Skip to main content

Embassytown by China Miéville

The stone that was split and put
together again.
Forgive me, dear readers, for opening yet again with a craven apology, but I am hamstrung with admiration for this book, tongue-tied by its completeness, and ill-equipped to do it justice. First the history. Searching for a book the buying of which would calm some forlorn disquiet brewing in me, I took my son to The Cowbridge Bookshop (don't bother with its website, the domain licence has lapsed, but do patronise) and chanced upon Embassytown. The owner talked at length about The Scar and The City & The City (funny, because purchasing Peridodo Street Station recently from Goliath Books–I mean Waterstones in town the bookseller made the same pitch) while my son was gentle molested by two overly aggressive terrier-crosses, and I walked out marginally less disquieted but also anxious to get stuck in. True to form it was three or four books later before it bubbled to the surface of my to-be-read pool. 

I'd always assumed Miéville was sci-fi. Or horror. Covers hinted at both, at neither, at something other, and measuring the bulk of Peridido in hours of my life spent I'd found other, shorter versions of temporary happiness in which to indulge. Then I bought The City... for a short road trip on the e-reading device, and was sold on his brand of New Weird. I quickly found it's not fantasy, or sci-fi, or horror, it's all of that and more, it's Carlton Mellick gore and H. P. Lovecraft odd and Philip Kerr noir. In Embassytown, Miéville adds Saussurean semiotics and mixes in all the political intrigue of a Roman senate meeting. It is glorious.

So, our narrator is Avice Benner Cho who is recapping her experiences of life in Embassytown, what amounts to a symbiotic city within another city, "a star within a circle", on the remotest possible planet in the federation or political alliance of what is known as Bremen. Now, this planet is not so far from it all in reality, in Euclidian terms, but in terms of the immer, the sea that flows underneath or behind or through all that is corporeal in this dimension, a permanent, ubiquitous but nonetheless terrifyingly dangerous un-place through which travel of immeasurable speed is possible by specifically selected and trained immersers, of which Avice is one, it is the edge of existence. The planet is inhabited by insect like hosts, the Ariekene, aliens with incredible ability to manufacture living flesh for any purpose imaginable, and who speak Language (deliberate capitalisation), a mode of communication that is devoid of ambiguity, despite being able to create similes with which to express new ideas, and speaks one soul directly to other souls, for want of a better metaphor. It is something perhaps like the word of God, impossible to understand and difficult to translate or approximate, the task of which falls to Ambassadors, two people who, through technology and serendipity, are able to speak the dual streams of sounds and words in a way which approaches communication. I told you I lacked the words to express this stuff.

Anyway, shit happens, something terrible, conceptually, through which the understanding of political intrigue from afar creeps, and suddenly the humans are a threat, a cancer to be cured. Facing annihilation, the only way to save themselves and their murderous Hosts is for Avice, herself a simile in Language (it gets explained, just go with it), to find a new way to communicate, which is impossible.

If this was Miéville's final book, I'd be happy to say he's finished what he set out to do, that this was the pinnacle of his achievements. It's damned awesome, one of those you race through to find out what happens and then despair because you've finished. He's tweaked English to become a far-future hybrid Anglo-Ubiq, proposed a new way to measure time as standard across worlds with differing diurnal cycles, and in the immer there is untapped potential for future exploration. The lives of Embassytowners are so vividly imagined you can see it when you close your eyes, biorigged buildings, altered wildlife, cloven-hoofed alien cockroaches eight feet tall, it's all a genuinely complete and satisfying novel. For a few moments at the start I grant you, I feared the effort of coming to terms with its new lexicon, but no detail is left to chance, and anything you don't immediately understand becomes clear as you read on. It's simply excellent. Those allergic to far-future space novels can be excused, but anyone else with an interest in language, its expression and evolution, or politics, or adventure, or terror, or reading for pleasure again, would be well advised to add this to your TBR pile. Plus, it scores innumerable geek points for obliquely referencing George A. Romero. 

Comments

How's about that then?

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.



The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly …

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, Jo…

Augustus Carp, Esq., By Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man, by Henry Howarth Bashford

So it goes that, for one reason or other, I was asked recently* to recommend a list of classic British comic novels that one might take on holibobs, to be read at the pool, on the beach, or in this case at a sprawling, crumbling ancestral seat in the heart of Ireland during a month-long fishing expedition.
Unfortunately, every suggestion I made was knocked back, either for reasons of personal (bad) taste or because it had already been read. I thought long and hard** and serendipitously, most likely due to having read this post from the most excellent Neglected Booksblog, but equally likely due to a ringing endorsement from Anthony Burgess at some point or other, I came upon Augustus Carp Esq, a book I noticed I had on my e-reader, although how and why it was there is anybody’s guess.
Penned by a notable English physician, one which any blog of note would not neglect to mention once was physician to a contemporaneous English King (George the something?), it is ill-in-keeping with any of …

The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills

It’s hard to say, when asked as I was recently at a meeting of local writers (who you can follow on Twitter if you wish), who might be my favourite author. If you look at my book shelves, you might see groupings of books by modern authors such as (WARNING - gratuitous alphabetical roll-call):
Paul Auster, John Barth, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Bernhard, Jim Bob, T.C. Boyle, Karel Čapek, Jonathan Carroll, Stephen Donaldson, Glen Duncan, Tibor Fischer, Peter Høeg, Michel Houellebeq, Bohumil Hrabal, Ismail Kadare, Andrey Kurkov, John D McDonald, Harry Mullisch, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Victor Pelevin, Thomas Pynchon, Jon Ronson, and Kurt Vonnegut (my usual go-to favourite when I don’t have the energy to explain).
In addition, you might just spot every book ever published by one William Woodard "Will" Self (minus Sore Sites which mysteriously vanished while moving house a few years back). Whilst a fan, and also willing to admit experiencing an embarrassing and sometimes di…