Book Review: Embassytown – China Miéville (2011)


“I don’t want to be a simile anymore,” I said. “I want to be a metaphor.”


Avice is a human colonist on a planet at the farthest edge of navigable space populated by the Ariekei, sentient beings famed for their unique language, who returns to Embassytown after many years of deep space exploration to find she has become a living simile in the Ariekei language; the tenuous relationship between alien natives and human colonists comes crashing down when the Ariekei become addicted to a human ambassador’s way of speaking to them, sparking off societal collapse and war.

Really, it is impossible to summarize this novel in one sentence.

This is the second of China Mieville’s novels that I have attempted (the first being Kraken, which I did not finish). I enjoyed this one much more. It’s packed with weighty ideas about the development of language, our relationship with “the other,” and the foundations of societal stability. There is also lots of action, particularly once that stability begins to break down.

There was a lot to grasp here, maybe too much for one reading. Even by the end of the novel, I had a hard time picturing what the Ariekei looked like, and their world is a thoroughly unique and fascinating one where all the goods — such as houses, lighting, and even air masks for the humans — are biological entities that are grown rather than manufactured. That’s kind of a mind-bender right there.

Add to that the concept of the immer that Mieville proposes here, a kind of sub-space dimension that ships can navigate to cross huge distances and make planet colonization feasible. An entire novel could be devoted to exploring that idea alone. I wish he would write it, because I certainly would read it.

Embassytown is cerebral but readable science fiction, and highly entertaining. I’m glad I gave Mieville another try.

If you liked this book, you might also like: The Windup Girl by Paolo BacigalupiThe Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

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