I am in awe of China Miéville’s world-building talents. His SF presents concepts and ideas that are thought-provoking, engaging, and just plain impressive (in the “I wish I could have come up with this” category). However, I wish he would put as much effort and ingenuity into his story and character motivations. More on that later.
The Speculative Concepts
Since you can read jacket copy and plot synopses yourself, let’s look at some of those awesome concepts I mentioned (Warning: slight plot spoilers may follow).
- Miéville’s advanced sentient beings have two mouths, using a simultaneous pronunciation of their language that humans can understand, but can’t mimic—not even electronically. The aliens aren’t described in detail and Miéville allows the reader to fill in the gaps; I pictured them as looking like tree trunks with whiplike arms/appendages, another reader described them as insect-like.
- These beings, called the Ariekei, have a complicated language that can only represent truth and that which has happened (i.e., they can’t lie, nor can they use abstraction or symbolism—at least that would be a layman’s take on their language). When the Ariekei need a simile, they get humans, usually children, to act out or have acts performed upon them which can later be used as similes. The main character Avice is asked to be a simile, so she becomes “the girl who sat in the dark and ate what was given her without question,” although Avice doesn’t think she had it as bad as “the boy who was turned inside out.” Of course, no children are permanently harmed in the creation of these similes, but they let Ariekei use comparisons “like the girl who sat in the dark…,” etc. The reader’s suspension of disbelief might be strained by this, considering how advanced the Ariekei are, but Miéville makes it work.
- To eventually communicate, the humans create cloned pairs of humans, who can have a genetic empathy/telepathy between them (like twins often do). Their connection is then boosted with hardware-enhanced linkages, all so they can speak together and be understood by the Ariekei. The humans end up treating them as one “mind,” just as the Ariekei do. These clones become the ambassadors to the Ariekei because they can speak with them and negotiate issues of trade.
- The aliens alone might be fascinating enough to carry this world, but Miéville drops in other interesting concepts. On the sociological side, his world has different forms of marriages; for instance, Avice marries Scile in a legal, but sexless marriage. Also, spaceship crews, particularly immer pilots (loved Miéville’s concepts for FTL travel as well) seem to have a sort of higher social status. When Avice returns to Embassytown, now married and well-employed as an immer pilot, she seems able to pal around with very high officials in Embassytown.
- Everything is working well between the Ariekei and humans until Embassytown’s far-away government sends a really different sort of ambassador. This ambassador is made up of two unrelated men who have a natural empathic connection between them, which is then enhanced by the hardware linkages. The Ariekei understand them quite well, but soon the humans realize they’re addicted to the sound of the new ambassador’s voice. Then we find that the two halves of the ambassador hate each other, which leads to more problems… and I’ll stop there. Miéville, once again, builds an interesting puzzle although it strains credibility on an emotional level: I had a problem believing two people who had a natural empathic connection could hate each other so much that they’d risk all human existence on that planet.
The book opens, I think, right before the last point above—I’m hesitant because Miéville really jumps around in time. Once we realize we’re in Avice’s adulthood, we expect some flashbacks of Avice’s childhood in Embassytown—but the timeline in the first half of the book is so jumbled that it gave me a headache. I discovered I could only figure out the order by assessing the degradation of Avice’s marriage (yes, even platonic marriages can go down the crapper). I suspect this ordering was an artificial means to build tension, but it could also be deceptive. When reading event K before event J, I had the inclination to assume K caused J, but then I figured out that J came before K and besides that, they were totally unrelated. Readers shouldn’t have to work so hard.
I said I’d get to characters and their motivations. I assumed Avice was trying to do the right thing by the aliens—as well as wanting to survive until the next immer ship arrived. When it came to secondary characters, even important ones like Avice’s husband Scile, I couldn’t figure out why they took the actions they did. They seemed erratic; Scile gets involved in a violent conspiracy to prevent the Ariekei from learning to lie, then embarks upon self-destruction, yet later pops up and commits violence to let the Ariekei understand falsehoods. I couldn’t figure out if Scile was fascinated by the aliens or repulsed. Did he really find their language intriguing, or was his ego on the line since he was a language expert?
It’s okay to keep one or two major characters mysterious, but too many of the characters were just bizarre loose canons. I could pick a superficial or stereotypical motive (I could assume a politician, for instance, was self-serving), but then they just turned into caricatures. The Artificial Intelligence “friend” Avice has is confusing as well and, of course, the reader is never meant to understand the aliens. The unfortunate result: when readers can’t understand or empathize with characters, even a little, then they just don’t care about them.
Once again, Miéville has built an intriguing world that I want to immerse myself in, but has populated it with confusing and unlikeable characters.