China Mieville


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Embassytown Summary

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Embassytown is a novel by British science fiction author China Miéville. Set in a human colonial community called Embassytown on a distant planet called Arieka, it concerns the human colonists’ interaction with mysterious beings called the Ariekei. Most of the story centers on the central figure Avice Benner Cho, a native of the settlement, which is bordered on all sides by the Ariekei city. Though both species try to preserve peace, they inevitably experience cultural loss as integration forms fractures and erasures in two initially distinct groups and their languages.

The book is situated in the far future after humanity has started colonizing deep space. In their community on Arieka, they are the sole humans in a sea of indigenous aliens whose language they cannot speak with the exception of a few human ambassadors. Although Cho cannot speak the language, during her childhood, she became a figure of speech in their language. Her integration into their enigmatic language mirrors her intimate position in the Ariekei society; she is accepted by them and feels like one of them.

Ariekei society has some mystifying norms and traditions that the humans have had to integrate. For example, the Ariekei language, referred to merely by the proper noun “Language,” is spoken by uttering two words at once; it is biologically impossible for humans to speak. The Ambassadors are a hybrid species that were bred to facilitate communication between the Ariekei and humans. The Ariekei language is based on complex allusions to events performed by individuals. For example, Cho was incorporated into the language as the symbol for “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her.” Their main form of entertainment consists of throwing frequent “Festivals of Lies” centered on games where Ariekei struggle to tell lies to each other, an incredibly difficult feat given the constraints of their language. Despite the initial and mutual lack of understanding, the humans and Ariekei have created ways to live together without incident for several decades.

The book slowly reveals context about the planet Arieka’s spatial and political position. It is unique in being at the edge of the known universe, in a zone called “Manchmal,” German for “Sometimes,” which exists in a recurring zone of reality outside the permanent universe, called “Immer” (German for “Always”). As such, Arieka has different ideas of time and space and is a weak political locus in the universe’s system of human colonies despite its opportunities for research.

Having left Embassytown to travel throughout parts of the universe that have yet to be fully explored — called the “Out” — Cho is persuaded by her husband, a human linguist, to return to help him study the Ariekei. As Cho returns, the warm social equilibrium of human colonists and Ariekei is threatened by the distant workings of the centralized human political entity, which sends a new ambassador to Arieka.

The ambassador, Ez/Ra, arrives, quickly revealing himself to be an advanced political weapon. Though he has not had his genome altered to speak Language, he has learned an alternate form of Language that has an intoxicating effect on its native speakers, making them dependent on it for survival. Though Cho’s husband remains loyal to the human government, Cho, rejecting the manipulation of the Ariekei through language as an atrocity, leaves him to form a rebel faction of allied Ambassadors and Ariekei who are not yet under Ez/Ra’s spell. She gives them knowledge of the metaphor, the vehicle through which one can make an analogy to escape objective truth, and eventually teaches them to tell lies. Because the consciousness of the Ariekei is tightly bound to Language, this revolution in linguistic thought alters them so they can escape Ez/Ra’s addictive modification to Language. The book ends with the expulsion of the terrorist humans; the Ariekei integrate even further into the remaining human presence, able to communicate with them better than before.

Embassytown uses science fiction as a vehicle to explore what it means for two discrete groups of subjectivities, each participating in an isolated language-game, to be forced into coexistence. Though a power struggle inevitably ensues, threatening to tyrannize their home, it is ultimately Cho’s minority appeal for mutual linguistic understanding that thwarts the human oppressors. Despite the inevitable loss of a previous language and way of life, the social and historical knowledge that emerges from Arieka’s struggle strengthens its subjects’ conceptions of peace and fellowship.