Tuesday, May 15, 2012
100 Books #43 - China Mieville's EMBASSYTOWN
Not even a quarter of the way through this book, I was all but screaming my joy and proclaiming that Embassytown is the language nerd's Clockwork Rocket.* All the way finished now, all I can do is scream louder. Because I'm a language nerd, of course, in ecstasies at the idea of a species that communicates like Tuvan throat singers with "two sounds -- they can't speak either voice singly -- inextricable by the chance coevolution of a vocalising ingestion mouth and what was once probably a specialised organ of alarm."
Yeah, I'm one of those science fiction fans who nonetheless is always a little annoyed at things like universal translators (I defend Enterprise as my favorite of the second generation Star Trek TV shows because that crew had a linguist instead of a machine that automagically rendered all alien communication into perfect 20th century English), and at aliens that are not alien enough. So a space operatic tour-de-force that's all about the stonking variety of possible ways for seriously different species to communicate is pretty much a where-have-you-been-all-my-life find.
Except there's one problem: Mieville seems to have grown so besotted with this world of his (as indeed, who wouldn't be) that he almost forgot to tell the story, as if, say, he'd fallen so totally in love with that weird travelogue-cum-bestiary, Perdido Street Station, that he left out those hypnotic flying plot devices, the slake moths.
Or at least it seems that way, for about the first third of the book.
But hey, I did say almost. It just took him a while, and when he did get around to developing a plot, it was a doozy**, as is the main character, Avice. She's a native of the titular Embassytown, a human outpost on the world of the two-voiced aliens with the strange language. She's also a part of that language, for the Ariekei, whose language is completely and only literal and concrete, can't just make things up, cannot imagine things that aren't, can't lie. So they adopt other beings to perform acts and become figures of speech. Avice, for instance, is a simile: she is "the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her." Now that someone has done that in the presence of the Ariekei, they can refer to it, after a fashion. Another resident of the human colony at Embassytown is "the man who swims with the fishes every week" and has contracted irrevocably to essentially take a bath with goldfish every week for life. Think about that for a bit and let it cook your noodle.
More cooking: the Areikei, speaking as they do, with a language that works as it does, do not recognize it when other beings speak their language. However perfectly its syllables are pronounced, however coherently its syntax is emulated, if it comes from a single person (or a machine), it cannot be anything but noise; not only is the simultaneity of sound a requirement, but so is a recognizable mind behind it. A person speaking their language is only making half the necessary sounds; two people speaking in coordination are not one mind; a person and a machine speaking together aren't either. To adapt to this, the human colony has bred clone-pairs, called Ambassadors, that are technologically and emotionally linked so deeply that they are regarded as one person, though really they are like every couple you've ever met in which the partners finish each other's sentences. To the extreme.
Happy, hurty brain!
Avice is not just a simile, however; she is also an "immerser", one who can handle the physical, emotional and philosophical vagaries of traveling through this book's universe's version of hyperspace, the immer, the weird between state of places and things, which is not, as it might have been portrayed by another writer, a zone of nothingness or non-being; it has to be carefully navigated, has dangerous shoals and eddies, and none is quite as bad as the immer around Avice's home planet. So Avice is special twice over.
Make that thrice over; she's a serial monogamist, loving what's in front of her, as it were, and the vagaries of her love life go a long way towards causing the mess that is Embassytown's plot. A long way, but not the whole way, because this is a China Mieville novel, which means there is factionalism, here of a very abstract and cerebral kind, as it concerns the very nature of the Ariekei's language and one of its many unique qualities, namely that it is impossible to lie in it. Or was before the Festival of Lies started -- a kind of party in which Ambassadors deliberately fib for the entertainment of all, and then a few Arikei try to do the same with varying degrees of success. Or was before one of them started to get good at it and a philosophical shitstorm arose. And the less philosophical, actual violence.
That Mieville manages to keep all of this interesting, even, I would argue, for non language/philosophy nerds, is amazing. But then, we are talking about the guy who wrote The City & The City, which concerned inhabitants of two cities on the exact same piece of ground who were basically trained and conditioned not to notice the people or fixtures of the "other" city even when they were right in front of them, so it's not as great a stretch for him as for some people. The man loves to try on other people's clothes: Kafka and Borges and Dashiell Hammet for The City & The City, Iain M. Banks and Alsastair Reynolds' for Embassytown. But he doesn't just let them hang on him; he's an expert tailor; he makes them fit him well.
Whose suit shall he be borrowing next?
*There is cause to rejoice at the very least for this book's introduction of a fantastic neologism: "floaker." A floaker is a person capable of more than he or she is doing but not really interested in exploring that just now, thank you very much. It's about expending just enough effort and energy to maintain a certain previously achieved position or status (in Avice's case, its her minor celebrity status as both a simile and a former space traveler) and no more. It's not quite coasting because coasting implies a slowing and eventual stop. A floaker is more like a lazy skateboarder, pushing very gently now and then but mostly relying on skill and balance to keep moving. I'm pretty sure that I'm a floaker, and I'm pretty sure a lot of my readers are floakers, too. Vive la floak!
**The whole thing could well have been constructed from a phrase that must have hit Mieville's weird brain like a thunderbolt: "narcocracy of language" and his need to make a story in which that could happen.