Embassytown, reviewed here, is a novel that just won't leave you alone; I've been thinking about it over the last few days since finishing it - for the first time, when the TBR pile is a little smaller it's guaranteed a reread or two - and come to an interesting thought or two.

Like all of Miéville's novels, or at least almost all, Embassytown is deeply informed by his politics; I mentioned a few elements of that in my original review, but there are some huge themes which really only creep up with a little thought and a little distance that came to mind, one of which was fermented by reading Alastair Reynolds' Terminal World immediately after Embassytown.  Both novels have a protagonist who is at the centre of the action, but not the centre of the action - Quillon is there to help the quest-narrative in Reynolds' novel, and Avice is even more an observer-cum-participant in Embassytown than that, since whilst there's a very limited degree of precipitation of action undertaken by her, so much more of the novel is her telling us what she's observing and how she's interacting with the realities, not acting upon them.  This is so deeply different from much science fiction and fantasy; normally, we follow the hero of a story, and they're the one it is all about, that everything revolves around. Both of these novels revolve around other people, and we follow someone close to the action, and see it through their eyes, but each character "wasn't the centre of [their] own universe" (Terminal World, p478); it's very well handled, and provides a very different perspective from the standard one.  Even more so in Embassytown: here, there is no single hero.  Everyone responds to things, some in deeply conservative ways, some in radical ways, some simply trying to adapt; but there are very few individuals who act in such a way as to be described as heroes - although there is a villain, there is no individual hero (and the closest we come are Hosts, so we can't see things from their points of view!)

The other element of the novel is violence.  Recently, Jo Walton wrote a post on Tor.com about the amount of violence in science fiction; Embassytown doesn't break the paradigm of the inclusion of violence, but it certainly alters it.  The majority of science fictional violence is committed by the protagonists against the antagonists, or by the antagonists against... well, anyone; and violence by the protagonist is necessary to resolve the plot, because the antagonist cannot - will not - give up and stop going to war against the protagonist.  In Embassytown, violence is carried out around Avice, and indeed Avice commits acts of violence, but not against the antagonist - or against only one antagonist; and not in such a way that it eventually brings resolution.  In most Miéville novels, there is no neat resolution, but violence buys much of the resolution that there is (noted, in passing, by Le Guin in her review of Embassytown) - but this is a marked departure from such things; there is no resolution - or at least, no neat, tidy, simple resolution that puts things either better or back to how they were before - and it is bought explicitly against violence; non-violence and pacifism are what create resolution, non-violence and pacifism driven by aliens who we can't understand and aren't our hero.

If those two elements don't demonstrate that Miéville has written a deeply interesting, deeply unusual science fiction novel in Embassytown, as well as a truly brilliant and, well, novel one, I don't know what could.
As longer-term followers of this blog will know, I rather enjoy the work of China Miéville.  Therefore, the fact that a new Miéville novel came out yesterday - in the pretty much untouched, for him, territory of science fiction - guaranteed that all other reading would go onto the backburner, or just stop, until it was finished.

Embassytown is, like Miéville's wider ouevre, intellectual, challenging, complex, brilliant and untraditional science fiction.  The concepts behind the novel are huge, fascinating ones - again, long term readers of the blog might have noticed that things like language and linguistics are concepts I take delight in; Miéville has in the past also shown a similar concern for language in a short story published in Looking For Jake, Buscard's MurrainEmbassytown is about two big concepts: Language, and its nature as representational; and interaction with aliens.  The former is absolutely wonderful, with a great depth of thought and intellectual challenge; Miéville takes the reader outside things we'll instantly understand and immerses us in a strange world with strange aliens and slowly reveals just how strange they are, and it's the problems and nature of that Language that really drive the novel.

The characters are decent, if not brilliant; whilst Avice, MagDa, CalVin, Bren and Scile are well-drawn and interesting individuals with a serious care put into telling us who they are - Avice is our first-person narrator (unreliable? I don't think so, personally), and she draws, through telling her story, capable and interesting portraits of the characters who make it up.  We also get some of the Hosts coming out as great characters, though mainly Spanish Dancer, as Avice interacts with them; again, it's a fascinating look at alien psychology (not so much physiology - Miéville chooses to highlight the linguistic and therefore psychological difference between the Hosts and the humans) and at the variety of personalities that can be displayed by aliens, in contrast to the common aliens-are-just-humans or all-aliens-are-the-same that science fiction goes in for.

The plot, finally, is in some ways just an extension of some of the concepts; it plays with the nature of fiction, of language and Language, of speech and thought, of thought and being.  Miéville is a deeply intellectual writer, and this particular novel is perhaps informed by his day-job; it certainly draws on a lot of academia's pet ideas about language.  This perhaps sounds like a rather dull, involved and alienating plot, but part of the genius of Embassytown is that it takes things like the idea of language as a drug and plays with them, intersects them with politics and survival, brings in Miéville's political thought (there's some serious critiquing of colonialism and imperialism, neo- and otherwise, throughout the novel), and roars along at a fantastic, character- and dilemma-driven pace, without turning anyone into heroes and keeping the reader interested.

As per normal, for Miéville, I highly, highly recommend this novel; Embassytown is a fascinating, challenging, thought-provoking but above all brilliant novel.


Some further thoughts, which occurred to me in the days after finishing the novel, about its content and some of the more different elements thereof, can be found here.

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