I finished reading this yesterday. It is, I suspect, the best book of Miéville’s I’ve read. The prose is every as erudite and skilled as you’d expect from a Miéville book, but achieves a grace that makes it engaging where it has, in others of his works, veered toward pretension. Avice is definitely the first of his characters I’ve cheered for, the first who felt fully accessible, likable, and real.
As with any Miéville book, though, the brilliance is in the world building.
The premise of the books is that Embassytown is a sub-city for humans inside an alien city. The aliens have an interesting quirk in that their language is spoken with two mouths, and while other species are perfectly capable of learning it to understand them, they cannot understand it when it’s spoken by another species. That is, until humans figure out how to raise clones so that they are similar enough to fake it. The alien language, or Language as the book refers to it, does not change, cannot abstract, and ruthlessly constrains the thinking possibilities of the aliens thinking it. This is Miéville tackling the Sapir-Whof hypothesis, the linguistic theory most likely to show up in science fiction books, despite having been categorically refuted. (Weak versions have been established pretty thoroughly, but we’re talking so weak that we use other names to talk about those phenomena.) I was heart-broken to see Miéville going down this thoroughly hackneyed route, right up until one of the characters question whether the aliens were actually conscious, given the limitations of Language.
Miéville knew what he was doing. He takes the concept of Language and pushes it, giving us fabulously winding plot that pokes into all the implications of an intelligent species actually bound by literal language, while applying his usual acuity with developing realistic political and social structures for, not just the human ghetto inside the alien city, but the presence of a human colony and the larger space-faring structure.
I coasted through the very first section of the book, mildly intrigued but not thoroughly hooked. The City & the City never did quite get off the ground for me, but I love Miéville’s prose enough that it’s usually enough for me. With the second section of the book, when we start getting into the real meat of the story, everything takes off and soon you’re wrapped up in what’s going on without realizing how that happened to you.
I want to give a special calling out to Ehrsul, a super-intelligent semi-independent computer. As a character, I think she’s what let me develop actual interest in Avice. As another vector along which to explore questions of consciousness, free will, and possibly coping with an awareness that you have less of both than you thought, she’s a brilliant bit of craft, letting Miéville introduce and foreshadow themes that build and pay off with a beautiful elegance at the climax. Maybe I’m just a sucker for smart computers.
I am so, so happy Embassytown got nominated for a Hugo, because it utterly deserves it and otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have read it until next year. I still need to read the rest of the books on the ballot, but this one has definitely set a high bar to beat. I hope none of them fall short because angsting over which of the brilliant books to vote for sounds like a voting problem I’d love to have this year.