July, 2011
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I have just finished reading a very resonating science fiction novel. It is China Mieville's "Embassytown". It is a fascinating excercise, you almost have to agree to your mind being stretched. One of the things I really appreciate about his writing is that MiƩville doesn't use the genre conventions which are so prevalent in this type of fiction. For example where other, perhaps less innovative, SF writers would refer to something they call "hyperspace" or "subspace", anyway you know what I mean, CM introduces a slightly different concept which he calls "the immer" and to go into the immer is to "immerse" - how beautiful that is - I kept hearing me say it to myself. It is quite a challenge too, because as a reader you have to get to grips with a whole new set of concepts - a whole different ballgown - as my wife would put it. And that is why it is mind stretching, and that is what attracted me to science fiction so many years ago. When we read SF we want to be challenged; we want new ideas, new points of view; we want to break through and play with the possibilties of understanding and existing in an alternative reality to the one we've become used to. This, in a way, defines not just good science fiction, but good fiction generally, and Embassytown is most definitely both of those things.

OK, the story is not really about space travel but it does take place on a planet way out on the edge of the known immer. A place difficult for humans to exist; a place with its own pre-existing civilisation, the "Ariekei" or the "Hosts" as the Embassytowners refer to them. Very cleverly China Mieville creates a truly alien being with these creatures. Very cleverly because you never really are able to picture them completely; you just have glimpses of them interms of their "fangwing", their "giftwing", their many "hooves" and their multiple "eye corals". I think that one of the reasons I accepted this is because the story is narrated by a human girl - Avice Benner Cho, who is both the main protagonist and heroine of the book. And she tells the story not as if to a reader separated by aeons, but as if to a contemporary, someone who is familiar with the world the story is set in. And by this device, CM can leave lots of detail and explanation out. It is, in fact, quite baffling at first, but as the story progresses you start to feel that you understand things a little more, and with that understanding comes no small sense of achievement, a sense of being accepted into that alien world.

And then there is "Language", or "The Language", which is central to the plot. If I understand this properly - the "Hosts" have evolved to this Language in which the combination of simultaneous, but different, sounds (words) made by two seperate organs (mouths) act as carrier waves for telepathic communication. Which means that the speakers have to be thinking the truth that they are communicating as they do so - otherwise the communication is meaningless. And this means that they are incapable of telling that which is not true. And then things start to happen which change the basis of all that.

This is also quite a political work. Exploring themes of imperialism, addiction, liberation and independence, as well as love, learning and diplomacy. Yes, there is an awful lot to get your head around, but if you've got the patience to stick with it, Embassytown is well worth the effort and the oftentime bewilderment that you're going to experience as you make your way.


SIMON RECOMMENDS:
"Embassytown"
by China Mieville