I finished Embassytown a few weeks ago. It’s rare for me to wait this long to comment on something I’ve read or watched, but I really don’t know where to begin.
I keep thinking of the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men come across an elephant and start to feel it. One feels the tusks, another a leg, another the tail, and so on. The blind men start to argue about what it is they might be feeling, but they lack the ability to see the complete picture, only able to quibble over what seem like unmatched parts.
With Embassytown, the complete picture is so incredibly large. It doesn’t feel like that from the start, as our first-person narrator, Avice Benner Cho, gives us the lay of the land. Embassytown is a small, human village amid the Ariekei on a distant planet at the edge of the known universe. The Ariekei have two mouths, speaking two words at the same time. This can be mimicked by machine, but a third element comes into play: the soul. The sounds emitting from the machine mean nothing without living, breathing beings speaking the words. Since humans can’t really say two words at the same time, special twins, Ambassadors, are bred and raised to function as one to be able to communicate with the Ariekei. It’s a little like trying to lift a warehouse with a simple lever, but it enables some communication between the two races. Cho is uniquely positioned in this little world. She is an Immer, someone who can help guide ships through vast regions of space due to special abilities most don’t have. She is also a living, breathing metaphor, “the girl who sat in the dark and ate what was given to her,” for the Ariekei. The Ariekei are incapable of lying; therefore, they construct metaphors from actual humans. Cho is in with the humans because she is both an Immer and one of the rare humans to ever leave the planet and come back, and she’s damn near a rock star with the Ariekei, who actually develop favorite metaphors much like humans pick a baseball team to root for.
Quite a bit of weirdness, eh? And that’s just the damn tusk of Embassytown. I haven’t mentioned the first Ambassadors who aren’t twins, how their language becomes aural crack for the Ariekei, how all of this leads to assassinations, massacres, war and global upheaval.
I was blown away by Mieville’s The City & The City, which, oddly enough, I found while looking for a copy of Embassytown. As rich as The City & The City is, Embassytown is just that much more vast and intricate, a science fiction tale that is unique in its vision. I haven’t done it justice here. But as the guy who only feels like he got a good luck at the tusk, this is the best description as I can give you of this particular elephant.