Embassytown, by China Mieville, is one of my all-time favorite books. I’ll give you a sense of the plot, but it won’t do the book justice. Avice Benner Cho hails from a tiny outpost on a far-flung planet. Arieka is a backwater notable only for the oddness of its sentient indigenous life-forms, the Ariekei. Mieville does a wonderful job creating aliens who are truly alien—this is my second time reading the book and I still can’t quite picture the Ariekei. They have wings and hooves and chitinous shells and eye stalks. They have two mouths, and use their double-layered voices to speak pure truth. Everything they say is literal. As contact with the humans increases and the Ariekei need more and more foreign things to say, they turn to the creation of similes. Avice Benner Cho is tapped in her childhood to become one such simile—the scene is minutely prepared, and so must have been envisioned somehow by the Ariekei, but cannot be spoken until it’s happened. This tension between wanting to break free of literalness and their inability to do so pops up again in the Festival of Lies—this amounts to an Ariekei extreme sport as one after another tries and fails to lie.
The story revolves around a crisis moment on Arieka where Language is put into dire jeopardy due to the political machinations of humans far removed from the day-to-day life of Embassytowners. The purity of language becomes first a philosophical and then a physically violent war. Avice, in part due to her status as a particularly flexible simile, leads the charge to break the Ariekei free of the literal bounds of Language; in essence, she sees their survival and her own as dependent on teaching them how to lie. Her estranged husband, Scile, is willing to see everyone on Arieka (human or otherwise) die to protect the purity of Ariekene Language.
Embassytown tells a story about epic, revolutionary change. It does so with an unflinching gaze and an outright refusal to sugarcoat just how horrifying and how brutal such a change, by necessity, is. Paradoxically (though I believe intentionally), for a book about the importance of lies and near-lies, it’s an extraordinarily honest book. The fact that the book itself is a work of fiction striving to uncover and articulate a truth about our modern world is not lost on me. Mieville is a Marxist, and in rereading the book it seems that the entire novel is a comment on false consciousness. Lies are a form of truth, he argues, if they can be used to break you from the way you’ve been forced to see the world. When we envision a better future, a different future, a future with no precedent, that is a kind of willful lying. When we attempt to reconfigure our place in society and the way in which we interface with the world around us, that is a kind of lie and a kind of truth at once. Near the end of the book an Ariekei character gives a beautiful, tender speech about this tension—before the ability to lie, it claims, it did not truly speak. All it did was describe the confines, the parameters, of its existence. It couldn’t create; it could only describe. And that is at the heart of the idea of hegemony and false consciousness—under the yoke of capitalism we can only describe what exists now, how we are now. It takes a fundamental, painful break from life as we’ve lived it to construct an alternative. I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say Mieville’s understanding of revolution and dialectics extends past this. The Ariekei, like Marx’s working class, have to literally break themselves down to rebuild themselves and their society. It is a violent, desperate, brutal process.
The other themes present in the book—the nature of addiction, the nature of the individual self vs the collective self, the parasitic element of bureaucracy—all tie back into these Marxism-tinged ideas about language. It is a book full to the brim with ideas, with careful and attentive thought. That Mieville manages to imbue all these thoughts into a book that is also packed with plot and characterization is amazing. Avice Benner Cho, who serves as our viewpoint into this world, is a wonderfully rich and fully realized character. Her voice is clear and never once does it ring false. There is a real economy of language here, but we feel it when her marriage falls apart even as she herself can’t quite articulate why it’s happening. And given the plot of the book, Avice is precisely the right character to tell the story: just insider enough to carry it, but outsider enough to allow for questions and inference. Just similar enough to the reader to feel familiar in this strange, unfamiliar setting.
Truly, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Embassytown is a brilliant, moving novel. It’s a book that sticks with you long after you finish it. As much as Railsea meant to me personally, Embassytown is my favorite of Mieville’s works.