Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Recommendations: Embassytown

This should probably be a full book review, but I couldn't muster up the energy.  I guess some residual "lazy blogger" is still in my system.  Ah well; maybe it'll get close to that length anyway.  Embassytown is the latest book by China Mieville.  I just can't keep up with the guy--it seems like just yesterday, I was reviewing his last latest book, Kraken.  And just as Kraken broke new ground for Mieville as slightly more "down-to-earth" urban fantasy, Embassytown forges a new direction as well, taking Mieville away from fantasy entirely into the genre of science-fiction.  To be honest, there's not a huge difference; Mieville uses fantasy to construct fantastic and alien societies, and he uses science fiction in much the same way.  But with sci-fi, he can add cool hi-tech gadgets too.  And robots.  Gotta have robots.  More after the break.

My flippancy aside, it's a pretty good book.  The main character/narrator is a bit of a pain, as she's got a bit of a holier-than-thou edge to her, but it's the culture that's the main drawing point, and that doesn't disappoint.  The idea of the book is that it largely takes place in Embassytown, a city set up for the foreign aliens living with the planet's main inhabitants, colloquially called the Hosts.  The Hosts are a very unusual sort of species.  They speak by utilizing two sets of vocal chords simultaneously, which is a fairly big twist in itself--imagine the linguistic utterances you could come up with if you could literally say two different things at once.  But the further rub is that they can't comprehend the sentience of anyone who can't speak in the same way.  Using machines to create the second voice doesn't work, nor does having two people talk at once--there needs to be an empathic unity behind the utterances.  In other words, the two speaking have to feel the same thing for the Hosts to understand them.  It's the ever-inventive humans that come up with a solution: specially trained and cloned twins.  They create generations of individuals who are trained to think of themselves not as individuals, but as one mind in two bodies.  These people, called the Ambassadors, are the only alien presence the Hosts can recognize.

That's a pretty good twist in itself, as it creates a very specific subculture.  The "normal" humans of the colony grow up hating, envying, and respecting the Ambassadors, for the power they hold over them.  And the Ambassadors grow up as both human and something else.  But there's a further rub: unlike the humans who learn their language, the Hosts have no concept of figurative language.  For them, language is entirely a window onto reality, without distortion.  When they want to create a comparison, for example, they inform the Ambassadors, who hire humans to perform it, so it really happens.  One of the characters, for example, has to go every week and swim in a pool filled with fishes, just so the Hosts can say to each other, you are like the Man Who Swims With Fishes and have the comparison mean something.  And the humans who become similes gain their own celebrity status, as it means they exist for the Hosts.  As you might imagine, with no concept of figurative language, the Hosts had no concept of lying until the humans cracked their language.  That's also had an impact--since the establishment of Embassytown, there is now an annual bacchanal festival where the Hosts gather and hold lying contests, with great fame going to those who can bring themselves the closest to lying.  In other words, Embassytown is one of the rarest of things--a sci-fi book for linguists and semioticians.

It's not, admittedly, a perfect book.  In addition to the somewhat nerve-grating lead, the plot changes rather radically once the flashbacks finish and the main plot--the arrival of a new kind of Ambassador--goes into full swing.  It switches from sci-fi subgenres, from something fairly unique to something a lot more common.  (I don't want to spoil things too much, but think colonial tropes, and you'll be on the right track.)  But it's still a good book.  Where things get interesting, culturally speaking, is that it has been labelled a great book, via its nomination for the Arthur C. Clarke award, an award for British science fiction.  (It's also garnered a Hugo and a Nebula nomination, but that's not what's caused the controversy here.)  That nomination has struck a sour chord with previous winner, Christopher Priest.  Operating from his own blog, Priest has slagged the entire short list for this year.  Arguing that the award is meant to showcase the best representatives of the field, he starts with listing the books that should have made it, then goes into what he thinks is wrong with the actual batch.  Since I've read absolutely none of them except for Embassytown (Give me a break; I can't stay up to date on every facet of pop culture--a man's gotta sleep sometime), I'll focus on that one.  First, he notes that this, if he should win, would be Mieville's fourth Clarke Award.  (Perdido Street Station, Iron Council, and City & The City taking the other three slots.)  And this fourth win, Priest argues, would be making a statement about Mieville as a writer, and sci-fi as a genre, that's simply not true, as the novel is one of his weaker efforts (Priest's opinion).

He chides Mieville for overindulgence in neologisms, calling it a sci-fi crutch to use made-up terms that the reader has to puzzle out the meaning for.  There's too much talking in fairly interchangeable contexts.  And, um, that's it.  That's the full extent of his castigation, aside from some vague references to Mieville overusing genre tropes.  Basically, he feels that awarding it would be sending the message to Mieville, and the sci-fi community at large, that it's okay to just phone it in.  Aside from that incredibly patronizing statement, I can kind of see his point.  His main point, that is, not the specific points; I've read a lot worse when it comes to overuse of neologism--I'm looking at you, Neil Stephenson--and as a matter of personal taste, I prefer interesting conversations to interesting environments.  But it's certainly not Mieville at his best, mostly due to that second half.  The first half is as full of interesting ideas as anything I've read.  It's rare that an author can make me put down the book for a moment just to stop and appreciate the quality of his (or her) ideas.  Offhand, the only ones who do it on a regular basis are the aforementioned Stephenson, Stephen R. Donaldson, Robin Hobb, Italo Calvino, and Mieville.  And this book did make me do that, consistently, in the first half at least.  And that alone, I think, makes it worth checking out, Christopher Priest or no Christopher Priest.

Huh.  That wound up being pretty close to a full book review anyway.  Toss in a long quotation and some pretentious commentary (and trust me, it would have been pretentious) on the nature of language ala Saussure and Derrida, and you're there.  Shout-out to my roommate for drawing my attention to the book and the Clarke Award controversy.

Later Days.

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