I am by no means up to date in my reading of China Miéville’s oeuvre, and that is something I regret because I so liked Perdido Street Station and The Scar when I read them. (I have also in the past read King Rat and Un Lun Dun but they didn’t capture my attention in quite the same way.) So, in approaching Embassytown it is a little like starting all over again.
First, there is the prose itself; there is something about the way Miéville chooses words then employs them, with a sense of precision, every word seeming to be set just so, as though the writer aspired to be a mosaicist. Everything has weight and meaning, or at any rate everything seems to be intended to have weight and meaning, which is not always quite the same thing.
This is a novel about language, or rather, a novel about Language. Or perhaps it is intended to be a novel about language, or Language, except that partway through it wanders away and transforms itself into a novel about the consequences of language and the failure of Language before returning to where it began.
The story is set far into the future on a distant planet which has been colonised by humans; the main city is known to the humans as Embassytown, which expresses its purpose unequivocally. It is home to the Ariekei, a mysterious race most notable for the strangeness of their language, which requires each speaker to have two mouths in order for it to be vocalised. Many humans understand Language but only a few surgically altered and highly trained Ambassador couples can speak directly to the Ariekei; even then it is not always clear that communication is successful.
Added to that is the fact that the Ariekei cannot speak of that which they do not directly experience. They only understand words with sentience and intent behind them. They do not, for example, understand Language generated by speech synthesisers. They have no symbolic language, no polysemy (i.e. the capacity for signs, that is, words, to have multiple meanings). Metaphor is unknown to them although they can construct and therefore concretize similes (that is, make things for other things to be like, though how they know what it is they want things to be like remains rather fuzzy. Critically, they cannot lie or dissemble. They speak truth; one might even argue that they manifest Truth.
The question is, as someone suggested to me earlier today, whether this is a mangling of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that is, the idea that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world, or whether Miéville is going after something else. On the basis of only one reading, this jury of one is out on that idea, not least because I don’t think it engages fully with the idea of how language might come about in the first place. 
While keeping in mind the unique properties of Language, as they are important to what happens later, there are other aspects of this novel which I’d like to consider, not least Embassytown itself, and its position so far from anywhere else. It is a colony – somewhere out in the immer, there is a place called Bremen, which seems to have responsibility for Embassytown and the planet. Miabs – unmanned cargo ships – arrive from time to time, and so do manned vessels but contact with the world outside is fragile. The humans are heavily reliant on the Ariekei and the extraordinary flora and fauna of the planet, which contribute to their technological needs. The animate and inanimate blend unexpectedly; it’s a persistent theme in Miéville’s work, and here it produces some extraordinary low-key world-building. Embassytown and its environs are not flashy and hi-tech but they are consistently unfamiliar to the reader, although we of course see them through the matter-of-fact eyes of someone who grew up on the planet, which makes the whole thing all the stranger.
I like too Miéville’s concept of space, immer. Again, it might have been glossy, as we’re used to seeing on screen, but there is a flavour about immer that is more reminiscent of old-style navigation on sailing ships, a perception of space being filled with reefs and shoals, swirls and eddies, unchartable vastnesses, and a sense that someone has been here before because there are lighthouses, warning the voyagers. Avice Bener Cho’s struggle to explain immer is instructive; she too is stripped of language when it comes to describing her experiences beyond the planet.
Yet, quick as she was to leave, Avice comes home, bringing with her Scile, her husband, a linguist fascinated by the thought of the Ariekei, the Hosts as they are also known. For him, the unique nature of the Ariekei is the lure; Avice is less certain as to why she has returned, other than to please Scile. It is an unspoken rule that those who leave Embassytown and it is a small place do not return, indeed do not want to return once they’ve seen the breadth of the world beyond. There is almost a sense of embarrassment about her having come back, as though she has in some way failed.
But outside eyes are necessary for considering what is to come. For me, one of the most interesting things is Miéville’s portrayal of the colony of Embassytown and its relationship with the Ariekei, the Hosts, as well as its relationship with the outside. One might linger on the use of that word ‘Hosts’, with its implication of invitation and welcome. There seems to be no foundational myth about the settling of Embassytown, though we hear a little of how they struggled to understand the Ariekei and to communicate with them. The Ariekei move through the novel, strange presences (how to visualise them? I end up thinking of praying mantises, especially when the Ariekei unfurl their fan- and giftwings) exotic to the humans, unknowable.
At this point it is perhaps helpful to turn back to Scile, attempting to study the Ariekei. Scile is excited in a way that perhaps only a researcher can be, determined to understand every nuance of what is happening, but significantly, a researcher who finds that his subject is changing. We might see his dismay more conventionally couched in terms of anthropologists disturbed to find that the culture of the people they are studying is becoming ‘contaminated’ by encounters with the outside world, but Scile’s response is conventional enough, to determine to preserve the Ariekei and Language, despite what they might want.
And certainly some Ariekei want change; they want, for example, to be able to lie. They are trying to train themselves to lie although they find this literally almost physically impossible to do. Their purpose in wanting to do this remains not entirely clear but there is no reason why it should be obvious. Perhaps they will feel more able to communicate with the humans if they can do so within a framework familiar to humans. Either way one should focus more on Scile’s arrogance in daring to deny the Ariekei the choice to do what they will with Language. In fact, as becomes clear later, the relationship between the humans, Ariekei and Language is more complex than anyone could have imagined, in that used in a certain way spoken Language is addictive, and many of the Ariekei are in fact hooked on the slightly stilted renditions of Language delivered by the Ambassadors, who are not the facilitators they might have imagined.
And it is here that the novel is no longer about Language but about the consequences of language as the arrival of a new unmatched Ambassador, EzRa, precipitates a crisis among the Ariekei because of the way he speaks. It is perhaps the most unlikely cause of a revolution and this is the most unlikely of revolutions. Indeed, for much of this portion of the novel it is difficult to understand that a revolution is taking place. Instead, Miéville presents an extraordinary and sustained picture of a microcosmic society on the verge of collapse, brought to a standstill by addiction and by the power of words. Sad, elegaic, terrible and most of all melancholic, this portrayal of the end times of Embassytown is extraordinarily vivid. One is so swiftly caught up in it it is all too easy to lose sight of how one reached this point.
Only latterly does the story suddenly, almost wrenchingly, return to the issue of Language. Losing Language, losing culture if you like, is the key to surviving the addiction for the Ariekei, something many of them have figured out already. There are some tempting postcolonial interpretations waiting to be placed on this situation, not least because in the middle of everything it is revealed that Bremen has suspected for some time that Embassytown, that is the humans of Embassytown, were going to make a bid for independence and was plotting to hang on to the colony because of its position on the edge of known space. It’s not difficult, for example, to think of the Embassytown humans, people like Avice who have initiated the destroying of Language, as complicit in transforming the Ariekei into citizens of this little empire, given the recognition of the need for the Ariekei to learn Anglo-Ubiq (a name which itself says it all). I could go on but my Truth is that this novel needs more than one reading to fully appreciate what is happening in theoretical and philosphical terms, but at present one reading must suffice.
At the end of it all, however, I am not certain how successful a novel this is. It raises fascinating issues, it is amazingly atmospheric, the world is vividly painted, and yet, and yet, something is lacking. I don’t quite know what it is but in some mysterious way this novel has failed to communicate its Truth to me, perhaps because it is not entirely certain itself what its Truth actually is. I like it a good deal but there is something unfinished about it, rather like some of the stranger creatures that fill its pages. It lies in shadow, not fully realised on the page, perhaps because it cannot ever be.