Thursday, May 26, 2011

Reading China Tom Miéville's "Embassytown"

Most writers carry around an ur-novel in their head; it's the one they play just before they fall asleep. Smart writers don't write the ur-novel first; instead, they let the ideas percolate for years and write it when they've matured. Miéville has said in various interviews that the idea of Embassytown has been with him since he was eleven and in some ways his youthful imagining is obvious in the construction of the novel. However, it's not really a child's book, although it starts with scenes from Avice's childhood, but a phantasmagoria of geo-political themes and images. And it is a violent book; a book about empire, colonization, exploitation, and rebellion. It is also a book about language and sexual politics, grounded in a science fiction construct. Nevertheless, it is not a space opera; instead, it seems more like the metaphysical romances of the sixties, when politics, rebellion, race and drugs were major themes; books like Delaney's Babel-17 or, on the other hand, a book of philosophical space romance like David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus or the cultural anthropological space sagas of Ursula K. LeGuin. Mostly, however, the book reminded me of Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Nostromo and the American romances of race and conquest, like Melville's Moby Dick or Cooper's Leather-stocking Tales. And like these novels the theme of good and evil played out in an innocent natural paradise is evident.

Additionally, the novel is replete with word play but I will deal with only a few examples. The novel begins with Avice, the protagonist and narrator, on the planet Arieka, in a colony established by Bremen, on the edge of the immer. From its beginning the novel draws our attention to language and perception. Miéville sprinkles German and French words through the text and uses names to convey larger associations. In our history, Bremen, a free imperial city on the Baltic, was a member of the Hanseatic League; an economic alliance of trading cities and merchant guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe during the Late Middle Ages. By choosing Bremen, as the name of his colonial power, Miéville alerts us through allusion that he is dealing with a burgeoning imperial entity that views trade, exploitation, and expansion as its major goals. Avice's complete name is Avice Benda Cho. From her name, we see that she is multi-racial. There is also a possible allusion to the French political writer Julien Benda (La Trahison des Clercs). Additionally, the name of Avice is from the Germanic name Aveza, which was derived from the element avi, possibly meaning "desired". It was introduced to England by the Normans, and it became moderately common during the Middle Ages, at which time it was associated with Latin avis "bird". In regard to the word "immer," which means "always" in German, Miéville juxtaposes "manchmal," meaning sometimes. Avice, in her telling of the story, goes back and forth in time, heading chapters "Latter-day" and "Formerly." And he makes reference to Saussure's langue and parole, when discussing the language of the Ariekei and the Ambassadors.

The conflict of the novel arises from a failure of language. The Ariekei, called Hosts, and their human guests(or parasites)cannot communicate directly because the Hosts are polyvocal exots. They have two mouths. Overtime, the humans develop cloned doppels, Ambassadors, to communicate with the Hosts. Scile, Avice's husband explains the problem: "Their language is organized noise, like all of ours, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening." (p.55) Because of the nature of their language they cannot lie or write when the humans arrive but overtime and through interaction between the races change occurs; change that Scile chooses to see as a "fall" from innocence. Human language becomes a drug that intoxicates and almost destroys both the Hosts and the humans; leading finally to murder and mayhem.

Ultimately, the novel is about communication. Arieka at the far reaches of space is almost inaccessible. Only an ability to traverse the immer, a sort of deep structure of space allows humans access. The immer is to be understood in terms of language. "The immer's reaches don't correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on." (p.31) And at the end of this space is a city, lodged within a hostile climate, where only the bio-rigged technology of the Hosts allows the humans to live. It is the city, lodged like a cyst, containing a parasite in the Host, that situates itself within the imagination of the reader. This strange city disorients us through the almost hallucinatory images of the insect-like Hosts and flora and fauna of the planet that share their DNA. When EzRa speaks, drugging the Hosts, even the walls of the city respond to their voice.

Embassytown is a hard novel to describe. It is about colonization and exploitation, about freedom, and dialectical movement. The Host change but so, too, do the humans.

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