Book Review: EMBASSYTOWN

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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.

bookreview5stars

Book Review: ORYX AND CRAKE

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Since MaddAddam, the concluding book in the trilogy which begins with Oryx and Crake, just came out it seemed like an ideal time to reread the other two books in the trilogy. I am really excited to see what Margaret Atwood does with MaddAddam given that Oryx and Crake and its follow-up, The Year of the Flood are so different in focus. Or, that’s how I remember them; I’m just about to crack The Year of the Flood back open, so we’ll see if that opinion still stands when I’ve finished it.

Back to Oryx and Crake. The plot is relatively straightforward: we follow a man named Jimmy from childhood to adulthood whose childhood friend and later employer, Crake, is a mad scientist. And we follow Jimmy as he tries to navigate a post-apocalyptic world caused by Crake. The book opens some years after this mad scientist has done his thing. Jimmy is both alone and not alone—Crake created an enhanced group of human beings, genetically lab-grown to perfectly fit their surroundings where Crake did his best to splice out ‘undesirable’ elements of the human fabric. Jimmy tends to these people, whom he calls the Crakers, who are human but such a different kind of human that he is still utterly alone.

The narrative structure is split between chapters set in Jimmy’s present, where he tends to the Crakers, and his past, which explores the world which led up to the birth of the Crakers and the destruction of everyone else. But the story is very clearly rooted in Jimmy’s present; the chapters set in the past have a deliberate haziness to them, and Jimmy interjects commentary on his memories. Atwood makes it clear that rather than an objective narrative jump to the past what we are reading is present-day Jimmy remembering his own past. Like Winterson’s Weight, this book explores the nature of narrative and how we use interpretations of our past to construct our own futures.

The idea of art and narrative as hard-wired into human beings, as one of the intangible things that makes us human, is a theme in the book. Jimmy is a self-described ‘word person’ in a world where words no longer get you very far. Atwood’s future is a destroyed and severely overpopulated Earth where capitalism has run amok. Global warming has ruined the climate, leading to the destruction of many major cities. Class is clearly defined by occupation—the upper classes, uniformly technical and biological geniuses working in elite labs at elite corporations, live in sealed-off and secure corporate communities. There, these scientists are protected from the biological warfare and espionage from competing companies. The middle class live in Modules, and everyone else lives in the pleeblands. Jimmy, the product of two elite scientists, grows up in corporate compounds. The pleeblands are places of myth, of seductive legend, to him and as a reader we see very little of how the poor in Atwood’s world live*. So, there’s Jimmy, who lacks his parents’ capacity for numbers and science stuck in places that do not value his gift for empathy and wordplay. Coupled with his best friend Glenn (who becomes Crake), who is an obvious wunderkind, and Jimmy is left with an inferiority complex the size of Texas.

I read this book the year it came out, in 2003. I remember being somewhat fascinated by it but not liking it much, which was disappointing as I was and still am a major Atwood fan. I was in Boston, living on the couch of a friend and elbows-deep in a summer of socialist organizing. I’d scored a shitty summer job on campus which I abandoned on the spur of the moment to couch-surf and read a lot of Trotsky and argue with people about whether we, as socialists, should support and campaign for Ralph Nader. I was driving a lot of conversations about masculinity in activist spaces and how it was alienating female members of our organization. This was the summer I began to embrace my proletariat roots instead of trying to shed them; a moment, if you’ll indulge me, of internal class crisis. I picked up Oryx and Crake for some light reading, and frankly I picked it up at the wrong moment in my life. Jimmy, as a narrator, was not someone I could connect to at that moment in my life—his male, upper-class privileged voice and viewpoint was simply a bridge too far. The worldbuilding was fascinating as it dovetails so nicely with Marxist theories of late-stage capitalism and imperialism but I never developed an emotional connection with the book.

I read it now as someone ten years older. As someone who has, in some very real sense, sold out. I’m middle class now, a thing which I struggle with but is very obviously true. I’m reading it again after doing some heavy-duty renovation on my own psychological landscape which has left me a much more compassionate and less judgmental person. This time around, I connected much more with Jimmy, especially his imposter syndrome. My initial reading of the book as a self-righteous 19 year old was that it lacked depth, that is was a bit obvious. But I’m not sure that’s true. It’s certainly the case that Atwood as a writer creates stark worlds where Things Have Gone So Very Wrong, but it’s also true that within those worlds she’s a writer of immense subtlety. I mean to say that the worlds she creates are not subtle, but that the people within them still are. This book, I think, is less a warning about capitalism run rampant or the dangers of playing god with science. I think it’s more about the things that Crake tried and failed to breed out of his batch of ‘perfected’ humans: our capacity and need for story, for meaning. I think this is a book about what happens to a culture where we abandon art, where our creative meaning-making of the world around us is seen as less-than and unnecessary. When we do that, Atwood seems to say, we lose our souls. In a sense, then, our compulsion to create and to describe and to enrich is intimately tied with our embedded altruism. All of which is to say that I understand better now why Atwood chose hapless Jimmy, word-oriented and patient Jimmy as her narrator. He’s not a good man, but he’s an exceedingly human one.

4/5 stars

*Or, more accurately, we see very little of how the poor live in Oryx and Crake. We see a whole lot more of life in the pleeblands in The Year of the Flood.