Embassytown by China Miéville (New York: Del Rey, 2011. 345 pp)

China Miéville is the author of several notable novels, including King RatPerdido Street StationThe ScarIron Council, and Un Lun Dun. He describes his own work as “weird fiction.” He teaches creative writing at Warwick University, and is active in the Socialist Workers Party in his home country of England.

In the Mood for Weird

For some reason, I was in the mood for some China Miéville. Having previously read an earlier novel, Kraken, I wanted to take a stab at a well known, mind-bending science fiction thriller. Miéville’s Embassytown has three parts two it: a political thriller, a civil war tale, and a commentary on the use of language. The latter is what interested me the most, and the reason I picked up the book. However, it should be noted as this was written by Miéville, it’s fairly hard to tackle the telling of the plot. It’s complex to say the least.


Avice, the main character, narrates the entirety of the novel. Her story takes place on the planet Arieka, at a human outpost called Embassytown. The native species of the planet are called the Ariekei, and unlike the machines that humanity has come to rely upon, the Ariekei rely on animals. All of their technology is bio-tech, and each Arieki relies on their own animal, almost like a human constantly relies on a cell-phone.

Avice is at a unique position as a human in Embassytown ,especially since she has two jobs. She pilots ships through the immer, which is an inter-dimensional port that helps ships travel to other human enclaves. But, what is perhaps the most important is that she is able to be a part of the Ariekei language, or a simile to a super-literal species who have trouble with the idea of lies, and with the idea of philosophy. The Ariekei cannot understand anything unless it is firmly rooted in reality.  But, perhaps more oddly, the aliens have two speaking orifices which allow them to speak two words simultaneously. They also have contests to see which can come the closest to speaking an untruth.

“We would hear them speak to each other in their precise tones, so almost like our voices. Later in our lives a few of us might understand some of what they said, but not yet, and never really me” (14).

Forked Tongues

The only ones that can speak the Ariekei (or the Host) language are called the Ambassadors, and can make the dual sounds that are so weirdly spoken.

“Embassytown had its own linguists, but most, carta-denied if they even bothered to apply, were scholars in the abstract…but five Kedis languages and three Shur’asi dialects were spoken in Embassytown, four and all of which respectively we could approximate. Local linguists didn’t work on the language of the [Ariekei]” (50).

Miéville’s thoughts and explorations on languages are simply brilliant. It’s nearly a philosophical treatise.

“Their language is organized noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen…Hosts’ minds were inextricable from their doubled tongue. They couldn’t learn other languages, couldn’t conceive of their existence, or that the noises we made to each other were words at all” (55).

From the Mind of a Child

What is perhaps the most dumbfounding is that Miéville thought of this novel as a child. Embassytown, while very much hard to follow, is filled with intellectual rigor while still being a very entertaining narrative about a civil war and a town on an alien planet. With a nearly impossible to follow narrative structure at times, Embassytown is mind bending to say the least. At the same time, the novel is truly perplexing to read, so much so it hurts the brain at times. If you’re up for a challenge I recommend it.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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