Of Unknown Philologies

Embassytown Book Cover

The highest achievement of any work of art is to cultivate the senses of its intended audience.  Literature at its finest challenges the reader; it makes demands, and rewards our patience by opening our minds to new paradigms, an awakening that creates new channels of perception.  In this context, science fiction is a semiotic goldmine, allowing for metaphors outside of the quotidian imagery we are immersed in a constant basis.  At its height, this potential is expressed in the work of grand masters like Jorge Luis Borges, William Gibson, Tim Powers, Neal Stephenson and now China Mieville.

Cyberpunk in particular has a refined sense of self-awareness, clothing the ideas of postmodern philosophers, logicians and linguists in hypermodern or futuristic aesthetics. These are not new arguments or unique thoughts; in the last two decades, the relationship between science fiction and philosophy has spawned its own perpetually evolving academic dialogue. All of this, in turn, goes toward explaining the complexity of reviewing a novel like China Mieville’s Embassytown, though Mieville might be more likely to claim his work as part of the "New Weird."

In a fit of recursive storytelling, Embassytown is very difficult to summarize.  The text is its own description; the story transcends typical narrative structures to explore complex ideas of language and being, and the relationship between signifier and signified in a new way. This isn’t to say that a few brushstrokes won’t create a reasonable facsimile of meaning, but the imagery alone can’t convey the true depth of Mieville’s writing. Which, given that the conveyance of meaning is of apocalyptic importance to the story, means that this is one of those books that can only really tell itself. Writing this review is like creating a map of a map that bears the legend “this is not the territory,” in the tradition of Borges' "On Exactitude in Science."  Though, Given Mieville's leftist political leanings, Borges would probably chafe at the comparison.

Jorge Luis Borges

In a future so distant that it bears only the most tenuous relationship to the world as it is, humanity has come into contact with any number of alien species, including the Areikie, or Hosts. These creatures speak with two voices and hear with their wings, using a language unique in all known space. They can only speak words that are literally true, and can only hear words that are spoken by a (relatively) unified mind. To this end, humanity has spent generations cultivating the Ambassadors, pairs of individuals who are the only people capable of speaking their language, and that with great difficulty.

The main character, Avice Benner Cho, is a living simile, chosen as a child to enact a phrase that could be of use to the Hosts. The story itself takes place when Avice returns to her home, Embassytown, a human ghetto embedded in a living city grown by the Hosts. Cho has travelled the immer, a sort of hyperspatial meta-reality, drifting through her own existence, the “girl who ate what she was given.” Her return is accompanied by profound changes and tumult in interspecies relations. Without giving too much detail, words are spoken in a particular way, by particular people, that literally threatens the structure of Embassytown and nearly destroys Hosts and humans alike; their only hope is an act of guerilla semiosis

Pierce's Triadic Model of Semiosis

Like so many of the best (post)cyberpunk stories, Embassytown is a work of cryptographic fiction--the story is a cipher, demanding to be decoded. The production of symbolic meaning is a titanic event, literally embodied within the narrator and her companions. The text is difficult because there are no easier ways to tell the story without compromising its integrity. It might even be hopeless; metaphors are only so powerful. As Lao Tsu argued, “the Tao that can be named is not the eternal tao.” However, one of the lessons of modern computation and cryptography is the value of compression, that ideas can be condensed, and transmitted, and reassembled on the other end by the receiver. It is likewise the inevitable hope of any artist that the meanings encoded in their art can be reconstructed by the audience. The Tao spoken doesn’t need to be the eternal tao.  It only has to imply it strongly enough for another person to (hopefully) fill in the gaps themselves. 

Bearing this in mind is very helpful when reading Embassytown, which at the start is a bit difficult to read. Avice, the narrator, uses something like the argot spoken by the droogs in A Clockwork Orange. Mieville drops the reader into his world, no stops, no preparations, no explanations. In a style reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, the author employs terminology that is intuitively recognizable, like “automa” and “turingware,” just close enough to familiar words to imply meaning without becoming a slave to it. It’s an effective way to create a new lexicon, but it also places a lot of responsibility on the reader to keep up. Thankfully, that patience is rewarded, as the story and setting, the meat of the book, unfolds into something mind-altering and beautiful. The payoff is a literary thought experiment as philosophically rich as Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.