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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 Perdido Street Station recently from Goliath Books–I mean Waterstones in town the bookseller made the same pitch) while my son was gently 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 Perdido 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.  

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