crap i have read recently #27

zorakThe book reviewed today is a second pass at the work of an author who I have enjoyed in the past.  As usual, there are probably some SPOILERS!! below.

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Embassytown (Mieville, 2011):  Embassytown is a trading and emigration outpost on the planet Arieka at the farthest edge of known space.  Nominally a colony of Bremen, it is so far away from everywhere that its inhabitants rarely leave and the arrival of ships from elsewhere is an occasion of great interest and grand celebration.   Because of its location and the value of its trade goods it is a colony of some importance and it enjoys a remarkable amount of freedom from central government oversight.  Residents are primarily human with a smattering of other “exots” (non-human species).  The Ariekein natives, who Embassytown residents call Hosts, are tall,  insectoid, and biotechnologically advanced.  It is their tech that Embassytown trades to the rest of the universe.  Despite living so close to them, the Hosts are an enigma to most of the city’s inhabitants.  They are possessed of an unusual manner of communicating, called simply Language, that very few humans or exots can learn.  Genetically created and extensively trained Ambassadors are the only interface between the colony and the Hosts and they conduct all trading and negotiation.  Among the other intricacies of Language is that the Hosts are incapable of expressing anything that is not literally true.  To augment their communication the Hosts therefore create literal “similes” wherein someone performs a strange and occasionally painful action for them; these become concrete things they can use as allusions in Language.

Avice Benner Cho is a Simile and is known among the Hosts as “the girl who was hurt in darkness and who ate what was given her.”   She is an Immerser, one who can travel through the environment called the Immer, which seems to be a sort of alternate universe that joins the various parts of her universe together (I suspect other sci fi works would have just called this hyperspace).   This ability makes her valuable as a pilot and she is one of the few Embassytown natives who have left home and one of even fewer who have returned.   The ship that brings her home also brings a being of great wonder: an Ambassador who was not born and raised in Embassytown.   Accompanying her is her husband Scile, a linguist who becomes fascinated by Language and who eventually goes more or less native.  Shortly after arriving in Embassytown, the new Ambassador has an entirely unexpected effect on the Hosts, and Avice, her friends, and even the Hosts find themselves in a race to save the colony.

For the most part this is old school sci-fi and for the most  part it works, although I suspect it works less well for people who are actually linguists.   There are a lot of ideas in this book.  The primary one explores the relationship of language to culture and identity and the profound effect that changing one can have on the other.  Mieville aims a few jabs at those who seek to preserve in amber ephemera such as the fluidity of language and culture.  He takes a dim view of colonial politics, terrorism, small town social climbing, cultural meddling, and fanaticism.   Although it’s an interesting read it ends up feeling a bit flat.  Avice is both of Embassytown and outside of it due to her time offworld and her existence as a living part of Language makes her something special to both humans and Hosts.  It’s unfortunate that she remains little more than a narrator despite her managing to be at the center of every important event in the story.   The Hosts are fascinatingly alien but the other exots are barely described and are mostly incidental to the story.   Avice’s automaton friend Ehrsul, the other Similes, and the cleaved former Ambassador Bren seem like they might be interesting but are mostly unexplored as characters.

Overall, it was a good read.  It’s one of the books that really sucked me in as I was reading it but once I closed the covers and started to think about it, it didn’t really hold together.  I didn’t like it nearly as much as I did The City and The City.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on April 9, 2015.

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