28 November, 2011Issue 17.4FictionLiterature

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Committed Fiction

Rhys Williams

EmbassytownChina Miéville
Macmillan, 2011
432 Pages
ISBN 978-0230750760


His pockets heavy with awards for his previous novels, China Miéville has returned with a new book set in a brand-new universe. Dubbed his first “straight science fiction” book, it forsakes the grime and grease of New Crobuzon (Perdido Street Station; The Scar; Iron Council) and takes us to Arieka, a frontier planet on the edge of known space, where humans (Terre) and the occasional immigrant alien live in the eponymous Embassytown. Set in the middle of a much larger, indigenous city, the human settlement survives only on the sufferance of the planet’s original inhabitants: the mysterious Hosts.

The nova (the points of departure from reality which drive a science fiction work), as always with Miéville, come thick, fast, and inventive. The Hosts speak Language; an impossible thing, where words “don’t signify: they are their referents”. They speak it with two voices, so communication between the humans and the hosts is achieved only through a small cadre of Ambassadors, native pairs of humans raised and engineered to think, speak, and be as one. The epic, apocalyptic narrative is centred around the arrival of a new and impossibly unalike Ambassador (plural), whose speech has terrible consequences for the Hosts and Embassytown.

The city itself is a small colony of a Terre power named Bremen, and much of its politics are patterned after colonial intrigues. This is an old-fashioned world; while space travel is possible through a kind of sub-dimension called the “immer”, it is far from smooth, re-introducing an ancient “sailing the high-seas” culture and ethos into this far future. Homo diaspora has spread far and wide, but communication through the immer is sluggish, amounting to a message in a bottle between planets, so the slick federations of Iain M. Banks’s “Culture”, for example, or Le Guin’s ansible-connected universe, are missing. This is just one example of something admirable in all Miéville’s work (see the madcap technologies of Bas-Lag for example), which is its grasp of how polished technology strips us of the excitement and possibilities of technology-in-progress. Most of us, even now, are reduced to simply using tools we cannot hope to understand. In literature, this tends to give advanced technology a deus ex machina quality, robbing it of the possibility of penetration by the narrative, of dialectical interaction with character and plot.

In contrast, Miéville enjoys the dirt and texture of the imperfect and organic, the grain of it: wood, bone, and flesh are more evocative than clean plastic. The technology of the Hosts is one of biorigging, where factories are gargantuan beasts lumbering across the landscape, shitting out little living machines, while vast contracting throats haul goods from country to city, to vomit them out at their destination. These living technorganics, hovering on the edge of decay, enter into a much more polysemous relationship with the reader than traditional technology would. They are useful, elegant, grotesque; a Rorschach blot that tests the edges of your attitude toward self and other, soul and organism: “My aeoli mask in a rare reminder of its biorigged life shifted, uncomfortable at the smell of the dead.” In an instance of pathetic fallacy, the fleshy buildings of the Host city sweat and shudder with the sufferings of the populace; to say that “the city is dying” in this world is to mean it.

Of course, all this strangeness is nothing without something for the reader to recognise and relate to, and the realism of the historical is where Miéville comes into his own. The rhythms of life in Embassytown are both alien and utterly natural in his hands. The social, economic, and political life of the city—both quotidian and mid-crisis—has a veracity and insight that makes one forget the estranged setting. The narrative itself is solid throughout, with each development coming out of the delicately nuanced dialectic between protagonists and environment, building all the way to an apocalyptic climax. This “realism” is on a level much more significant than that of appearances, and has been a strong point of Miéville’s work in the past (the much-lauded The City & The City is perhaps the best example). It allows the reader to absorb the imaginary quality of the world and form the necessary connections and sympathies on a social level, not just at that of the protagonist. As a result the narrative’s emotional and intellectual gambits, amplified through the estranging lenses of science fiction nova, are much more effective.

Thus, though the semiotic themes of the Host’s impossible language fascinate admirably, the book is not only a playful extrapolation of a clever idea. The narrative is that of the best science fiction, resonating with deep structures of the human experience, and blending the intellectual with the emotional. There is a powerful trope questioning our ideas of consciousness—between AI, human, and Host—a trope that is not clearly resolved, and whose ambiguity confuses our natural empathetic instincts. More directly, Miéville continuously manages to pinpoint some human desire, some hurt or need, and finds in the structure of his world the symbolic means to amplify that feeling back at us tenfold. There are moments of crippling sadness—a desperation for recognition in one character; the deep loneliness of another left behind by moving times—where the whole world seems to line up and resonate with the emotion, pushing the experience beyond anything realistically possible, but getting closer to communicating a truth in the process.

Ultimately, it is the complex operations of truth, narrative, and the imaginary in framing, shaping, and controlling the human experience which Embassytown takes as its subject. It is a narrative that encompasses the shuddering convulsions of any shift in perspective, and the danger of a fixed idea of truth, that can only come down from on high, and must disguise its inevitable partiality with violence. The book flickers between the possibility and impossibility of truth, seeming finally to come to a rest at a resolution much in keeping with the messy technorganic setting; that what is best is the messy process of constant death and regeneration, of necessarily failing attempts built on the already failed.

With such a topic at its heart, the text is always aware of its own position—a story about stories in an infinite weave of other stories. The narrator, Avice, is constantly making us aware of the constructed nature of her tale in a Brechtian fashion, allowing us even to know when she is using technique for the sake of a better story. Simultaneously, she hates it when another character, telling of his own experience, “modulated his voice and timed his delivery and turned it, true as it was, into a story.” The text is alive with an imagined self-consciousness, a fictionalising of fiction that in turn pretends and suggests the “reality” of the base text, and so allows Mieville’s strange world to slip, accepted, into our thoughts without resistance.

At the recent Marxism conference in London, China Miéville spoke about the category of “committed fiction”. About how it is often seen as “bad” fiction, because its too polemic, or didactic, to retain any real aesthetic value. Or that “good” fiction tends to be seen as above and beyond grubby politics, plugging directly into some higher plane of transcendental human values and truth. For Miéville, however, politics will out, and it is willful blindness to think otherwise. He considers his work, not as overtly didactic, but as waving a flag and having its politics imbued in its blood and bones. In Embassytown, the reader is invited, in the best traditions of science fiction, to see their reality as a fiction. To see how these complex ideas about the nature of truth, power, hierarchy, rebellion, desire, and freedom are manifest all around us. The physicality of the characters, the landscapes, the choice of technology, the immer; every aspect of the book is flesh to a powerful and radical perspective that rides the crest of the age, and beckons us on.

Rhys Williams is reading for a PhD in English Literature at the University of Warwick.