The OF Blog: China Miéville, Embassytown

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

China Miéville, Embassytown

Their language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel.  Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening.  A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself reached for that word, can be seen.  "If I program 'ware with an Anglo-Ubiq word and play it, you understand it," Scile said.  "If I do the same with a word in Language, and play it to an Ariekes, I understand it, but to them it means nothing, because it's only sound, and that's not where the meaning lives.  It needs a mind behind it."

Hosts' minds were inextricable from their doubled tongue.  They couldn't learn other languages, couldn't conceive of their existence, or that the noises we made to each other were words at all.  A Host could understand nothing not spoken in Language, by a speaker, with intent, with a mind behind the words.  That was why those early ACL pioneers were confused.  When their machines spoke, the Hosts heard only empty barks. (p. 55)

Language is the cornerstone and stumbling block to all social structures.  Without it, whether it be in verbal or non-verbal form, all communication would collapse. Yet the structure of language is confusing and fraught with potential tripwires for the unwary wielders of it.  Meaning, which in Lacanian terms is the relationship between the signifier (the sound or image produced) and the signified (the concept), depends upon a complex relationship in which substitution (metaphor) and displacement (metonymy) in which the unconscious desires and the conscious thought ebb and flow.  Lacan formulated this as Signifier (Sr) over Signified (Sd), Sr/Sd.  The two are never melded into one in human thought.

In reading China Miéville's recently-released novel, Embassytown, I was struck by how he intended to make the Language of the Host Ariekei utterly alien by having their thoughts be indivisible between Signifier and Signified.  This, to my relatively meager knowledge of SF, had never been treated in quite the fashion that Miéville proposed to do.  I was curious to see how Miéville would approach creating such an alien mindset and how deep he would explore the possibilities inherent in having such a radically different approach toward language and its scions (communication, structure, power).  Unfortunately, what I read and considered in Embassytown was a frustrating, disappointing read.

Embassytown is the name of a colonial outpost created humans from the diaspora power of Bremen.  Intergalactic travel is possible through the transverse of a superstructure-like entity known as the immer, through which the spaces and gaps of the manchmal are reduced.  This utilization of the German words for "always" and "sometimes" is intriguing (although, like several ideas introduced in the novel, it is barely developed beyond occasional mentions), considering that there are hints that this is not a Star Wars-esque hyperspace, but rather an apparent other dimension in which are embedded alien realities that most humans find it difficult to fathom.  Yet some people are born with a talent to "immerse" themselves and their starships into this immer.  Avice Benner Cho is one of these adepts and after a long time away she is returning to her native Embassytown, bringing with her a linguist husband who is fascinated by the unique case of the Ariekei.

Avice also returns to a place where she herself has become part of the Language of the Ariekei; she is the simile "the girl who ate what was given her."  Surrounded by the Ariekei, the human port of Embassytown is under de facto control of the Ambassadors, vat-grown human pairs who are enhanced in order to provide the dual "cut and turn" phrasing of Ariekei Language that the Ariekei can understand.  It is, on the surface, an intriguing development of a functional oligarchy, yet the rationale behind this structure comes crashing down further into the novel.

Avice narrates the action which unfolds over several kilohours (roughly equivalent to several months, if not a year).  She witnesses the efforts of the Ambassador duos, including a surprising, foreign duo, EzRa, to communicate with the Ariekei.  Despite the relative lack of external action, the slow revelation of human/Ariekei past and present interactions proves to be fascinating.  Of particular interest is the Ariekei effort to speak lies, which in their Sr/Sd-unified Language, they prove to be incapable of doing without the most strenuous of efforts to divide their thoughts between their two mouths.  At first, this scene made some sense, until I began to consider further the rationale behind this; I found it to be half-formed.

If concepts and the sounds and images bound to them are indivisible, with a resultant language that is devoid of symbolic speech (thus the need to employ actual persons and things to represent ideas), then it makes little sense for there to be lies birthed out; such things literally should be inconceivable in minds organized in such a fashion.  Yet Miéville seeks to explore this despite failing to make a strong case for why this should be possible, much less desirable, in the first place.  This is later compounded by the acute "addiction" that the Ariekei experience when they hear the différance in an Ambassador duo's speech and they crave for that truth/untruth in sound/conceptual meaning that they experience as they hear that dual voice.

The part of the novel in which this occurs, roughly from the halfway point to around fifty pages to the end, I found to be ridiculous.  Not just for the ill-explained reasoning for this "addiction" (which, one might think, would result in disorientation rather than dependent desire for an experience recreation), but also for the outbreak of violence that shatters the power status quo.  From the deaths of an Arieka and an Ambassador duo (whose roles are replaced in a thematically and plot-wise weaker fashion by less interesting substitutes whose late entrances serve to dampen plot movement and development) to the de-centering of Avice's role from an active participant to the more passive communicator of more distant events, Embassytown became less coherent of a novel.  Its central theme, that of the changes in Ariekei society due to the radical shifts in their Language under the influence of the humans, devolves into a haphazard exploration of semantic issues that never really seemed to be cogently argued or developed beyond the immediate plot needs.

As a result, the action surrounding this core felt herky-jerky, as conflict after conflict dissolved into chaos without a clear purpose behind these events.  The characters felt less "real" and more akin to pawns who were moved willy-nilly into place without much depth to their thoughts or to their actions.  Each of these unravelings stems from the failure of the Language theme to make a convincing case for such changes to occur; everything felt providential and not falling into a discernible pattern.

This is not to say that Embassytown is a total failure.  It did engage my attention, even if it was to spark declamations against the unconvincing developments.  Certainly the notion of Language is an intriguing one and hopefully other writers will explore the possibilities that Miéville fails to do here.  Embassytown fails at its apparent goals, but in that failure, it manages to fail better than several "safe," successful novels. 


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure it was de Saussure who coined the idea of the signifier/signified...

Lsrry said...

It was, but it was Lacan who placed the emphasis on the Signifier over the Signified.

Weirdmage said...

Thank you for this review.
I've read about 20 reviews of Embassytown and was waiting for someone to do something else than praise the imaginative concept and gush over Miéville.

Great work!

Wendi Maxwell said...

I disagree with you about the last section of the book. If you look at the story purely from the point of view of linguistics (and paired gender) then the end can indeed be chaotic. But Mieville's books always have an element of societal change or revolution, which is always messy. I like the way he transitioned from an ordered society to one torn apart by the introduction of new experiences, and the introduction of lies. In that sense, I thought it mirrored the real world much better than the fictional world.

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