Language – our language, not Language – is how we think and how we communicate those thoughts. It comprises our identity. Without it, without our ability to speak to each other and collaborate and share ideas, we as humans wouldn’t have survived. Humans evolved alongside their language, and the same is true of the Ariekei and Language.
Language, however, is unique in that it involves more than just organized noise. “When they speak they do hear the soul in each voice. That’s how the meaning lives there. The words have got… the sould in them. And it has to be there, the meaning. Has to be true to be Language.” The Ariekei are unable to lie in Language, and this is incredibly limiting to the Ariekei. Some of them spend the novel (and the years before these events take place) trying to break free from those constraints, even celebrating those who could at the Festival of Lies.
The Ambassadors – two people whose minds were just close enough to be understandable – are the unspoken rulers of Embassytown. They were constantly exerting the power they held as the only people who could communicate with the Hosts on this planet. Only they could trade with the Hosts. Only they were invited to parties with the Hosts. They chose not to assert to the Hosts that humans were speaking; that there was language in the world besides Language. The role of the Ambassadors, and their unwillingness to acknowledge the relevance and sentience of Embassytowners, is the root of many problems.
What’s interesting about the Ambassadors is that they never truly spoke Language. They made the right sounds and words, and they thought together well enough that the Hosts could understand them, but the meaning was never there. To the Hosts, Language was reality, truth and thought. Because they were sentient beings, the Ambassadors could communicate well enough, but Language wasn’t thought to them. Which means it was never really Language at all.
A lot of this book is exposition, but China Mieville is such an incredible world and character builder. He provides vivid descriptions of Embassytown and its inhabitants. He even does an excellent job describing the Hosts, who look and behave nothing like anything terrestrial. But because of all the time he spent setting up the drama and the turmoil, it took a lot of time and effort for the plot itself to build and to peak. Additionally, Mieville’s prose is gorgeous. It’s rare to see someone who is such a plainly good writing.
This book isn’t incredibly character-driven; it could have been anyone doing these things and fulfilling these roles. Avice’s role as a simile is important, but it could have been any simile who felt the way she did. It could have been any girl who become the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her. To be fair, Avice isn’t really like the other similes; they revere Language the way that it is, unchanged and always full of truth. Avice, on the other hand, is indifferent to the evolution of Language until it becomes necessary for the survival of Embassytown.
Give me a moment to geek about some of the things in the book: I’m impressed with the concept of biorigging, where every technology isn’t machinery; it’s alive. I was also amazed at Mieville’s ability to develop a language possible for humans to understand, but one they could never speak, and the depth to which he was able to develop it. It’s also very human of the characters to push so hard to communicate via a language that’s impossible for a normal human to use.
This novel gets pretty heavy. We lose a lot of characters, and we lose each of them for a different reason. The farther you read, the more Embassytown feels like a battle narrative than a novel.
- 5/5; will definitely read again
- Very important, very thought-provoking and very well-written
- Language, not language, is truth
- Ambassadors = trouble
- Lots of exposition
- I’m dying to talk to someone about this book, so if you read it, send me your thoughts!