I have a niche interest in “sci-fi books about language” (give me all your recommendations!) and so this one came my way. China Miéville is a pretty highbrow author, and this is a pretty literary SF book. It is pretty focused on its own theoretical linguistics and the xenology behind language. It doesn’t go so much for major character development or plot, but it’s not annoying in the way that it can be when a fictional structure is just a lazy device to deliver a sermon.
The focal point of the story is Language (proper noun intentional), spoken by an alien race called the Ariekei. Humans live peacefully with the Ariekei in Embassytown, on a foreign planet, but most cannot speak Language; Language is not word or morpheme based but exists as pure thought and ideas. If an idea has not been expressed, there is no Language for it. Crucially, Language has no metaphor; it is entirely literal, as the Ariekei and Language evolved without abstract thought. The major consequence, so to speak, of Language having developed this way is that Ariekei cannot lie. There isn’t a construct in Language that allows something to be described incorrectly, or not exactly as it is or was. The only way that the Ariekei can get close to figurative Language is by creating human similes. Actions or concepts expressed by the simile that are actually embodied by a real human means that there is a fixed meaning that Language can reference.
The main character, Avice, was selected to be one such simile when she was a girl: “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her.” In other words, she actually had a ceremony of sorts where she was hurt in the dark and ate what it was given to her, and with that sequence having taken place, the Ariekei can now express, if the situation applies, that someone/something was like “the girl who was hurt in the dark” and/or “ate what was given to her.” (The similes must have to get pretty specific since Language can’t just invent concepts.) However, just because Avice exists as a simile does not mean she can understand Language. The only humans who can are genetically engineered twin pairs who possess a unique mental link that allows them to speak sounds simultaneously, because Language is natively spoken with two layers of sounds. Those twins are called Ambassadors, and as they are the only people who can communicate with their planetary hosts, they occupy high-ranking positions in Embassytown government. There is a crucial difference, though, between the Ariekei and Ambassadors, which is that humans, being non-native Language speakers, can and do lie. Observing humans speak lies in Language delights the Ariekei, for although their own neurolinguistic development never evolved to the capability of creating lies, they can recognize them, and the ability to lie seems the most fascinatingly alien aspect of the human race.
Most of the front portion of the book tackles the complexity of Language and establishes a few philosophical positions among characters regarding the morality behind performing lies as entertainment to a species that has evolved to be fundamentally honest. There is one major plot event that everything builds up to, which is that a new Ambassador named Ez|Ra arrives to Embassytown who was not created as a genetically engineered twin pair, but rather appears to be two unrelated humans who can nonetheless speak Language together. The debut of this Ambassador among the Ariekei has serious consequences, however, because Ariekei who hear Ez|Ra speak appear to be immediately addicted to his Language. Something about his speech is wrong, and because Language IS thought to the Ariekei, wrong Language is wrong thought. The fallout from this event results in the first true threat of violence from the Ariekei, because those that are addicted go mad with withdrawal.
Overall, Embassytown is a fascinating, sophisticated, and completely unique book, even among “sci-fi books about language.” If I had any complaints, it was that Avice herself is a cipher of a character. She’s competent and doesn’t necessarily detract from the narrative proceedings, but she’s not really an active part of the story until the end. She has to do a lot of finding out what’s going on from people more important than her, which as the point-of-view character is kind of the minimum of what is required. As a simile, she has had more interaction with the Ariekei than most, but she can’t speak Language and doesn’t actually have a seat at the table in the Embassytown government. As such, it’s weird that she doesn’t occupy that privileged of a position among the hierarchy of humans in Embassytown, but she has enough of a relationship with a few key Ambassadors that they will pass on high-level information to her without that much fuss. In the midst of a crisis, a relatively average citizen is able to basically plead her way into the situation room. Like I said, as the point-of-view character, there would be very little story if she wasn’t able to do this, but I found the transition from “citizen of minor importance” to “key decision maker” a little jarring.
But as I said earlier, this wasn’t really a book about characters and plot as much as it is a thought exercise with just enough fictional narrative around it to make it interesting. I don’t think this is something that would appeal to the general population of SF readers since it can be slow and dense, but if that intersection of SF and language holds interest this is well worth the read.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I listened to the audiobook, and it was brilliant for how it brought Language to life. They recorded it so that the Language was actually spoken in the dual layers, as it was written to sound, and it was especially immersive to hear the strangeness of it rather than having to rely on my imagination. I’d highly recommend going this route.