Ever since the glory days of pulp editors like Hugo Gernsback and John W.Campbell, science fiction has been concerned to sing in praise of the kind of intelligence that devotes itself to solving practical problems. In addition, it has aimed not just to
invent a credible future world but also toshow protagonists who, having learnt to
understand their world, will know how tochange it. A result of this socially concerned
technophilia, has been that the genre sometimes manifests itself as part of the radical
libertarian Right and sometimes speaks for revolutionary Marxism. When he writes
fantasy – as in his previous novel Kraken (2010) – China Miéville’s politics are not
much on show, as he describes the sociology of small introverted sects, whether revolutionaries
or apocalyptic squid-worshippers. His new novel, Embassytown, however, is informed by its author’s Leninist Marxism in an altogether more sophisticated way.
Mieville’s sense of how contacts between cultures and species might work in practice is
informed by a realistic scepticism. For him,this familiar plot is not just about the intellectual
challenge of the alien, it also has to do with someone somewhere making an economic
gain. The small human enclave of Embassytown has been placed on Arieka in
order to provide a support mechanism for the Ambassadors, who have been genetically
modified to speak. Embassytown’s ethos –we gradually, but unsurprisedly, learn is
entirely at the disposal of its masters from the local mercantile superpower. When
things go wrong, as they inevitably do,we recognize situations that echo the current
situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rising of aliens against human colonists here owes
more to Gino Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers and to Franz Fanon theories of revolution
than it does to Hollywood films about cowboys and indians. And this original underpinning
helps the later stages of the novel stay as fresh as its opening.
If Embassytown is in the end no more than an intellectually sophisticated piece of space
opera, it is because Miéville is not convinced by the speculations of Wittgenstein and
Saussure about language games and signs,which he treats as no more than interesting
intellectual conceits. The Hosts are twomouthed,biphonic creatures who can only
hear their own language when it is spoken to them by the Ambassadors, clone-twins who
speak in concert, and cannot recognize any language apart from their own.
The storytelling in Embassytown is less original than its content. The human protagonist,
Avice, learns about her world by being born there, coming back as an experienced
adult after a career negotiating “the Immer”,Miéville’s version of the stock science-fiction
device of a hyperspace that enables interstellar travel. (“Immer” is one of Miéville’s
inventive coinages: it is like the sea, in which you immerse yourself, and is immanent
around the space we know.) Avice becomes a player in the social games of her home town,
someone everyone talks to but no one takes seriously. She is thus not just a useful viewpoint
for the reader, but someone who is starting to understand what is going on.
Embassytown’s convoluted hierarchies are lovingly and often amusingly described. The
Ambassadors and the bureaucrats tussle with each other for the power that rests in the
hands of the Bremen trade empire, which has created the Ambassadors. They are not clonetwins
but are linked by quasi-mechanical implants. The Hosts become addicted to
these new Ambassdors’ speech, and some Hosts free themselves from the addiction by
the terrible expedient of ripping out their hearing organs. These new, self-mutilated Hosts
try to rid their world of humanity, and things begin to fall apart. Only Avice’s decision to
stop simply hanging around and observing prevents tragedy.
Miéville wastes little here. Avice’s marriage to an ambitious bureaucrat is as important
as her not entirely platonic relationship with a female-identifying Artificial Intelligence.
As a child she is hired by the Hosts to be mistreated and thus provide them with an
objective correlative for a simile their language needs. Yet all of her interactions serve
to empower her, not least by making her see the importance of metaphor for proper
communication. Embassytown is the story of how the world makes her into a vehicle for
Miéville writes picturesquely and evocatively about aliens and spaceships – the
ramshackle yet elegant bodies of the Hosts are lyrically described, as are their cities, at
once gardens, networks and baskets. Avice has been changed for ever from the carefree
child we first meet by experiences in Immer that she can only recount in ways that make
them negative space in her story. The heart of this novel is the fact that Miéville is also in
love with intellectual process.