China Miéville is a highly acclaimed British science fiction author. His novels have been awarded or been nominated for a number of awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, Locus, Nebula, and Hugo Awards.
“Embassytown” is a SF novel. The city of “Embassytown” is a human colony on the planet of Ariekei. The novel is complex and thought-provoking. It is a story of human-alien encounters, of political interventions and deadly consequences, that ultimately result in the evolution of the original Ariekei Language to a New Language.
Miéville’s novel won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2012 and was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula, and Hugo Awards for Best Novel.
Miéville invents imaginative vocabulary and a language that is part of the fictional world of Ariekei. The fictional language helps us to visualize the planet Ariekei, the lives of the indigenous Ariekei, and the humans. But the purpose of the fictional language goes beyond that.
As I read through the novel, what was fascinating for me was how Miéville is able to convey the differences in understanding between human and Ariekei: how language is used to express thoughts and different perceptions of reality, of truth and lies.
The Ariekei have no written language or automata as humans do. But the Ariekei are advanced in biotechnology. Their homes, buildings, tools, telephones, their “automata” , everything is “biorigged” i.e. made in part of living matter. Their remarkable biotechnology is valuable and important to the other worlds and planets.
In the the Ariekei Language, words are spoken simultaneously. Each Ariekei has two mouths: Cut mouth and Turn mouth. Their thoughts, perception of reality, and words are connected so that they cannot lie and cannot speculate. For them, to lie is to do the impossible. And they hold a Festival of Lies, to challenge themselves to lie!
The Ariekei cannot understand human speech. The only humans able to communicate with the Ariekei are the Ambassadors. Each Ambassador is actually two people: genetically engineered twin-clones, humans who are identical physically and mentally. With neurolinks inserted in their necks, their brainwaves are in complete empathy, and they are trained to speak simultaneously, so that the Ariekei can understand them.
From time to time, the Ariekei choose a human to represent a particular simile in their Language and through the simile they can communicate with the humans.
Avice Benner Cho is the narrator and the central human character of the novel. Originally from Embassytown, she has traveled and worked in the “immer”, a permanent universe for interstellar travel, to other worlds and planets. She is a simile, a part of the Ariekei language. Avice returns to Embassytown, after many years of working in the immer.
Embassytown is an important Immer outpost for the powerful state of Bremen in the outer world. To exert more political control over the outpost, Bremen sends a new Ambassador to Embassytown.
The humans and Areikei are confounded and faced with an impossibility. The new Ambassodor is very different from previous Ambassadors: the new Ambassador is two physically different persons, not twin clones. The two men can speak simultaneously like the Ariekei, but their speech puts the Ariekei into a trance, and very rapidly the Areikei become addicted to this new use, or misuse of their Language.
The result is deadly. There is escalating chaos, violence, and divisions among the human colonists themselves, and among the Ariekei themselves.
The Ariekei want the freedom to decide how to use their own Language — what to hear, what to say. Avice realizes the Ariekei are expressing dissent.
A growing number of Ariekei tear away their fanwings, so that they can no longer hear the new Ambassador’s addictive speech. However, these Ariekei also lose the ability to speak. Avice observes a new form of communication among them. It is simple gestures, pointing, “that” and “not that”. Learning to convey contradictions.
She contacts another Ariekei dissident group, those who had participated in the Festival of Lies. She teaches them to form and speak similes, metaphors. The new Ambassador’s addictive speech no longer has any effect on them.
Ultimately, a New Language emerges, where thought and reality can be expressed in speech, signs, ideograms, and a written language, that indicates a remaking of the mind itself.