June 6, 2011

The Immer and the Out: A Review of Embassytown

Humans breathing off gasses from aeoli. Animals as sources of energy. Zelles that perspire electricity. Living biorigged tools and weapons. Beasts that defecate fuel. A town in the middle of an alien city. Welcome to the world of Embassytown.

On another world, comes a living city that straddles between the immer and the out. And from it comes a bagful of new words: biorigging, terretech, shiftparents, floaking, miab, autom, immer, sopor, augmen, exot, trunc, curio, biopolis, citynaut.

Never have I seen so many chopped words in a single novel (such as ‘autom’ which my brain tries to complete as ‘automata’) and never have I seen so many new ones invented from cropped words.

Clearly, China MiƩville had so much fun treating words like lego. Names weren't spared of this cut-half practice. After seeing so many names of characters being chopped into two constituents, I ended up doing the same thing to my name. I imagined each syllable as coming from each of the two hemispheres of my brain.

I swear I had no previous knowledge of Embassytown when I posted my inquiry about Exonoology. It was a few days later after I read that review by Ursula K. Le Guin that my ears, or fanwings, perked up. I suspected Embassytown had something to do with Xenoology.

Many science fiction stories may give you some pause as to how otherworldly beings think. But Embassytown explores the alien mind, their nuos, in relation to language and the symbols that come with it.

I remember my previous encounter with speculative biology such as that which I think comes from Alastair Reynolds; an alien reads by looking at two sets of symbols simultaneously from two different eyes. The information from each eye is merged by the alien mind to comprehend what was written.

We humans do the same thing for stereoscopic vision to perceive depth. But Mieville’s Embassytown takes it further in the domain of language. The Arieken 'words' are meant to be spoken simultaneously in a method called cut+half. Represented as fractions of words instead of numbers.

The alien hosts' communicative physiology is where the story started to build upon the conceptual level that connects Language with how the Ariekies perceive the world.

Simile was used to highlight the fact that metaphor influences how we think. To the aliens, simile is an actual living human that they need to reference in order to speak/think. That's where the protagonist's role comes in, Avice Benner Cho, an immerser-human.

Another class of humans are called the Ambassadors, the intermediary for communicating with the Arieken hosts. The ambassadors remind me of the conjoined twins who share brains. Each sibling can 'hear' or perceive the thoughts of the other, which makes me wonder whether their physiology can allow the to fuse into one consciousness, one mind, if they wanted to.

And the Ariekene hosts' Language is spoken from two vocal holes simultaneously (imagine talking and farting at the same time). Language for the Ariekei was both speech and thought. Truth. Hence they cannot lie.

Embassytown is cognitively engaging and it is a pure win as a soft scifi novel, and perhaps as an interstitial one, too. However, it could've been better. I longed for Mieville to describe more of the planet Areike, or more worlds from out of the immer for that matter.

At times, Mieville's writing has become difficult to read. I had to squint and re-read some passages twice. I had the feeling that Mieville himself was speaking Ariekan language (or got influenced by it).

Nevertheless, the novel is worth reading as it is very rich with metaphors and subliminal underpinnings. For a moment, I could glimpse conceptual references with the Bible (and the mode of reading it), starting with a character named EzRa. In short, if you enjoy thinking deep into concepts, then by all means, read this novel.

All in all, I love the novel's immer and the out, to which I can relate because Exoplanetology is all about the "out" and being immersed in the immer of otherworldliness. As such, Embassytown is a great work from an author who is now beginning to explore the science and the fiction of new worlds.


Rich said...

Does anyone have a glossary of terms for this book? I admit to needing one...

Rich said...

Does anyone have some sort of glossary for Embassytown? Speaking from both mind and vocal cords, I admit to needing one (a glossary, that is).