by China Mieville
405 pages, Pan Macmillan
Review by Marc Nash
Those regular Booksquawk readers will know that I have battled with 3 of Mieville's previous 7 novels and always lost. I implored him on these very web pages to write a disciplined, grown-up novel. Not ones chock-full of fantastic, imaginative creations thrown onto the book's canvas like Jackson Pollock paint drips. And blow me down, but in his eighth novel "Embassytown" I do believe he has finally delivered. This is a fabulous novel that still retains his breathtaking ability to enthral through the power of image and idea alone.
Embassytown is a fully-realised world within a well-drawn solar system. It's his most coherent piece of world-building since "The City And The City", a book that otherwise fell down on its narrative aspects. The Ariekei are a biped race of insects with immense strength and advanced bio-technology, who host their human and other Exot(ic) races on their planet in peace and tranquility. They have a complex language which demands it is spoken simultaneously by two human voices. Hence the humans have bred special twin-headed Ambassadors who are the only representatives of our species who can communicate with the Hosts. The problem arises when a new Ambassador arrives on the planet, whose twin voice has an alarming effect on the Hosts. Language as virus, just as William Burroughs wrote of.
It is a fascinating treatise offered throughout the pages of the book. Its heroine Avice was offered up as a child to the Hosts to serve as a simile. That is she demonstrated certain actions for them, which they continued to pore over trying to debate the finer synecdoches of what she represented. For the Arikei cannot tell lies, therefore they have no symbolic or representative language. Actual human bodies have to stand for figures of speech as close as they can get to shades of meaning. Once the Arikei become addicted to the sound of the new Ambassador's voice, the tantalising prospect of a rebellion through discovering symbolic language offers them a possible cure.
The book is politically astute too. It offers a cogent portrayal of an empire and colonial relations. Of potential rebellions being pre-empted and successfully cut off at the head. Of civil war and factions, within both the human and the Arikei communities. The infected Hosts have a chilling way of trying to go cold turkey, to snap off the addictive effect of the Ambassador's voice on their bodies, akin to voluntary eunuchs.
The book skillfully interweaves its political and linguistic analysis with a narrative and character interaction and intrigue that stands up in its own right. The ending might have a touch of deus ex machina at Avice's hand about it, but I can forgive it that. This truly was a fascinating and stimulating book of ideas, with language itself at the very heart. Language is shown to be both the problem and the key to its own solution: "Language is the continuation of coercion by other means". Mieville has finally delivered.