Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure in the far future. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.
Like all of Miéville’s additions to the literary atlas, this place seems at once wildly imagined from scratch and phantasmagorically drawn from life … Language is the principal theme of Embassytown, a particularly deep-thinking entry in a tradition of using the speculative resources of science fiction to address how language shapes culture and society. Miéville joins Jack Vance, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzette Haden Elgin, Samuel Delany and others in this project. The drama of Embassytown develops as the Ariekei learn to lie and are beset by violent addiction to a new kind of speech … Embassytown has the feel of a word-puzzle, and much of the pleasure of figuring out the logic of the world and the story comes from gradually catching the full resonance of its invented and imported words.
The alien language, which is the novel’s driving conceit, is plainly impossible, which is the point: like H.G. Wells in The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau, Miéville takes an impossible proposition and works through its implications with rigour. At some moments the novel resembles a thought-experiment in semiotics, except that it’s at least as interested in the tangential oddities its premise entails: because the Hosts can’t lie, they can’t use metaphors, and their limited lexicon of figurative language consists of laborious similes that must be manufactured in reality before they can be spoken … Embassytown is an SF novel through and through, unironically committed to its own narrative, and serious, like a no-nonsense B-movie, about providing the discerning genre fan with the monsters she’s paid to see. There’s no reason this should preclude an interest in the manner of a story’s telling.
Mieville’s ambitions here are grand, his imagination fertile. He’s clearly having fun describing things such as bio-rigged technology that’s part living being, part machine: ‘chewing beasts, which would defecate fuel and components.’ And that joy translates to the reader. A lot of this is just a blast … Characters sleep together, betray one another, die off, but it’s all related to us afterward, almost as an aside. This serves to make Avice increasingly wearisome: While others act, she ponders, which becomes ponderous...Still, Embassytown bursts with so many amazing ideas from start to finish that the reading experience remains rewarding. I found myself grinning at each new concept, dazzling set piece and clever turn of phrase.