Del Rey: 368 pp., $26
China Miéville, one of today’s most exciting fabulist writers, starts off his science fiction novel “Embassytown” in mid-story and races forward, not slowing down for explanations. The barrage of terms and mysterious references is a command to hop to: Intellectual challenges lie ahead.
In what we would consider her mid-30s, Avice Benner Cho, part of the far-flung human diaspora, has returned to the planet where she was born. Brought up by minders in the ghetto of Embassytown, Cho, through a combination of luck and talent, got out. She became an Immer — a navigator needed to guide ships jumping through space — with demi-star status that has accorded her plenty of money, adventures and lovers. Cho has just married (third man, fourth time), and her new husband’s keen interest in the Ariekei, the native creatures of her home planet, propels her there with him in tow.
We see only the barest outlines of the Ariekei — they are very alien aliens, larger and stronger than humans, hoofed, winged, eyes like a fan of coral, and with two mouths that speak in unison. Cho’s husband Scile, a linguist, is fascinated by their Language, which is at the center of this story. It is formal, dual-toned and extremely specific, because to the Ariekei, words are not signifiers — they are the things themselves. The Ariekei don’t have the capacity for abstraction — they can only speak the truth.
As a girl, Cho was selected to perform an act for the Ariekei, an act that when witnessed became a simile they took into their language. Other humans, too, are similes and other acts of speech. But most, including Cho, can’t communicate with the Ariekei, who can only hear doubled voices. To them, the sound of a single speaking voice is not part of a sentient creature but a nonentity, perhaps static or chatter.
To communicate, the off-world humans who built and inhabit Embassytown have developed Ambassadors, clone-twins that can speak individually to people but together to the Ariekei. The Ambassadors, with names like CalVin and MagDa, are trained and technologically enhanced so that communication with the Ariekei is possible.
Maintaining Embassytown is important for two reasons: the planet’s unusual technologies and its position at the edge of unexplored space. Embassytown is sheltered by a bubble of breathable air within the Ariekei’s city — Embassytowners call the Ariekeis “Hosts” — and its infrastructure is partially organic, as is all the infrastructure of the host planet. “Beyond kilometres of roofs, past rotating church-beacons, were the power stations,” writes Miéville in the first chapter, signaling but not explaining the unusual technology. “They had been made uneasy by the landing, and were still skittish, days later. I could see them stamping.”
That landing is the arrival of a new Ambassador, who throws a wrench in the workings of Embassytown — and that is when Cho begins telling the story, unfolding forward and back as the novel progresses.
We learn dually about her childhood and her new affair, the history of the first encounters with the Ariekei and a growing administrative crisis. Off-world powers may have a hidden agenda, while a renegade group of Ariekei intellectuals is trying to expand Language. They are fascinated by humans like Cho even though they can speak to them only through translators. Cho has both an elite outsider’s access and a deep sense of place, although she lacks official status; though information is sometimes withheld from her, she moves easily between worlds. As the book drives into its second half, the new Ambassador’s presence threatens the balance between Embassytown and its Hosts in all aspects, from politics to the planet’s ecosystem.
It is a testament to Miéville’s skill that all these elements add up to a compelling mystery. And it is the signature delight of the book that the puzzle at the center of this vast and complex world is language. Miéville has a muscular intellect, successfully building a science fictional world around semiotics. For some readers, that will be enough.
Others may notice that his characters go somewhat neglected. Cho’s sexless marriage is perplexing, and its dissolution painless. Her connection to her childhood friends and other humans who have served as figures of speech rise up only when they are needed by the plot — when all their survival is threatened, the story lacks the power it might have had if we’d been given reason to care about anyone other than Cho.
This is, in part, structural; for all the doubling that appears in “Embassytown” (as it did in Miéville’s acclaimed 2009 novel, “The City and the City”), and for all her various lovers, Cho remains a character who is essentially alone.