It seems easy enough to say that Embassytown, China Miéville’s new far-future saga, is all about language. The novel’s central idea is about the calamities that arise from two vastly different cultures trying to bridge the central gap of how to communicate with each other, and the book spends just as much time detailing the little visual cues humans use to convey what we really mean—raising an eyebrow, tugging on a sleeve—as it does those humans’ attempts to puzzle out just why the Ariekei, the alien race at the novel’s center, is acting so strange after the arrival of a new ambassador.
But even more important to the novel is the notion of what is alien, of how what seems strange to one culture will inevitably be smoothed out by contact with another culture. Embassytown’s grand arc is about how the humans and Ariekei eventually both become more like each other. Where Miéville has created a truly alien race—one that can only speak in objective truths and uses a two-voiced speaking style humans have to be genetically altered to reproduce—as the novel goes on, what made them alien is worn away, as is what makes humans human. It’s about how every contact between races automatically arrives with necessary compromises built in. But Miéville doesn’t see this as unequivocally good or bad, simply as something that is. The Ariekei and humans both gain and lose tremendously in the process of finding a new middle ground, and one of the novel’s main plots is all about how coming to understand something that seems alien will inevitably make it less alien.
Embassytown’s central figure is Avice Benner Cho, a woman who grew up in the titular settlement, a neighborhood completely surrounded by an Ariekei city. The two races have found a way to live together for decades without incident, and though Embassytown is just an outpost in some grand galactic empire, it has its own vivid culture and way of life, as do the Ariekei, even if their way of life seems impossibly strange at first. (Their primary form of entertainment is festivals where other Ariekei try to tell lies.) Avice has left Embassytown to venture throughout the known universe, but her husband, a linguist, persuades her to return so he can study the Ariekei better. And shortly after she returns, the new ambassador to the Ariekei arrives, along with something that sends ripples through the Ariekei civilization and the relations between the two species.
Embassytown isn’t perfect. Miéville’s grand conclusion, though foreshadowed, is built on suppositions that work better symbolically than logically, and the plot piles on a few too many moments where it seems like all might be saved, but it’s actually lost. And yet there’s so much going on in Embassytown that it feels churlish to complain about a few small moments. There are a lot of grand ideas at play here, and Miéville’s richly metaphorical sense of how to build stories that seem to point to real-world political situations without drawing simple one-to-one comparisons is at its best here.
And if nothing else, the book’s arc is so solidly realized that even the minor hiccups in plotting are easy to forgive. There’s a real sense of unavoidable doom in Embassytown, and Miéville is careful to make no one in the book a villain. Violence and conflict is just what happens when two vastly different cultures come in contact, even if everyone involved has the best intentions. But after that destruction, a deeper, more lasting compromise may be achievable.