Embassytown

China Mieville had been one of those authors I had been planning to read for quite some time, I quite liked the look of, in particular, Kraken, so I’m not sure quite why I chose Embassytown to be my first Mieville read (or should I say audiobook) instead.

Embassytown is sci-fi, Mieville himself is I think a fantasy writer (although his wiki entry says he plans on writing a novel in every genre, which is I think one of those great things about being a fantasy writer, you’ve got steampunk fantasy, western fantasy, sci-fi fantasy, you name it), but maybe then I should have chosen for my first Mieville something not quite so sci-fi, as I have a rather schizophrenic relationship with the sci-fi genre. Now I always think I love sci-fi, it is pretty much my favourite TV genre in everything from Battlestar Galactica, Stephen Spielberg’s Falling Skies to of course Doctor Who (although that’s not really sci-fi) and I tend to love any rare snippet of sci-fi the Beeb puts out from Outcasts, to Pulse, to Defying Gravity, to (and plumbing the depths of time here) Star Cops, even if pretty much everyone else slates it, ach maybe they’re all reading big serious sci-fi books like Embassytown, whereas I’m happy as long as they’ve got day-glo guns and a not too dense plot. It’s not like I’ve not read sci-fi before, I used to read quite a lot of Arthur C. Clarke in my teens and twenties and I like big serious sci-fi movies like Moon, Monsters and ummm other ones I can’t remember their names of (oh I’m so a die hard fan, can’t you tell?).

So with those slightly dubious sci-fi credentials behind me I always seem to forget that I actually don’t like reading most sci-fi, it leaves me cold, all that excess detail and belly button gazing, brrrrhhhh. Sooooo for a good first third of Embassytown, a novel about an outpost city where the Hosts (the inhabitants of the planet the humans have decided to go and build a city on) are these weird insectoid creatures that speak language through two mouths and can only be communicated with by specially bred twin Ambassadors, I was a bit bored. It was ok but I thought there was an excess of detail and not that much actually happening. Mieville goes into great detail on the nature of the language and that is generally the theme of the book, language and how it can be used with a theme side helping of the effect of colonisers on native species (although not stated explicitly there is a direct correlation between the Europeans and the colonisation of America and Australia and the effect on the native peoples). However Mieville does reward those who’ve sat through the first third of Embassytown with an increasingly faster, more plot driven story for the latter two-thirds of the book and I guess the world in which the story happened and the effect of the characters’ actions would not have been so ‘real’ if Mieville hadn’t spent so much time setting up the story to begin with . . .  so after all my whinging about sci-fi that goes on a bit for most of this post, yep you guessed it, I actually quite liked Embassytown. It’s not my favourite book of the year by far but it certainly hasn’t put me off reading more Mieville (maybe I will try Kraken next time). I think most of my criticisms of the book lay with me, in that as much as I proclaim to love sci-fi, I’m a ‘lazy’ sci-fi consumer and I prefer either easier plots or failing that a cinematographer to do all the hard work for me and to convey the alien landscape visually to me via film rather than words (actually I think Embassytown would make a good movie).

PS One final note about the whole audiobook aspect of this book, the aforementioned language that features so prominently in Embassytown spoken by the two mouthed Hosts (at least I think they have two mouths, I’m getting paranoid now that I’m going to get absolutely slaughtered by some die hard sci-fi nut who reads books like Embassytown for breakfast and will of course know the precise ins and out of the entire plot, it’s just the bit where Mieville explains how language works was in the first third of the book and my mind may have been wandering, which is a danger when you don’t have to physically read the thing, just listen), anyway the language gets featured quite neatly in the audiobook as the two mouthed Hosts and the two mouthed (as they’re clones) Ambassadors each say one part of the word or name in the language together, so a name, such as the name of one of the Ambassadors, EzRa, one mouth would say Ez and the other mouth would say Ra, at the same time and obviously with a bit of dubbing in the audiobook, hearing the narrator say it how it would have sounded like, with the Ez and the Ra being spoken at the same time, is at first a bit disturbing but does turn into a really neat device that certainly added to the story.

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4 thoughts on “Embassytown

  1. I read Embassytown, but I’d wonder at listening to it. How strange would it be to actually hear two words said at the same time and have to figure out what they are saying? Great example of something that’s easier said in a book than done in an audio book.

    I’ve read a lot of Mieville over the years, and weird is his thing. I’d have to say that Embassytown is the most Mieville book I’ve read yet. But, he certainly has books that are more mainstream and easier to digest. Give Kraken or The City and the City a try.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation. Yes, the two words at the same time thing was weird, good weird though I think (eventually), I liked especially how at the end when Spanish Dancer learns to speak Anglo, the fact that I could hear the difference (yet still hear the two voices) made it more poignant.

  2. Semantics: Language spoken in Washington, DC and by the one per cent. Requires ability to speak out of both sides of mouth at same time. Resembles language spoken in China Mieville’s novel, Embassytown, in which aliens actually have two “mouths.” Human ambassadors in pairs to the aliens required special training to be able to speak to and understand the alien speech.

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