Site icon

Embassytown by China Miéville

This entry is part 48 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts get published with some lag. I’m trying to be more punctual, though, and this one’s very recent.

I’ve had the audiobook for Embassytown in my Audible account for quite a long time now, but I’ve been off audiobooks for quite a long time. These days, I’ve driving more than I used to, so I’ve had the chance to listen to a few. I’m not sure this is the best medium for the novel—it has a lot of neologisms, and I didn’t catch the implied meaning of a few of them—but the performance on the audiobook is pretty great, and perhaps made up for it.

This is a novel about imperialism and power. It’s a novel about language and how it changes in translation, and when its abused—and how its translation and abuse alike change us. It’s about subjugation, addiction, about bad luck and loss and destruction. It’s also a novel about catastrophic change and how people respond to it. 

There are so many ways to read it, in other words, and that makes for challenging listening when the story keeps going and going and going as you listen. (It’s also hard to p[ause and reflect when you’re driving.) On one level, I wished that I had read it, as a printed book, because I feel like I would’ve had more opportunity to reflect on the narrative’s eerie parallels with our own world: some of those are historical (the opium wars come to mind) and some are more contemporary: the opioid epidemic, the explosion of “fake news” and our addiction to it, the triumph of linguistic bullshit and deceit as a replacement for… like, any speaking of truth at all, sometimes it seems like. All that stuff was in the air when Embassytown was published, and well on the way to becoming problems, but they all seem to have accelerated and worsened, and it’s hard not to see the destruction wrought as rather like the destruction that comes with what even my American friends are now referring to as “late Capitalism” generally.  

I imagine it’s inevitable that people made comparisons to other linguistics-focused SF, like Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 and Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao (which I read not long ago), among others. Still, the the oddness of the extraterrestrial tongue Language and how it works in this book is quite profound—it is just as alien as its speakers, and their relationship with Language (as they call the medium of their communication) is hard to wrap one’s brain around. 

And yet in many ways the power dynamics are familiar, and the plot—which results from the unintended and impossibly-to-anticipate consequences of a blunt power-grab—feels like an echo of so many similar episodes in human history, sadly including our own. On some level, this is a… wait, do we call a tale “cautionary” when it warns of what we’re already experiencing? Some of the neologisms even seem to map onto our own world’s ongoing malaise: “floaking” is one term that gets used a lot, and which feels to me a lot like “slacking”: I assume it’s a portmanteau of “floating” and “slacking” actually. I found this passage defining it quoted online: 

As an immerser I progressed to the ranks I aspired to–those that granted me a certain cachet and income while keeping me from fundamental responsibilities. This is what I excel at: the life-technique of aggregated skill, luck, laziness and chutzpah that we call floaking.

Immersers, I think, created the term. Everyone has some floaker in them. There’s a devil on your shoulder. Not everyone crewing aspires to master the technique–there are those who want to captain or explore–but for most, floaking is indispensible. Some people think it mere indolence but it’s a more active and nuanced technique than that. Floakers aren’t afraid of effort: many crew work hard to get shipboard in the first place. I did.

Another thing that made it a challenging listen is that the text is deliberately elusive when it comes to so many things. Maybe I missed a few passages, but I felt like I never got a really good look at Embassytown itself—what remains in my memory is more the impression of halls within buildings, chambers where official meetings occurred, and the like; and yet I got a very clear feel for what Embassytown was. (It felt very much like a science-fictional version of the Thirteen Factories in Guangdong (then Canton) during the 19th century.) Scenes outside the city are vivid, but Embassytown remained fuzzy and vague and far away as a setting for me. This felt right, though: the narrator is after all speaking of a place that (as we watch) is in many ways completely destroyed by the events in the book. 

Likewise, the appearance of the Arieki—the main alien species in the book—is never really nailed down: Miéville hints a lot about them through the descriptions of their actions—eye corals swiveling, fanwings and giftwings being lifted (or, sometimes, torn from their bodies in combat or as self-mutilation), two mouths (the “cut” and the “turn”), and more. Unless I missed a reference, it was quite late in the book that I learned they had “hooves”—or at least, that hoofprints are a normal thing to be seen where they have been in large numbers. (Maybe their bio-battery creatures have hooves, I don’t know.) I loved this: the composite of all those details is bewildering and strange, and it feels like it almost emulates the experience of looking at alien creatures whose very appearance is difficult to wrap one’s head around. Some people have made attempts at depicting them, as one blogger noted with a roundup of artists’ depictions, but I preferred the Arieki being a shifting, bewildering composite of seemingly-incompatible part composed primarily of words amnd concepts… an apt alien for a book that is so deeply concerned with the way humans could, or might, interact with an alien language. 

There’s one other thing of note in the audiobook version: when characters’ names are given in fractional notation, like this: 

… in the audiobook, you hear the two parts of the name simultaneously. This is definitely a challenge at first, though since the text only ever presents a limited number of names in this way, I eventually figured out how to catch parts of the fractional names, just enough to be able to know who was being discussed. This, I think, was very cool: it game me a little bit of the experience of those within the novel, many of whom learned to listen to (and understand) the simultaneous two-voiced speech of both the Ambassadors and of the Arieki.

I enjoyed the book very much. I only wish I’d gotten to it sooner! 


Series Navigation<< <em>The Punch Line</em> by Zzarchov Kowolski<em>Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents</em> by Lindsay C. Gibson >>
Exit mobile version