Sunday, August 04, 2013

Embassytown

China Miéville



In Embassytown, Avice Benner Cho relates the events of her life, leading up to and including the radical transformation of Embassytown and its residents. Embassytown, the book's eponymous city where the majority of the plot takes place, is a pocket of human-breathable space on an environmentally hostile (to humans) planet, Arieka. The planet's native inhabitants, Ariekei, are incredible bio-engineers whose language requires two vocal streams to speak - and a single living mind behind it. In order to accommodate communication, the humans on the planet have created Ambassadors: cloned human twins, raised to serve as interpreters to the Ariekei and ostensible leaders of the little colony, linked through empathic implants and kept identical through careful daily physical syncing.

The first third of the book largely concerns itself with the past - Cho's childhood and her relationship with her linguist husband Scile, while the remainder recounts the events following the introduction of an outsider Ambassador, EzRa, who causes Arikei society to fall apart.

I really enjoyed Embassytown.  There are lots of strange new (at least to me) science fictional concepts to enjoy, and I love language, so the sections dealing with Scile and the language of the Ariekei (simply called "Language") were especially interesting.  The format was a little unusual; there was a lot of jumping back and forth during the first third of the book that made it difficult to follow at times, especially given the convention of specifying time spans in hours (such as kilohours and megahours). Ultimately, however, the order of prior events is less important than their facts and consequences.

One aspect of the book that I particularly liked was that it took a relatively tight view of events, a tighter view than the reader realizes at the time, and then provided a twist that expanded that view - twice. This shows a level of world-building beyond the simple aspects of the single story, but also the skill and care to not allow it to bog down the plot.

While there were a lot of new ideas to get a grasp on, I found it more comprehensible than Perdido Street Station, although I have the impression they are set in the same universe. I would recommend it for pretty much any science fiction reader, but particularly those with an interest in linguistics.
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