A while back I was asking you all about your thoughts on genre fiction and said that I would try some books that were out of my normal reading ‘comfort zone’. The first book that I chose was ‘Embassytown’ by China Mieville which is said to be his most sci-fi of novels to date. I really struggle with sci-fi yet having read and really enjoyed his novel ‘The City & The City’, which merged science fiction with an edgy crime thriller, and came away feeling like I had understood a genre I didn’t normally. So I had high hopes that with China holding my hand (figuratively of course) through the unknown world of unknown worlds and life forms I might just find myself fully immersed in a new world of reading genre.
I’d best get this first bit out the way and say that to try and describe ‘Embassytown’ to anyone who hasn’t read it yet it going to be hard work. Not because the book is completely flummoxing, though I will admit I had a pen and notepad to hand for the first 100 pages or so but that could simply be me, but because there are so many strands and themes and, well, ‘things’ encompassed in it that to try to define its 432 pages in one set of thoughts is going to be pretty tough. I could simply say that I am not the biggest sci-fi fan and yet I finished it and I really rather liked it, but that wouldn’t be enough would it. So here goes…
In another world, Areika the home of many life forms, we follow the story of Avice. Avice has returned to her homeland of Embassytown after spending many years as an immerser in the ‘immer’, a substance or lack of substance that can send you from star to star “the sea of space and time below the everyday”. As she returns at the bequest of her new husband Scile (she has been married thrice before to people of both sexes), a man of language, who wants to observe the way Embassytown operates and how the three species it hosts all communicate and live together.
This return leads her to look back from her childhood onwards and an event with The Hosts (an alien species comprised of a mixture of of winged insect and horse who speak simultaniously with two mouths, only the Ambassadors can understand, and who cannot lie), that made her literally become a story in the Areika consciousness that helps them bend the truth in the future, for if something happens it is truth? Well thats what Mieville sort of implies and its an interesting idea. However on her return she finds that the homeland she knows is changing under the new rule of the Ambassador EzRa and something sinister has started and that something truly awful lies ahead, but in order to stop it Avice is going to have to do something that is almost impossible.
That is possibly the easiest, though by no means best, way of trying to describe the way the book starts. It’s hard to say more without giving away too much plot or discussing how Mieville throws in some unexpected, and often rather weird, twists as the book moves on. The thing is there are so many more strands to the book and for me the main one was the fact this is a book that is in some ways Mieville’s ode to language. The fact Avice actually becomes a story, or in fact a ‘simile’, I found fascinating, and this happens before the main story really gets started. I liked the fact that language could almost be a religion, though the book is also a tale of revolution.
Avice makes for an interesting narrator, if occasionally rather infuriating, as though you are told Avice’s ‘similie’ for the Hosts meant she had to eat something which caused her pain you never fully know what she went through. She does have this slight distance and mystery the whole way through the book even though you get snippets of her past and hints of her previous marriages etc she keeps something back. I always felt just a touch removed from her. Was this intentional, were we meant to question her as a narrator, is she a blank canvas on which we put our own feelings or create our own visions of the world Mieville has created? I was never one hundred percent sure. Interestingly it was characters like Ambassador EzRa that made the book come alive, there was something wonderfully creepy about the fact that unlike all the other Ambassadors these were not genetically cojoined twins with simulatneous thoughts and from the moment we met them the book seemed to light up, even if it was with a sinister and mysterious foreboding glow.
You see I am still left feeling that I haven’t actually done ‘Embassytown’ any favours of explained it well enough to do the book justice. I am sure it won’t be for everyone, and indeed the blurb does seem to miss out how much language is almost worshipped in this novel which could be a selling point, but if someone like me who knows very little about science fiction could get so deeply immersed in it then surely it’s got to be good, right? 8/10
This was kindly sent by the publishers.
A science fiction novel such as ‘Embassytown’ is unfortunately hardly likely to make it onto the Booker longlist simply because it’s a genre novel. This is a great shame because, to me at least, ‘Embassytown’ reads like a true celebration of language and words surrounded by an unfamiliar world that celebrates them too, surely that’s literature and what its all about at its most concentrated? Who knows, maybe this years judges could surprise us? I do feel like I owe this book a small apology because I simply can’t sum it up. Can anyone else who has read it do any better? Any other thoughts on any other Mievilles as I really want to read more, particularily ‘Kraken’, do let me know.