Avice Benner Cho grows up in Embassytown on the planet Arieka. The natives: the Ariekei, large bug-like creatures, are also know as the Hosts. The atmosphere on the planet is not breathable by the Terrans (Humans). The Ariekei have a rich organic technology that helps the Terrans live comfortably in Embassytown. The ‘Language‘ the Ariekei speak is non-symbolic, and although it has a component humans can hear and understand, the Ariekei can only comprehend Language when spoken by our genetically-engineered linguists, known as Ambassadors. Two Ambassadors (clones) perfectly sync’d and speaking the Language on twin tracks while the Ariekei read the thoughts as much as listen to the sounds.
The Ariekei are highly entertained by Ambassadors who can lie. It’s like doing magic. The Ariekei start to grasp that language can be more flexible when they start to experiment with similes. Avice becomes, “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her.” The Ariekei treat her as special, as a treat, a simile, but they don’t really see her as a person because they can not hear her when she speaks Language.
Avice Benner Cho grows up to be an immerser, a navigator of the Out, a parallel universe that allows rapid transit through our universe. Arieka lies on the edge of the known Out, so Embassytown is valuable for it’s position as an outpost in the next phase of exploration.
Avice retires to Embassytown as a floaker*. A new type of Ambassador arrives, not clones, but a technological/cyborg, which makes Language possible. Unfortunately, their Language turns all the Ariekei who hear it into raving junkies. The entire planet slips into civil war.
Avice and some friendly Ambassadors race to teach the Ariekei a richer more symbolic language, but will they be in time to save the planet.
*Definition: A floaker is someone who demonstrates a particular kind of carefully maintained laziness, maneuvering just enough to get where they want to be in life, but not going out of their way to be too noticed or have too much responsibility. “Everyone has some floaker in them,” Avice says. It’s a valuable survival skill.
The ideas in Embassytown are rich and interesting. Mielville created an interesting universe- too interesting. I kept thinking about the Immer rather than anything happening on Arieka. The book reminds me of Delany’s “The Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand.” Unfortunately Mieville wasn’t writing at Delany’s level. The characters in Embassytown seem flat and unsympathetic. The story and the writing are overly complex. In the end the theme of the story is about language, and the book should have been trimmed down and Mieville should have polished up this diamond. The book also seems to jump around with its themes: I thought I was reading a Alien race book, then a Galactic empire book, then a book on language, then it became a Zombie attack story, then a mystery, etc. If it had been handled better this would have been a plus, but the transitions seemed jarring.
For all its flaws, Embassytown was a fascinating read and I like being pushed as a reader.
A/C- (A for ideas; C- for execution)
Excerpts From The Book
The Ambassadors were created and bought up to be one, with unified minds. They had the same genes but much more: it was the minds those carefully nurtured genes made that the Hosts could hear. If you raised them right, taught them to think of themselves right, wired them with links, then they could speak Language, with close enough to one sentience that the Ariekei could understand it. – location 747-49
The Festivals of Lies had occurred almost as long as Embassytown had existed: they were one of our first gifts to the Hosts. – location 1131-32
“I’m Hasser: I’m an example. Davyn’s a topic. You’re Avice, aren’t you? You’re a simile.” – location 1286-87
The similes met in an amiably collapsing part of Embassytown, near our young ruins. I took a long route, walking for most of the morning, past many ignored and homeless automa. – location 1383-84
I, Avice Benner Cho, immerser, first a lover then an ex of CalVin (some Embassytowners probably thought it a lie, that, but it was part of me and was also true), advisor to Staff on out-business, – location 1439-40
We’d lived among gods–little tiny gods but gods compared to us, considering what was at their and our disposal–and ignored the fact. – location 2166-67
We are like the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her because we . – location 3474-75
That final mutilation, by one Ariekes of another, was a recruitment. If the victim survived the shock and pain, it was made another soldier, on the enemy side. “How does it receive orders?” I said, but no one could answer me. Perhaps there were no orders, only rage stripped of language. Can they think? If they can’t speak, can they think? Language for Ariekei was speech and thought at once. Wasn’t it? – location 3597-3600
With the boisterous astonishment of revelation they pressed the similes by which I’d named them on until they were lies, telling a truth they’d never been able to before. They spoke metaphors. – location 4131-32
He shook his head. Formally, he said, “Language is the continuation of coercion by other means.” – location 4216