Embassytown is a real treat of a novel for the waning of the year: quintessentially Mievillean (if I can be permitted the expression), great speculative fiction that’s aware of the weight of every word and concept it elucidates, precise and yet sprawling within its (relatively) sparse 405 pages.
It is, in fact, classic hard SF whose central idea (and plot) turns on linguistic theory: the idea that language only signifies, it cannot refer; to oversimplify drastically, the idea that language is a kind of culturally agreed series of gestures towards certain concepts, rather than a description of ontological “truth”.
Perhaps a short summary is in order.
The eponymous Embassytown is a colony on the edge of known space, separated from its colonial power Bremen by thousands of hours’ travel through the immer, the sea of always underlying this universe’s now. The part of the town populated by humans (as well as a handful of aliens) exists, on sufferance, within a larger city, not built but grown, where dwell the two-mouthed, tentacly Hosts, whose air is inimical to humans. The Hosts speak capital-L Language, which is unique in the known universe and distinguished from lower-case-l language by the fact that it does refer instead of signifying; that, consequently, the Hosts are culturally incapable of lying or speaking in metaphor. Because Language is spoken by two voices at once (the Hosts having, remember, two mouths), and because its meaning for the Hosts lies not in the noises of speech but in the single intent behind them, the only people (human or alien) who can speak to them are the Ambassadors, pairs of clones conditioned through extensive training and technology to think of themselves as one person, one mind.
But in a political bid to prevent Embassytown’s impending break for independence, Bremen sends a new and impossible Ambassador on one of its rare manned ships to visit the colony. The new Ambassador, EzRa, is two genetically different people who apparently happen to have almost preternaturally high levels of empathy between them; and when EzRa speak, the Hosts perceive their voice as the product of both one mind and two, a to-them-impossible contradiction to which they become addicted, leaving Embassytown in crisis, surrounded by the drugged-up creatures on whom they depend for food and life support.
Our Heroine throughout all this is Avice, a traveller on the immer recently returned to Embassytown at the behest of her husband Scile, a linguist fascinated by Language. Several commentators, Abigail Nussbaum among them, have noted the emotional flatness of Avice’s narration: Avice’s motivations are obscure, her emotions strangely non-existent given the turmoil she lives through in Embassytown, and she always seems to be exactly where Mieville needs her to be to tell his story.
Perhaps I am biased (I am, I am; Perdido Street Station is one of my very favourite novels, ever), but I can’t help reading this affectlessness as key – one of the keys, anyway – to the project – one of the projects – of Embassytown, which is pretty obviously metafictional. Adam Roberts, in a review of the 2012 Clarke Award shortlist for Strange Horizons, points out that the nature of the “truth” to which Language apparently refers never gets scrutinised; the novel (fairly unMieviellianly, we’d be excused for thinking) unquestioningly accepts the idea that objective “truth”, the objective referent, actually exists and is accessible. The novel itself admits the impossibility of Language, in an attempt at inoculation-by-observation:
“Does it ever occur to you that this language is impossible, Avice?” he said. “Im, poss, ih, bul. It makes no sense. They don’t have polysemy. Words don’t signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language? How do their numbers work? It makes no sense. And Ambassadors are twins, not single people. There’s not one mind behind Language when they speak it…”
I wonder (I wonders, yes I does) if one of the novel’s main modes isn’t pastiche, given Mieville’s frequent structural experimentation in previous novels. That is, Embassytown’s main character is deliberately emotionally flat, and deliberately conveniently placed, because her predecessors in the grand old SF tradition of Stories About Finding Stuff Out are; because she’s an observer, a knower, a thinker, not particularly an agent or a human presence. And in its recognition that Language as it is described is self-contradictory and impossible, the novel is casting doubt upon its own telling, its own ways of knowing, its conspicuous non-interrogation of the concept of the referent becoming (uncannily and pleasingly) by its very absence exactly its own opposite.
This is not, I think, a case of an unreliable narrator, but something rarer and more interesting: an unreliable narration. There’s something very unstable going on at the heart of Embassytown, a kind of dialogue between different levels and modes of knowing. Probably the most obvious example of this is the immer – something I’ve not seen many people talk about, despite the fact that to me it’s one of the most interesting concepts in the book.
The immer, as I said above (probably somewhat obscurely) is the always to the universe’s now. There have been three universes (or so Embassytown‘s scientists believe), including this one, each with their own laws of physics, each growing and dying again, while around/beneath/over them sits the immer. It operates as a metaphor: a strange sea, complete with predators and ships and lighthouses. It cannot be experienced directly: what immersers “see” of it, through portholes in the ships that travel on it, is interpreted by technology into something comprehensible to humanity. And only humanity accesses it, experiences it, as immer: other alien races have their own ways of travelling between the stars, which in turn humans cannot access (even if they accompany those alien races).
Above this lies our universe, which, we are pleased to think, we can access with our senses and know as it is; as ontological truth.
Which is more true? The immer, which according to the logic of the Hosts is all metaphor, and thus all lie? Or the universe, which is temporary, its laws not immutable or inevitable?
The answer is, of course, at once both and neither. I think Embassytown is thinking about modes of knowledge, and modes and levels of truth, and how storytelling – the process of making-into-metaphor – can transmute truth.
It’s a novel that, consequently, demands effort of us as readers. There’s a scene in which Wyatt, effectively governor of Embassytown on behalf of Bremen, explains the political situation to Avice and her companions, who are wondering why Bremen has gone to such effort to prevent a backwater planet on the edge of space from seceding. At first, Avice the story her government tells, that “They never let a colony collapse…Never.” Wyatt corrects her quickly:
“If it were in Bremen’s interests,” Wyatt said, “we’d let you go, and send me to oversee it. We didn’t go to this effort because we “leave no colony behind.”” He looked at me expectantly again. Have another go.
Have another go: that might well be the slogan of Embassytown. The truth is multiple and multi-faceted, both hidden and revealed by story and metaphor. Have another go. Look again: the truths are out there.