June 10, 2011

BOOKS: Embassytown, China Mieville (2011)

Embassytown is the human settlement on a remote world where the indigenous species, known as the Hosts, speaks a language (called, simply, Language) that is extraordinarily difficult for humans to speak. Those few humans who can speak Language are only able to do so because they have had a lifetime of training and special preparation; they become Ambassadors to the Hosts.

(As a sidenote, I love the idea of calling the locals "Hosts." Those early colonists were very sensible, using language in a way that would be a daily reminder that they were guests on this world. And that's a particularly nice notion to throw into this book, which is about -- among other things -- the uses and power of language.)

The Ambassadors have always been trained and raised in Embassytown, so the residents are surprised when the homeworld announces that it is sending a new Ambassador; from the moment that EzRa arrives, it is clear that this Ambassador has had none of the usual training. Hearing Language spoken by EzRa, who by all rights should not be able to speak Language at all, has some unexpected effects on the Hosts.

Mieville does not spell things out for you with a lot of early exposition; you're thrown into this world and expected to piece things together for yourself. As a result, Embassytown isn't a light, breezy read -- you do have to pay attention, especially in the early going -- but it's not a painfully difficult slog, either. Mieville packs more inventive ideas into one chapter than you normally find in half a dozen novels. Highly recommended.

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