It was a bit painful at times but thought-provoking none-the-less. Click here for my review of Embassytown by China Mieville.
Mieville’s latest book presents a compelling world where ideas about how different languages work can start a war and destroy a culture. The characters and political details are sometimes flat/sometimes real, but it is the musings about how language and thought intersect that are the heart of this novel. While Mieville manages to make the abstract urgent in this world, readers who enjoy systems of ideas will enjoy this novel most while those seeking concrete details about a new alien race will be disappointed.
Cultures collide when humans settle on a planet with an intelligent alien species.
It’s a classic plot but in Embassytown, China Mieville manages to put his own unique twist on it by creating an alien species that communicates with a language that is nothing like our own. The story is strongest when it plays with ideas about how language works, meaning those readers who enjoy the abstract will find it absorbing while those seeking concrete details about Mieville’s alien culture may find themselves disappointed.
When the Ariekei (the aliens on this planet) speak, their listeners hear not just the words spoken with their two mouths, but the thought behind the word, as well, the idea in the speakers mind. Mieville doesn’t explain how this happens, though it seems that some low-level form of telepathy is required for this form of communication. In any case, the ability to read the thought behind the words prevents any Ariekei from intentionally lying. In order to communicate an idea, they have to think the idea is true at the same time they say it with two tongues. They are almost completely incapable of saying something without thinking the thought at the same time, though once humans arrive, and they realize what lying is, the Ariekei are fascinated by the possibility of lying and eager to attempt it on their own.
The problem for humans attempting to communicate with the Ariekei is that they only have one mouth. Humans can create machines that imitate the sounds the Ariekei make, but those machines cannot imitate the thoughts behind the sounds, and without the communication of the thought, as well as the sound, the Ariekei cannot comprehend what they are hearing. They have no concept of sounds that can signify by themselves, or of words that can mean more than one thing.
Humans, determined to communicate, develop pairs of clones that are raised since birth to speak and think in unison. This requires daily physical modifications of the clones’ brains as well as intense training to accomplish. Only with these pairs of humans can humans communicate, because the clones have two mouths to imitate the sounds the Ariekei make and, through mind-links, they can think one thought in unison while they speak.
But of course problems arise. The humans introduce to the Ariekei a debilitating addiction when they manage to create a pair of humans who can speak and think in something almost like unison, enough to be understood by the Ariekei, but who are different enough to make it clear to the Ariekei that what they hear is not one thought but two different thoughts behind the word. The Ariekei grow drunk on hearing what should be impossible, words spoken with more than one meaning.
By the end of the novel, the Ariekei will come to understand the idea of language as signs that can mean many things, but only through a painful process. Only after the near destruction of the Ariekei from addiction to the lies and as the result of a bloody war will these aliens finally come to understand that they can use language that isn’t tied to a speaker’s true thought.
Perhaps Ariekei culture will become richer in the long run, because just as they couldn’t speak a thought without thinking it was true, the Ariekei seemed incapable of imagining what didn’t exist, only able to think what they could speak, and only able to speak what appeared to them to be literally true. For the Ariekei, freeing language from one-to-one correspondence with thoughts may allow them to think in richer, more complex ways, but in the short-term, they must first recover from the destruction that this new type of speech inflicted on their world.
There are interesting implications for the status of different types of minds in the book. Since the Ariekei can only understand pairs of humans at the start of the book, they don’t seem to believe that individual humans have their own minds, nor do they believe that the intelligent robots that inhabit this world could have their own minds, either. Similarly, Ariekei themselves are only able to comprehend the thought behind the minds of Ariekei in their middle years of their lives. Ariekei cannot hear the thoughts of older Ariekei; therefore they presume they are brain dead. Traditionally, these older Ariekei have been cannibalized by the younger generations.
Just as the Ariekei are wrong to think that individual people have no minds, the reader is left to wonder if perhaps the Ariekei are wrong to assume artificial intelligences and older Ariekei are non-sentient. Perhaps all these types of minds possess some sentience that the Ariekei have never been able to recognize simply because they cannot detect the thoughts behind the words.
Mieville has explored many of the themes in Embassytown before; doubles, addiction, and the mixing of two alien species with distinct ways of perceiving the world. While the book is slow early on, with the reader forced to work through many never-defined neologisms, the book becomes gripping when the readers sees the larger system that Mieville has created in this unique world.
Mieville’s political realities, his character, and his world are hit-or-miss; sometimes they are real and urgent, sometimes flat and dull. But these aren’t the heart of the book; it’s the ideas about language that carry the story. While alien contact is a classic motif in science fiction, no one else has ever broached it in anything like the way that Mieville does in Embassytown.