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China Mieville’s ‘Embassytown’: Mingling clever fantasy and language

By Victor LaValle,

The Arrival Ball is being thrown in Diplomacy Hall. The place is jammed. “Mingling with the embassy staff were security, teachers and physicians, local artists. There were delegates from isolated outside communities, hermit-farmers.” These folks are all citizens of Embassytown, a tiny colony on a backwater planet at the farthest edge of known space. They’ve gathered to send off those who are leaving for other worlds and to welcome those arriving. Chief among these arrivals to Embassytown is a new official, discussed in local gossip as “the impossible new Ambassador.”And the rumors are true. None can guess how many lives will be affected by this new ambassador, but some momentous change is clearly imminent.

Embassytown” is the latest novel from England’s wildly inventive China Mieville. He’s already made his name with novels such as “Perdido Street Station” and, more recently, “The City & The City.” Here, Mieville travels into deep space to tell a story about discovery. More specifically, this novel turns the discovery of language and the failures of communication into a roaring science-fiction tale.

In the universe that Mieville imagines, humans have spread across the cosmos, engaging in exploration that dwarfs the ambitions of their earthbound ancestors. And at the farthest end of those territories sits Embassytown, populated by a number of alien races and human beings known as the Terre. The incomprehensible natives of the planet are the Ariekei, more commonly referred to as the Hosts. Embassytown exists as a settlement within Ariekene territory, like an air bubble in a pot of boiling water. Jamestown comes to mind.

Terre and Hosts live right on top of each other but can’t communicate because the Hosts have two mouths that speak simultaneously, creating a kind of blended speech. Humans speak in mono, Hosts in stereo.

The only humans who can communicate with the Hosts are Ambassadors, who come in pairs, two people trained to exist in sync. Their two mouths speak simultaneously; one is the bass, the other the treble. Play them together and you get music. These pairs are bred in labs, and that twinning is ruthlessly maintained. Embassytown’s standards are so exacting that a nick on one twin’s finger will be reproduced on the other’s.

But then comes the Arrival Ball and the “impossible new Ambassador.” The pair who finally greet the crowd are not duplicates: One is tall and slim, the other short and squat. One aloof, the other pugnacious. And yet, this pair can speak to the Hosts. And their aims for Embassytown go far beyond simple communication.

Mieville’s ambitions here are grand, his imagination fertile. He’s clearly having fun describing things such as bio-rigged technology that’s part living being, part machine: “chewing beasts, which would defecate fuel and components.” And that joy translates to the reader. A lot of this is just a blast.

Our narrator is Avice Benner Cho, a woman who left Embassytown to travel space as an immerser, a kind of sailor, but has now returned. Avice is linked to Embassytown, the Hosts and the Ambassadors in intricate ways. Unfortunately, she’s also the greatest weakness of this novel because Avice isn’t really a character. She’s just a camera, a recording device, of sorts. She tells us about her childhood, her marriage, various intrigues in Embassytown, but we rarely experience any of these events firsthand. Characters sleep together, betray one another, die off, but it’s all related to us afterward, almost as an aside.

This serves to make Avice increasingly wearisome: While others act, she ponders, which becomes ponderous. It’s not until the last third of the novel that Avice is spurred to any substantive action in the novel’s present. And even then, she’s mostly just an observer.

Still, “Embassytown” bursts with so many amazing ideas from start to finish that the reading experience remains rewarding. I found myself grinning at each new concept, dazzling set piece and clever turn of phrase. They more than justify Mieville’s reputation as one of the sharpest writers working today.

LaValle’s latest novel is “Big Machine.”

EMBASSYTOWN By China Mieville . Del Rey. 345 pp. $26

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