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In Association with
China Miéville
Macmillan paperback £12.99

review by Niall Alexander

If I may be so bold, let's get this show on the road with a quote, from a book I bet we've all read a bit of: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it." So the great story goes. Or rather, so goes one translation of one chapter of one version of the story, according to this one guy, John, apparently.

These verses of the gospel of John refer back to the Psalms, to the oft-told tale of the Earth's and our creation as Christian theologians care to tell it. They are preface, introduction and summation, all in one. A proto-Saussure of sorts, in the verses aforementioned and at length in those that follow, the disciple John speaks to the unspeakable illumination of language, to create and name and declaim - as does Embassytown...

Embassytown, for its part, does not begin with such gargantuan ambition - though it ends, if you'll allow me this last little heresy, every bit the equal of the fourth and final gospel in terms of its revelatory import. Instead, it opens on a party: a glittering, gossiping, grandstanding Arrival Ball held to welcome to Embassytown a new Ambassador. His name - their name - is EzRa - and he, and they, will change everything. But let's take a moment to get our bearings.

Embassytown is a place on 'the edge' of known space, where Terre folk and an odd few exots have gathered around the Ariekei, developed a community and a culture around this place and these uncanny creatures as around an intergalactic watering hole. The Ariekei - formally known to Embassytowners as the Hosts - are beings utterly other from all else; unfathomable, and in so many senses unknowable, though a modicum less so now that their polyvocal Language - once thought impenetrable - has been cracked at last.

That's thanks to the rise of Ambassadors. Not "twins but doppels, cloned. It was the only viable way. They were bred in twos in the Ambassador-farm, tweaked to accentuate certain psychological qualities... created and brought up to be one, with unified minds," (page 76) for without complementary voices and a single empathetic intent - without truth - the Ariekei perceive nothing but white noise, "as meaningless... as the sounds of birds." (page 231)

It is thus that Embassytown has a sort of "monopoly on language," and a moderately profitable one - but of course - because the Ariekei are able to fashion invaluable bio-rigged tech from matter untold; that is presuming Terre's representatives can communicate their desire for such. However, newcomer EzRa is another sort of Ambassador entirely: composed of two distinct individuals and very far from farm-bred, their Language is yet impeccable. To the Ariekei, in fact - and here is where the problems begin - it is like a drug.

Speaking of similes, our shepherd through all this is one Avice Benner Cho, a floaker and an immerser gone into the out and returned, prodigal, to Embassytown, where as a girl she was once employed by the Ariekei in "a strange unpleasant ritual" meant to exemplify a certain figure of speech. To her Hosts, then, she is known as the "girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time" (page 31). Avice is become, incredibly, a part of Language: a simile. To paraphrase the gentle jibes of her lover Scile, what is she like!

To others - to us - she is only Avice, and Avice is extraordinarily put to tell the tale that is Embassytown. To impart the word of the Word, as so long ago a certain disciple did. Avice is too markedly more honest about her narrative fallibility than that other. "This is a true story I'm telling," she insists, "but I am telling it, and that entails certain things. So: the Hosts cared about everything, but Language most of all." (page 181)

Avice is, for her part, a woman deeply involved, implicated even, in the coming cataclysm of communication Embassytown charts: she is a lover and a pusher, a gossip, a revolutionary and, at the last, a saviour... of sorts. Moreover she is a sterling character to bear our immersion into this tremendous and oft-impenetrable universe, which hearsay holds was so impenetrable in its original form - a manuscript submitted after the last of the Bas Lag triumvirate, but well before the cracking antics of Kraken - that Tor initially balked at the prospect.

A fact little surprising, if accurate... Though Embassytown is far from incomprehensible in its first phase, a prologue, a proem of three decimal points and 20-odd time-shifting chapters encompassing events Formerly through Latterday pass before one begins to grasp the incredible grandeur of China Miéville's latest and, dare I say, greatest. That equates to 200 pages of deeply involved narrative without anything more than a working understanding of the world; and only then does Embassytown begin to come together, as its chronologies converge and the author gradually unfurls this incredible universe he has created, wherein language is truth and lies are an opiate. We are, in the interim, a long way from home, and - by design, one can only wonder - it feels it. Tales of Terre - which is to say of Earth, though these tomorrow peoples have forgotten as much of it as they remember - are so much "insane nostalgia," and no more. As Avice seethes:

I once met a junior immerser from some self-hating backwater who reckoned in what he called 'earth-years,' the risible fool. I asked him if he'd been to the place by the calendar of which he lived. Of course he'd no more idea of where it was than I do. (page 21)

As Kraken before it, The City & The City, before Kraken, and Un Lun Dun before both, Embassytown marks something of a departure for Miéville: never one to do the same thing twice, it is his first sci-fi novel proper - though of course the author has worked into his texts various of the genre's tenets in the past, most notably in The City & The City, which seems furthermore the most appropriate touchstone to measure this dizzyingly brilliant specimen against, if measure it we must.

Assuredly the pair share certain concerns: in the early-going and the endgame in particular, those readers familiar with the multiple award-winner's last bona fide critical darling will have something of an advantage over those who continue on in want - poor, wretched souls all - for the shared-space of the immer, the inconceivable medium through which Avice once traversed the galaxy, very much recalls that of Beszel and Ul-Qoma.

"The immer's reaches don't correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live," expounds our nostalgic narrator amidst an account of how she got here, wherever here is. "The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on." (page 39)

There is no distance in the immer, no time, or if there is - and there is and there is not - it is other enough from our meagre appreciation as to be unspeakable. Such "uncanny geometries" and assorted impossibilities will feel a home away from home for those readers familiar with the science fictional concept of The City & The City. Those who are not will fairly flounder, I would wager - at the outset if not for the duration. For as in The City & The City - indeed as in the very gospels we began with - at the pivot-point of Embassytown's tale there is a crime; a lie told, and a truth thus undone. And it is... enrapturing. Truly, madly, deeply so...

Oh, and as ever - for as much as Miéville has grown over the years, he's not yet renounced his weird and wonderful and weirdly wonderful beginnings - there are some stonking great monsters in and around Embassytown. To wit, one such, mentioned practically in the passing:

Most experts agree that what emerged on that day was a minor manifestation, one I'd later learn to call a stichling. It was an insinuation at first, composing itself of angles and shadows. It accreted itself from its surrounds, manifesting in the transient. The bricks, plastone and concrete of buildings, the energy of the cages and the flesh of the captive animals from the gardens spilled toward and into the swimming thing, against physics. They substance it. Houses were roofed as their slates dripped sideways into a presence growing every moment more physical, more suited to this realness. (page 24)

Needless to say, "it was put down quickly." As indeed so many of the ideas raised and taxonomies mooted in Embassytown are, alas, because this is a novel positively writhing with invention and imagination. In the space of pages, sometimes mere paragraphs, innovations the equal of those other authors would structure entire sagas around come and go: take the stichlings, immer-space and Ambassador-farms, to pluck but a few from the sprawling array on offer in Embassytown. Some might find such digressions distracting rather than delightful, as I did, yet these cast-off concepts also serve to impress upon the reader a mounting sense of the larger universe Embassytown occupies only the edge of; quite the achievement when one considers the narrative's necessarily isolated setting.

Why necessarily? Well, that would be to tell too much. And as Miéville well understands, the best storytellers - and the most lasting stories - only tell as much as they leave untold. So suffice it to say that Embassytown is an impossible novel; a novel of impossibility, yes, but also a thing that should be impossible in its own right, like a cat chasing its own tail through time and space. A systematic deconstruction of language made in linguistic terms, Embassytown is an untext, if you will: an obscure adjunct to the Word, as we understand it, set out so long ago. It is a heretical appendix to the myth of creation which argues that the creation of one thing - even from nothing - entails the destruction of all other possibilities. It is an irresolvable philosophy of language; the translation of a metaphorical gospel which by dint of its nature, and by design, cannot truly signify the signified. But it "came close. It wasn't flawless but that was in the way of translation. It was as much a truth as a lie."

For a book about the Word, whatever the word is, or was, or will be, it is ineffably apposite that Embassytown leaves one quite without the words to describe it, far less do this stupendous thing justice. Certainly, lovers of lovely language will love the languid language of Miéville's loveliest text to date, and though in the beginning the narrative is difficult to grasp, far less to parse, there is such light at the end of Embassytown's darkness: pools of pure illumination, brilliant and utterly unfettered.

For a man of many success stories, The City & The City must be considered this author's greatest critical success to date. Its immediate successor was thus dismissed as minor Miéville, if only because Kraken hewed so close to the comic - a premise and a conclusion I continue to take issue with. Nevertheless, to those who have insisted as much, understand that Embassytown showcases the man on major form once more. In its profundity, its beauty, and - neither last nor least - its language, it is at least the equal of The City & The City.

Embassytown is truly, madly, deeply Miéville, in the end - as in the beginning. And it is magnificent.

Embassytown by China Mieville

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press