Embassytown by China Miéville

June 28, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 3 Comments
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Embassytown coverAfter taking a year off, the other China Miéville is back. Last year’s Kraken was, whatever its faults, a product of the China Miéville who became one of modern fantasy’s most prominent authors by writing Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Embassytown, Miéville’s latest novel, is much closer to The City & The City than the rest of his work. I suppose for most people this will be great news: The City & The City was rapturously received in most quarters and won more awards than I’m willing to list here, and so far Embassytown seems to be getting fantastic reviews as well. I respected The City & The City but, alas, didn’t actually like it. Embassytown has a better story, but I’m afraid it suffers from some of the same overall problems that The City & The City did.

The initial section of the novel relates the backstory of the narrator, Avice Benner Cho, and in the process introduces us to the science fiction landscape Miéville has constructed. On the barely-explored edge of human-controlled space lies the planet of Arieka, inhabited by an intelligent alien species with impressive bioengineering but no space flight.  Humans establish a trading outpost there, a small city called Embassytown ruled by Ambassadors who theoretically represent wider human civilization, but who over the years have become a strange sort of aristocracy. Avice is a commoner native of Embassytown who escaped her simple origins to become a spacer and see the world, but she returns after marrying a linguist fascinated by Language, the language spoken by the aliens on Arieka. For most of the story Avice is basically an unemployed dilettante. Unlike her husband, she’s not much interested in Language, but when the interstellar human government tries to change the manner in which Ambassadors are selected, a crisis develops that turns upon the possibilities and limitations of Language.

Just as most of The City & The City was devoted to explaining the central concept of unsight at no small cost to its detective story, most of Embassytown is spent examining Language. Embassytown is science fiction, not a detective novel, and that’s a genre more at home with this sort of idea-heavy approach, but still the story ends up being more than a little dull in places. Avice spends almost the entire novel being completely passive, listening to what others tell her about Language, about the Hosts, and about Embassytown’s increasingly shaky government. Miéville seems to have anticipated this criticism, so Avice is proud of the fact she’s a “floaker”, which as far as I can tell is an unnecessary neologism for being passive. It’s true that in the climax, Avice suddenly becomes extremely active, but this seemed completely out of left field given how little she had done up until that point.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the narrator is more an observer than an instigator, Avice relates many scenes in what amounts to summary form, and in quickly breezing through such events she frequently amalgamates her feelings and those of other characters into the first person plural. It has often been said, metaphorically, that the cities of Miéville’s fiction are the main characters, but these long stretches of collective narrative actually go some way toward making this literally true of Embassytown the city in Embassytown the novel. This is an unusual approach for a reason: for all the insight it gives us into the crowd psychology that is important in crises, it opens a gulf between the reader and the story’s individual characters. Miéville gets a lot of mileage out of his evocative writing in these segments, but when the focus narrowed for the important, plot-critical scenes after long passages full of linguistic discussion and summary, the characters still felt like cogs of the larger story, robbing these pivotal scenes of some of their power.

But if, like The City & The City before it, this is a novel that is focused completely on its ideas, relegating the story and characters to supporting roles, what about those ideas? I wasn’t hugely impressed with the story, but there’s more thought put into Embassytown‘s central ideas than a dozen typical science fiction novels put together. So what’s Miéville up to?

There are three ways in which the Ariekei and their Language are unique. The first is that the Ariekei have two mouths and each can make sounds independently. Both “voices” must be used simultaneously in order to speak Language, so right away it’s physically impossible for a single human to speak it correctly. The second is actually not a property of Language itself, but of the Ariekei who speak it: they cannot lie. Lies can be expressed in Language, the Ariekei understand that in theory one could say something untrue, and when humans lie using Language the Ariekei more or less understand it. But something about their minds does not permit them to actually speak something they know is untrue. This means they are incapable not only of lies but also of fiction and even metaphor. They can use similes, but only if the referent is a real thing that exists in the world. At times this leads them to actually change things about the world around them in order to better express their ideas. One of the formative experiences of Avice’s life is when she “enters Language” by being used as the real referent for a simile: “There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time”. The third unique element again relates to Ariekei psychology. Not only can Ariekei not understand what the single voice of a human is saying, they don’t recognize it as speech at all, nor do they regard an individual human as an intelligent entity. Further, although human computers can synthesize two-voiced speech perfectly, Ariekei cannot understand that either. The only way to communicate with Ariekei, and in fact the only way to even get to the point where they realize communication is even being attempted, is to have two humans who are almost impossibly similar mentally speak a sentence together, providing the two voices Language requires simultaneously.

Now, there’s a lot going on here, more than I can hope to adequately summarize, but I’m afraid that last point strikes me as deeply suspect. Are the Ariekei telepaths?  It’s easy to imagine telepathic aliens, but it’s harder to imagine these aliens’ minds would be able to link with ours. The novel doesn’t attempt to explain this. Avice mentions synthesized speech doesn’t work and leaves it at that. I did my best to suspend disbelief, and since proper communication seemed to require extraordinary communion from the two human minds speaking, I figured telepathy was in play somehow. But later on, the fact that Ariekei can understand recordings of paired human speech becomes a very important part of the plot. What could possibly explain their ability to understand recorded but not synthesized speech? The only explanation I can come up with is an unpleasant one: authorial fiat. Although science fiction seems like the natural medium for an investigation of linguistics and thought, I can’t help but think that a fantasy setting would have provided better tools for Miéville to tell this story.

In any case, from this foundation, much of the novel is about Ariekei efforts to learn how to lie. I believe it’s implied this has long been an aspiration, but since contact was established with humans and they discovered paired human Language speakers can lie, the Ariekei efforts have grown more intense, to the point of holding festivals where Ariekei linguistic athletes compete to see who can get the closest to speaking a lie. I should mention here that the more I read Embassytown, the more I was interested in what sort of effects not being able to lie would have on their society, but this turns out not to be something Miéville is interested in. Confined to human viewpoints, we never get more than the vaguest possible sense of how Ariekei society is organized or the degree to which their thinking and communication is impaired by their inability to use metaphor or even ungrounded similes. A few characters believe that the Ariekei inability to lie is an indication they are in some sense prelapsarian, and that, for them, learning to lie would represent a calamitous fall from grace. This was another idea I found quite interesting, but again Miéville dismisses it without much elaboration. I suppose we can’t blame an accomplished author of fiction for being unimpressed by such arguments.

What Miéville is interested in is contact. The story takes place long after human first contact with the Ariekei, but from a certain point of view, that contact hasn’t truly occurred. Have the two species truly met each other if Ariekei do not realize that individual humans are intelligent, believing them to be unthinking biomachines like those they themselves use? Can the paired human Ambassadors really be speaking the same Language as the Ariekei if they can lie? Are the paired human Ambassadors even human themselves, for that matter, given the elaborate engineering required to make them think sufficiently alike to be able to speak Language and be understood? The novel explores these questions and leans toward a negative answer to most of them. Then, Miéville puts Embassytown under enormous pressure, forcing the characters to try to find some way of making a communications breakthrough.

In these circumstances, such a breakthrough isn’t a matter of stringing together the right sounds, but instead one of completely reorienting psychology. Oddly for a book that doesn’t shy away from colonial themes that put the Ariekei in the role of the noble, primitive natives and the humans in the position of outsiders exploiting their access to technology and trade, Embassytown takes it for granted that the psychology that should change is that of the Ariekei. The fact that the native Ariekei mind cannot express something that doesn’t exist, Miéville seems comfortable saying, is a defect that demands a solution. When a “cure” for the alien thinking of the Ariekei is found, the only disappointment is that it cannot be imposed on all Ariekei everywhere, but the narrator rather smugly comforts herself in the knowledge that the trade advantages that accrue to the Ariekei who have adapted to human-style thinking will allow them to out-compete their recidivist cousins.

I’m not sure what to make of this aspect of Embassytown. On one hand, it’s refreshing to read a novel where the protagonist triumphs by finding a better way to communicate, not by being especially effective at punching or shooting people. But this business of establishing productive communication between cultures by having one culture obliterate what is unique about the other seems rather, ah, old-fashioned. It’s so counter to modern ideas about multiculturalism that, as I write this, I’m mentally reviewing the story’s ending, looking for clues that the author doesn’t endorse what happens, but I can’t think of any, and Miéville’s past novels have never been so subtle in their politics. It’s been argued elsewhere that Embassytown is best understood through the lens of Hegel’s concept of self-awareness. I’m no expert on Hegel, so I’ll leave that to others, but I will note that if the story is trying to claim the native Ariekei are not self-aware, it doesn’t earn it. In this, Miéville’s purposes work against each other. As befitting a novel of contact, the Ariekei are seen only from the human perspective and are too alien for the reader to truly understand. This makes them that often attempted but rarely achieved science fiction triumph, the convincingly alien species, but unfortunately it also prevents any thorough examination of the affects of Language on those who speak it. Since we are never able to understand how the Ariekei live (indeed, to maximize the effect Miéville doesn’t even properly describe what they look like), we never find out what the implications of Language are.

There’s a lot of interesting ideas in Embassytown, but all this leaves me in the familiar position of respecting a Miéville novel more than I like it. How many authors have we seen hit upon a big success and then just try to do the exact same thing for as long as the they can?  Miéville could have used the success of his Bas-Lag novels to, well, sell lots more Bas-Lag novels. Instead, he’s branched out in all sorts of different directions. Even though I wish I liked the results so far as much as everyone else seems to, it’s good to see him being rewarded for taking artistic risks. I said it about The City & The City as well as Kraken and I’ll say it again: while this novel didn’t quite click for me, I’ll definitely be back for his next one.

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Kraken by China Miéville

September 20, 2010 at 3:55 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 5 Comments
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Kraken coverWhen Iron Council was published, I thought I had a handle on what kind of writer China Miéville was. While the themes of the three novels set in the Bas-Lag universe varied (as did their quality), they had such a distinctive voice that people essentially used them to define the “New Weird” subgenre. That King Rat had a somewhat different feel was noted, but that was a first novel, written when Miéville was quite young (although, incredibly, he was only 28 when Perdido Street Station was published…not written, mind you, published). I haven’t read Un Lun Dun yet, but I gather it was a departure, but it was a YA novel so some changes were understandable. But with The City & the City, there finally could be no mistake: Miéville isn’t content to settle down and churn out similar books. I think this is fantastic, incidentally, and it means I am always interested in his work. However, it also means that just because you liked one of his books, you can’t count on liking the rest. For my part, I really liked Perdido Street Station, absolutely loved The Scar, was disappointed by Iron Council, and felt The City & the City was an interesting failure.

That brings us to Kraken. The title refers to a giant squid kept on exhibit at a London museum. One day this prize specimen is stolen and the biologist who was responsible for studying it finds himself investigated by the police, named as the prophet of a cult of squid-worshipers, and pursued by a mostly disembodied underworld kingpin. It seems that the secret magic-using underground of London feels the squid is the foundation of an onrushing apocalypse, but no one knows how or why. In the course of discovering the truth behind these strange events, the protagonist and the reader are taken on a whirlwind tour of this shadow London.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis, this is an urban fantasy novel. To put it a little more crudely, I think this is Miéville trying to write a Neil Gaiman novel. Like Neverwhere, the normal everyday guy protagonist finds himself pulled into a parallel London where the supernatural is commonplace. Like American Gods, the novel’s metaphysics seems oriented roughly around the idea that believing something exists gives it some degree of power and even agency, even if it doesn’t (or at least didn’t previously) actually exist. Having already stated my feelings about previous Miéville novels, I guess I should now declare my position on the relevant portions of Gaiman’s work: I really liked Neverwhere and have reread it several times, but American Gods left me cold and I haven’t revisited it.

Kraken is about the end of the world and the feelings of unease and eventually despair that precede it, but despite this it is the least serious of Miéville’s novels (at least of those I’ve read, namely all of them except Un Lun Dun, although King Rat was quite a long time ago at this point). It couldn’t be more different than The City & the City in this respect. That novel was grim and unrelentingly focused on its one central idea. Kraken is light hearted and, while it never strays too far from how immanent the apocalypse is, veers wildly from one conceptual sidetrack to another. I suppose this is the China Miéville version of a fun and accessible novel, although this is still Miéville so it never quite abandons traces of horror and his characteristic dense prose.

But is it any good? Well, it’s pretty good. I think most would agree Miéville’s strongest asset is his formidable imagination and here he gives it free reign to populate London’s theological underworld with all manner of bizarre cults, weird creatures, and unusual magic. He never nails down any rules to the magic being used, and while that weakens the ending slightly, it means he can have people invoke magic in all sorts of different ways. The light tone gives him a chance to deploy a variety of jokes and puns, and while these are of course hit and miss they are, on the whole, an asset.

However, for me Kraken fell short of the mark it was aiming for. Part of the problem may be with me as a reader. Many characters in Kraken speak in British slang dialects that, as an American, were a little difficult to parse. It’s not that I didn’t know what was going on, but I think a lot of lines intended to be humorous fell flat for me because I was spending too much time decoding the slang. British readers and others more familiar with the London vernacular will probably have a better experience.

Along similar lines, I thought the depiction of London was lacking, but my experience of the city is unfortunately limited to Heathrow airport, so scenes set by unexplained reference were lost on me. Throughout the novel, however, the world building felt shallow and a little flimsy. There wasn’t a sense, as there was in Neverwhere, that this secret London could possibly coexist with the real thing. Neverwhere‘s London Below was safely out of sight and its interactions with the mundane world were mediated by homeless people, whereas there’s no metaphysical division between Miéville’s two Londons. The police are part of the real police force, the organized crime seems like it’s supposed to be like mundane criminal organizations, and everyone else just uses the occasional glamor to prevent anyone from noticing their unusual activities. How does all this work? Does Baron write reports to senior management like an ordinary officer? Does the Tattoo’s gang sell drugs and bankroll extortionate loans? For such a long novel…far longer, if I’m not mistaken, than Neverwhere…very few such questions are ever answered.

The characters are an even bigger problem. The protagonist, Billy Harrow, is nice enough, but seems inadequately motivated for the difficulties and extreme dangers to which he subjects himself. He tells Dane that he wants revenge for Leon’s death, but he otherwise almost never mentions Leon. He constantly wants to get word to Leon’s girlfriend who he barely knows, but doesn’t seem to think his family might want to know as well. Marge, meanwhile, accepting that Leon is dead, quits her job and immerses herself in the London underworld to…well, by her own admission, she doesn’t know what she wants to accomplish.

Dane at least has very understandable motivations throughout, but I had a different problem with him: I just didn’t buy him as a cultist. In fact, this is a problem with all of Miéville’s cultists. They’re people like you and me, just trying to get through the day, it’s just that when they go home they worship a giant squid, or something even less likely. The absurdity of an upper middle class Londoner kneeling before a giant squid beak is humorous, but it’s humorous because it’s out of place. In interviews Miéville identifies as an atheist, and I guess to him believing in virgin birth or reincarnation is just as fanciful as his squid cult. But there’s an important difference: established religions have the weight of tradition and, to varying degrees, society behind them. Giant squid do not. That doesn’t mean no one would worship a giant squid, but it does mean that someone who would do so has fallen pretty far out of step with society, to the point they really aren’t like you and me any more. There’s a reason cults keep their members sequestered and radicalized.

Of course, Miéville actually takes his cults-as-normal conceit a step further and has them all mix and associate. So not only do these cultists pass as normal in London society without difficulty, they interact with each other the same way rival political activists might: they argue, they share drinks, they make temporary alliances, and occasionally come to blows. Again, this seems like a misunderstanding of how cults view the world, or else, more likely perhaps, just a failure to apply any real-world psychology to the setting.

If all that wasn’t enough, there’s still one final barrier to making sense of Miéville’s cults: magic. At first, it might seem like this would make cults more likely. After all, instead of being stuck with mere rhetoric and charisma, a would-be cult leader can in fact perform supernatural feats to convince people to sign up. But the magic depicted in the novel is ubiquitous. You can’t walk five feet without seeing teleportation, a talking animal, or else people using Jedi powers. Somehow all of this is shrouded from mundane London, but once pierced the curtain falls away entirely and every magic user sees everything that’s happening around them. Since there seem to be no rules to the operation of this magic, everyone accepts that virtually anything is possible if someone is powerful or clever enough. All this seems very difficult for a cult worldview to integrate, given they must assert that they alone have access to truth and power. Surely the response to all this ill-defined magic is not faith but science? The scientist-thaumaturge protagonist of Perdido Street Station seems like a better fit than cultists like Dane.

This becomes particularly glaring at the very end of the book (if you are spoiler-averse you should skip this paragraph). For the ending to work, we have to believe several very outlandish things. First, we are asked to believe that removing Darwin would prevent evolution from ever being discovered, which is nonsense. Maybe the idea of evolution will be permanently blocked somehow, but this isn’t consistent with how the time fire was shown to work. Second, with no supporting material since his character was a cipher up until the final scene, we are told that the villain is a former creationist who, believing now in evolution, nevertheless wants to fool everyone into being creationists. I guess most readers won’t have a problem with that, but I needed a lot more reasons to buy it. Fundamentalism stems from the enlightenment and is motivated by, almost to the point of obsession, a belief in absolute truth. It would make more sense for the villain to try to create the God of his childhood, but this would highlight another weakness of the setting: if believing in things give them power, shouldn’t the major world religions be producing effects infinitely more powerful than tiny cults and minor criminals? The last issue, and perhaps the most odd, is way the book takes it for granted that eradicating knowledge of evolution somehow equates to the end of the world. Billy Harrow is a biologist and can be forgiven for feeling this way, but everyone else in the London underworld, including everyone who predicted a horrifying apocalypse, has almost no connection with science and seem unlikely to miss it. If this was Star Trek-style history manipulation then you could make the case that changing something so far back on the timeline would basically wipe out everyone alive today, but the history changes depicted in the book seem to work by altering the present rather than the actual past.

Kraken was an enjoyable read, but I felt that almost every facet of the story, from character to plot to world building, didn’t quite add up. I’m glad that Miéville is trying different things, though, rather than sticking with the “brand” that made his name. Apparently his next novel is a space opera, and I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

The City & the City by China Miéville

December 5, 2009 at 12:59 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 4 Comments
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When I heard China Miéville’s new novel was a fantasy / detective hybrid, I was intrigued.  I loved The Scar but was not impressed by Iron Council, so I figured changing gears was a good thing.  Alas, the result was disappointing.  The City & the City is artistically ambitious, but ultimately it ends up neglecting both genres that it hybridizes.

Without spoilers there’s not much to say about the detective story except that it starts out engaging enough but soon becomes extremely predictable.  I should probably give career detective fiction writers more credit…it’s a difficult form, demanding a surprising but retrospectively predictable ending.  Most fiction tries to hit that target, but with a detective novel, the discovery of the truth, along with the detective himself, is basically the big selling point.  Here I’m afraid the plot is not just predictable but very tame, a surprising failing in a Miéville novel.  The detective character isn’t annoying but not a major presence either, as he is required to be the reader’s window into this alternate world instead of an interesting voice.

What about the fantasy side?  There isn’t much fantasy here, actually.  This is a one-difference world, albeit with quite a bit of worldbuilding based off that difference.  Compared to the detective elements, it was more interesting, but in the end I felt the explanation to the setting’s major mystery, Breach, didn’t add up.

But the elephant in the room is the one way in which the book’s setting is different from our world: the joined cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma.  The cities are intertwined geographically but separated…well, I’m not sure there’s a good word for how they are separated.  Politically?  Functionally?  And it’s more than intertwined.  Physically there’s one city.  Some areas are wholly in Beszel, others are wholly in Ul Qoma.  Some streets have one sidewalk in Beszel and the one across the street is in Ul Qoma.  And the streets themselves are often in both at the same time.  But despite this proximity, the citizens of one city never go into the other, and in fact never acknowledge the other’s existence.  They are taught from an early age to “unsee” the other city whenever some aspect of it enters their visual field.

That’s quite a mouthful, and Miéville spends the first two thirds of the book trying to defend this situation and convince you it’s possible, even close to realistic.  And reading the book, it’s clear that he’s getting at something interesting here.  When a typical businessman walks down a city street, doesn’t he do his best to “unsee” the homeless man sleeping on the bench?  Even though poor people and rich people almost always live in different areas, there’s close proximity and even overlap in areas…

But this is not an allegorical novel.  Beszel, although poorer than Ul Qoma, is not an allegory for poor people.  Ul Qoma, although Muslim, is not an allegory for the Muslim world.  For the novel to really work, we have to accept the novel’s internal reality.  Or to put it another way, to really listen to what the novel is saying about human nature, we must first accept that humans could create and maintain the novel’s world.

For me, that proved impossible.  It’s too much of a leap from ignoring a homeless person to ignoring half the vehicular traffic on the very street you yourself are driving on.  Yes, Miéville doesn’t paint the system was working perfectly, but I felt such a system wouldn’t work as well as depicted, and more importantly even if successfully attempted could never last more than a couple years (in the book the cities have been joined for many centuries).  But even worse, Miéville tries so hard to sell this notion that in the end a huge portion of the novel’s prose is dedicated to fighting for this (for me) lost cause, much to the detriment of the characters and plot.

I’ll say this for the book: it might have failed with me, but it was an ambitious failure.  Better to fail through overreaching than from insufficient aspirations.  I don’t recommend this one but I’ll be eagerly awaiting Miéville’s next novel.

Iron Council by China Miéville

July 28, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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It’s always disappointing when a young, up-and-coming author seems to take a step back. Since in the SF genre in particular old authors have a well-established tendency to fall off the literary turnip truck, fans watch hawkishly for any signs of weakness on the part of their favorite authors. I wouldn’t call Iron Council a sign of weakness per se. Miéville didn’t take a step back with this novel so much as convince me that The Scar might have been a bit of an accident. Miéville’s strengths as a writer have always been his vigorous imagination and his evocative description. Both these traits are again on display here, but Miéville set the standard so high in Perdido Street Station and The Scar that I think any story that involved New Crobuzon again was bound to be a bit of a disappointment…Miéville is most exciting when he is blazing new territory.

What makes The Scar Miéville’s best work is its interesting characters and tight plot. Perdido was a bloated, loosely woven novel where the main plot didn’t begin until hundreds of pages into the book. Iron Council is also a bloated, loosely woven novel. The plot begins more or less right away, but moves exceedingly slowly for a long time. It’s also a fair amount shorter than the previous two Bas Lag books and has more text that feels like padding than both put together. There’s nothing wrong with a slow buildup, but unfortunately Miéville isn’t able to follow through. The resolution, which I will not discuss here in this non-spoiler review, was not satisfying.

The other characteristic of Iron Council is it is Miéville’s most ideological book yet. Many of his fans probably did not realize he is a Marxist, but it’s pretty obvious here. There’s nothing wrong with holding such political beliefs or letting them tint your narrative as they did in his previous books. However, here he brings his ideas to the forefront, and if this book wasn’t so focused on New Crobuzon at the expense of the Council mentioned in the title it would almost be a utopian novel along the lines of Walden Two. The trouble with all of this is Miéville writes fantasy. The genre gives his imagination carte blanche. However, by introducing strong political themes he forces the reader to evaluate them within the context of his world. Suddenly his world doesn’t hold together nearly as well as it did. I’m not going to try to do a point by point critique here, but some questions: Where does the food for New Crobuzon’s extremely dense population come from if the surrounding land is sparsely populated wastes? How does the ruthlessly totalitarian government of New Crobuzon find enough willingly complicit servants to staff its massive bureaucratic and enforcement mechanisms? Finally, and being vague to not spoil anything, the city seems to be able to produce troops out of a hat in the last third of the book, despite supposedly being on the wrong end of a gruesome and morale-sapping war.

Iron Council is not a bad book, but I hold Miéville to high standards. His character work here (not discussed due to spoilers) is perhaps the worst of his four published novels, and it may also be the least imaginative of his books. Nevertheless it is still good enough relative to the field that it is a book I would recommend, though not as anyone’s first Miéville book. Any of his previous three would be a better place to start.

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