the reader. In one sense it’s the story of humans and aliens I mentioned above; in another it’s the story of a woman who leaves her home and then returns. It contains rather a lot more than either of those stories, however, as it would have to in order to satisfy a plot junkie like me.

I recommend it highly—and also widely: I think anyone who liked The City & The City should read it, and also that it’s not a bad book at all to read as an entry point into science fiction, particularly for anyone with a philosophical or linguistic bent.

[*] Although in the end The City & The City was more detective fiction, i.e. concerned with that genre’s defining “what it justice?” question than with science fiction’s “what does it mean to be human?” question.

[†] At least not in that way; Embassytown does also underline the extent to which social convention and unspoken taboo affect knowledge.

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